Robert Conrad, Registered Piano Tuner/Technician, Tucson, AZ

Float the Tuning Not the Pitch

Your piano was ‘designed’ to be tuned to A440.   It’s designers used A440 when the particular scale (tension and inharmonicity) for your piano was laid out. So for your piano to be at it’s designed specifications in terms of tension and inharmonicity, it needs to be tuned to A440.

Many tuners choose to almost never tune to A440, instead, they leave the piano sharp or flat, wherever it is when they found it. I recall a technician trying to explain and justify to me how to ‘calculate’ where the piano should be left pitch-wise, based on the humidity reading he makes at the time of the tuning. When I asked him when the piano was in tune, he got testy.

I’ve read in some piano forums how tuning at pitch (A440) is a waste of time, no one can tell,  why bother, wink-wink, chuckle-chuckle, &c.   Floating pitch is something we can ‘get away with’ if we ‘know how’.  They’ve even gone so far as to say leaving the piano where it is, is better for the piano!  Imagine that.   Less wear and tear on the tuning pins and pin block by leaving the piano where it is and just tuning it to itself.

Depending on the climate in various parts of the country, the differences in humidity indoors from season to season can be quite huge.   I’m from Kansas City where we’d see zero degrees in the winter and then 98 degrees in the summer – with very high humidity. In the winter, when we heat our homes up to 70 degrees, from an outdoor temp of say 20 degrees, the furnaces remove humidity and the indoor humidity will often fall into the low 20’s RH or even lower.

In the summer time, with outdoor temps in the 90s, and outdoor humidity in the 90s as well, the indoor humidity, even with constant air conditioning will easily be in the 60 – 70% RH range.

Those types of humidity swings are really hard on pianos and will cause the pitch of the piano to often be 30 – 40c. flat in the winter, and 30 – 40 c. sharp in the summer.

{ A cent here (c.) is a percent of a half step. A 30 c. change in pitch is 30% of a half step. A 50 c. change would be 50% of a half step. Of course it can be 50c. sharp or 50 c. flat. Either way it’s 50% of a half step, either sharp or flat. 100 c. flat is a full half step flat (C is sounding B). 200 c. flat is a whole step flat (C is now sounding Bb). }

The first thing for the piano owner to do is to try to get some humidity into the house in the winter time, and to try to remove some humidity from the house in the summer time. Both can be done with 1., a stand alone humidifier (or 2) and 2., a dehumidifier in the basement.   A Piano Humidity System can be installed in (vertical pianos) or on the piano (grand pianos).   Anything we do will not only make help the piano, but will also make he envoirnment more comfortable for everyone.

The best first step is for the piano owner to purchase a good, reliable, accurate hygrometer, and start observing what the humidity actually is in their home.  That information along with a competent and qualified piano technician should accurately expose just what kind of pitch changes the piano is experiencing over the course of a year due to the humidity fluctuations in the home.

This is another advantage to always tuning to A440.   If the technician is tuning to A440 every tuning, it’s easy to know how much (cents wise) the piano is moving from tuning to tuning.

Once it’s known what the humidity is in the home and how the piano is reacting to it, solutions can be considered to reduce the wild swings of humidity effects on the piano.

After a solution of some kind has been put in place, the technician (who tunes @ A440 every time) will know easily if the solution is making things better and by how much.

Some climates are really difficult. Even with a humidity system on a Grand Piano, depending on the piano, some fairly wide pitch movement can occur from season to season. All we can really try to do is make it better and try to reduce the swelling and contracting of the soundboard. Anything we can do will be good for the piano.

As you can see, the only real way to know what the piano is ‘doing’ is to have some kind of a standard or given pitch that is used every time the piano is tuned. Knowing were it was tuned last compared to where it will be tuned next, and every time.

Floating pitch is basically leaving the piano where it is. I heard a well known technician say in front of a class, that he floats pitch, but he never lowers pitch, just raises it. So if the piano is sharp when he gets there he tunes it sharp. If it’s flat, he will raise it up. I don’t remember if he said he would then raise it up to A440? So again, I ask, when is the piano in tune. What if someone wants to play the piano with another fixed pitch instrument, like a keyboard or an organ or play along with a CD? If the piano has been tuned to A440, it will match up with the other instruments.

