Piano Tuner – A very particular set of skills

The Piano Tuner

Piano Tuners were created out of nessecity. Before the invention of the piano, most musicians tuned their own instruments. Piano tuning became a profession near the beginning of the 19th century. When the “pianoforte” became commonplace.  Factories trained and employed early piano tuners. Their apprenticeship usually lasted about 5–7 years. Those piano tuners faced the challenges of a large variety of pianos and non-standardized pitches.

Piano Tuners Len Hess and Kevin Hess in the Workshop
Piano Tuners At Work

Modern piano tuners are usually independent piano technicians or piano-store technical personnel. Some are piano rebuilders or hobbyists. Professional training and certification are available from only two organizations. The Piano Technicians Guild and Master Piano Technicians.

Most piano tuners learn the art by apprenticing under a master craftsman. For instance, a family member taught the skill to another family member. There’s a lot to know before you can repair or service a piano. As each piano has about 12,000 working parts. A new piano tuner needs to tune around 100 pianos before being skilled enough to charge for their work.

The Piano

Modern pianos have 88 black and white keys. 52 white keys for the notes of the C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A and B). 36 shorter black keys, which are for the “accidentals” (F♯/G♭, G♯/A♭, A♯/B♭, C♯/D♭, and D♯/E♭). This means that the piano can play 88 different tones. Going from the deepest bass to the highest treble. And in case you didn’t know, the piano is a percussion instrument.

Piano Keys
The Keyboard

Some instruments become ‘out of tune’ with temperature, humidity, damage, or time. They must be tuned or repaired. The term “out of tune” refers to a tone that is either too high (sharp) or too low (flat) in relation to a given reference pitch. While an instrument might be in tune to its own range of notes, it may not be ‘in tune’ if it does not match the reference pitch. 

The Tuning

Tuning is usually based on A440 Hz. This reference is used to tune one string, to which the other strings are tuned in the desired intervals. Piano Tuners use the process of tuning systems. Which adjusts the pitch of one or many tones to establish equal temperament.
Tuning may be done aurally by sounding two pitches and adjusting one of them to relate to the other. An electronic tuning device may be used as a reference pitch.

The A440 pitch standard was adopted during the early 20th century. This was in response to varying standards. Before, the pitch standards were A415 during the late 1700s and early 1800s to A435 during the late 1800s.

The End?

Today, the average piano tuner is about 55 years old. 55! With so many diversions in the form of entertainment, piano playing will continue to decline. And fewer people are getting into the Piano Tuner business. In fact, there are only about 8,000 tuners left that service pianos.  The 200 or so years the piano has been around is not that long in human history. Eventually, this very particular set of skills will be lost.