Another problem for the ‘floating’ tuner is that the piano’s pitch doesn’t change in a flat line across the keyboard. The biggest pitch changes happen in the middle of the piano. The bass and the higher treble generally aren’t as affected. So does that mean when the middle is left sharp, the technician ends up raising the bass and the treble to match the increase in the middle? Most don’t. They basically just ‘smooth’ it out, expecting the customer to not know the difference.

Floating pitch is shoddy work. It’s an approximation of a tuning, and simply not the technician’s best work. It can also be seen as a bit of an insult to piano owners who may not have a very good piano. However, most guys who float, do it on every piano they tune – except maybe on the concert instruments they’re called to tune.

My experience leads me to think most customers do hear the difference between good work and not so good. They may not know why, or be able to explain what it is they like, they just know their pianos sounds better than it has before. Especially on those ‘not a very good piano’. Granted, the shorter scales (spinets and consoles) are harder to tune and make sound good for a number of reasons. Always try to do good work. Charge a little more and take a little more time to do a better job. The piano will sound much much better and customers will be happy.

Tuning to non-standard pitch.

I do believe there are times when tuning to ‘non-standard’ pitch is appropriate and necessary. For instance, if the orchestra wants the piano tuned to A442 or A444(!), it’s our job to do that. Also, if the church or the piano owner wants their piano tuned to the organ, it’s our job to be able to do that as well.

The one (and only) situation when we must float:
There are some pianos that are so old with rusted strings or other structural issues that make tuning to A440 unadvisable. Often those pianos will be a whole tone flat – or more! Trying to bring them up to A440, will more often than not cause some severe string breakage. On those pianos caution is the first order of business. I want to move the strings as little as I can to make the piano sound better. That is the only case I can make for ‘floating the pitch’ on a piano. A definite part of the conversation with the piano owner on those situations should be about stepping up to a better piano.

Unless there’s a darn good reason why you think the piano can’t be tuned at A440, it’s our job to tune it to A440. Once you have the tuning you’re going to be using tweaked so A4 will end up @ A440, a couple passes thru the piano will do the trick using the pitch raise calculator found on every SAT.

If the basic offset is used to put A4 @ A440, you won’t be able to use that offset until the final pass.

If you offset the calibration on the older SATs to compensate for the A4 tweak, you will be able to use that ‘re-calibration’ offset for the pitch correction and the final pass.

If you have one of the newer SATS that allow us to offset the calibration by +/- 19.99 c., the pitch raise calculator will be aim A4 at the tweaked location.

Even easier (and faster!) is to use the Partial Correction feature found on the SAT IVs to offset the tuning so the pitch raise calculator can be used for both the pitch raise and the final tuning.

This post has been about floating the tunings and not the pitch. We should be tuning to A440 on every piano we tune unless there’s a darn good reason not to. How to make sure the pianos end up @ A440 when using memory tunings. How to float the tuning to to tune the piano @ A440.

FAC tunings will often not put A4 exactly @ A440. But we can fix that! If the correction is less than .3 c. it’s probably not worth making any correction. But if it is .5 c. or more, fix it! It only takes a minute to get it right on A440.

So from now on, before measuring FAC numbers, tune A4 and measure where it’s 4th P is located so it can be checked against the FAC tuning after the FAC tuning has been stored to a page of memory. If a correction is needed, the Partial Correction is a great way to go.

I have many custom tunings for my customers’ pianos. Custom tunings I want to use again. I find using this routine can make the pitch corrections slightly easier and more accurate. Sometimes if the piano is a little sharp, A4’s 4th P will also be a little sharper than the A4 on the custom tuning. So I fix it, and the pitch correction for the piano is just slightly more mild, a little easier and more accurate. And of course the tuning ends up at A440.

Happy tuning!

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