Tuning and the change of seasons - When to tune your piano

Learn about pianos and how to maintain them

Postby Cy Shuster » Sun Mar 26, 2006 2:35 pm

It's spring, and you know what that means: your piano is going out of tune!

Surprisingly, moving a piano in a truck typically doesn't throw it out of tune. The tuning pins hold around 150 pounds of tension in each string; a little jostling isn't going to disturb them.

But pianos are like guitars: the strings pass over a bridge, which is glued to the soundboard (like the top of a guitar). In most of the Northern Hemisphere, the indoor air is getting more humid as we shut off our furnaces. The soundboard and bridge absorb that humidity and swell up, pushing the bridge and the strings toward the hammers. So pianos are getting sharp this time of year.

Most pianos take about three weeks to adjust to a change of humidity, so the most bang for your buck is to wait that long after you shut off your furnace (or move a piano to a new location) before having it tuned.

Unfortunately, this conflicts with the school year: pianos need to be tuned for September, and for graduation in May. Talk to your tuner about how far your piano moves in pitch each year. The best result for you might be to ask your tuner to "float" the pitch, if you need a tuning before the optimal time.

For example, most pianos are below A440 pitch right now, having been dried down by hot indoor air, and will move maybe as far as A445 by the summer (on their own). A piano tuned today to A440 might wind up at A448 in the summer. So "floating the pitch" would mean to anticipate the seasonal change in pitch, and not make it worse.

In other words, a piano tuned today to A437 would wind up this summer at A442 instead of A445 -- so you'd be closer to A440 for a longer time.

Of course, for concert and other situations, A440 may be needed today. Those pianos are typically tuned many times a year, so humidity cycling is irrelevant. Controlling humidity between 35% and 55% will also lessen the swings of pitch.

Ask your tuner if "floating the pitch" is right for your situation and your piano.

--Cy--
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Mon Mar 27, 2006 10:54 am

Cy, have you had much success with the Dampp Chaser system?
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Postby Cy Shuster » Mon Mar 27, 2006 4:20 pm

Yes, the latest Dampp-Chaser system really makes a difference in tough environments. Indoor heating in cold winter places like Minnesota and Massachusetts causes drastically low indoor humidity, around 10%, and yet summers are still very humid.

The latest version of the humidistat is the H4, a big improvement over earlier versions. The Smart Heater Bar shuts off the humidifying side if it runs out of water, so you can go on vacation and leave the system on. The most recent improvement is the grand undercover (can be used on verticals, too), which isolates the air underneath, especially good if there are floor vents blowing upward.

Dampp-Chaser has been making these systems for almost 60 years, and there are a lot of older versions still out there. If you have a silver-colored heater bar in your piano, especially if it doesn't plug into a control box, I suggest that you unplug it. It's not strong enough to help much with humidity (25W vs. the 100W currently used), and most people don't remember to unplug them in winter, so it dries the piano out even further.

I measure the current pitch each time before I tune. A grand in a south-facing room with large windows went from +/- 20 cents (percent of a semitone) between seasons to just +/- 5 cents.

A church's spinet near a river was breaking strings and had binding keys. I measured 70% RH: there was condensation on the tuning pins! Two heater bars rescued it.

Overall, the frequency of tuning doesn't change, but it doesn't go out as far. Most pianos don't need a major change of pitch before fine tuning. More importantly, it keeps glue joints from coming loose, keeps the pinblock tight, and keeps rust off strings.

That said, some situations don't benefit much from them. I had a piano in California for 20 years that did just fine. I think the piano itself is a good indicator of humidity effects: if the pitch is swinging a lot, then something should be done.

I'm not sure what their benefit is in consistently dry places, like New Mexico. Sure, there isn't as much change of humidity, yet dry air still dries out wood. Look what happens to firewood logs! At least you don't have rust or mold to deal with, as you would in places that are humid most of the time (pianos should not be in basements!).

Florida is surprisingly benign, because most people have year-round air conditioning, which dries the air.

Humidity control can't undo damage that's already done; it can only delay damage. That's why I like them for new pianos: it's cheap insurance. If a $20,000 piano lasts 20 years instead of 10, that's a savings of $1,000 a year.

What has your experience been with them? How do pianos fare uncontrolled in the Land of Enchantment?

--Cy--
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Postby Cy Shuster » Mon Mar 27, 2006 4:21 pm

I also meant to ask if you recommend floating the pitch for people who have their pianos tuned once or twice a year.

Thanks,

--Cy--
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Mon Mar 27, 2006 6:21 pm

Glad to hear about the newer version of D.Ch.--the problem I always ran into was people forgetting to fill the reservoir (even with the red light staring them in the face), and the heat element would come on and dry things even worse; so I quit recommending them.

Southern New Mexico is Upper Sonoran desert--we're at about 4000' elevation--and it gets pretty dry most of the year, with winter house heat making it even worse. 8 or 9 percent humidity here is very common. But come July and August when the monsoon hits, it jumps to 85% in a hurry.

We owned a concert Boesendorfer for ten years and I just humidified the whole house. The two Yamaha C7s were built in 1968 and 1974, and they can take anything. Have had no problems other than pitch changes all those years.

I don't like floating pitch, but I guess most people don't notice it as much. I have only erratic perfect pitch but I have very good relative pitch, and I like the piano to be where it's supposed to be all the time. But then I tune it myself, so I can do it every week if I want--most people would have an unacceptable expense, of course. But the more all the tensions stay in place the more stable the piano gets.
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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Tue Mar 28, 2006 9:28 am

Dr. Bill Leland wrote:Southern New Mexico is Upper Sonoran desert--we're at about 4000' elevation--and it gets pretty dry most of the year, with winter house heat making it even worse. 8 or 9 percent humidity here is very common. But come July and August when the monsoon hits, it jumps to 85% in a hurry.

Here in northern (sort of) New Mexico at 5481 ft. (according to my GPS systems), we're in the Chihuahuan desert zone. BIG changes in humidity occur twice a year for most people because most cooling here is evaporative. During the summer, with the cooler putting lots of humidity into the air, typical inside humidities run from 40-60% (typically, 5-20% outside), while during the winter, when the cooling is off, it's more like the 8 or 9% Dr. Leland described. Not only does it affect the piano, but doors and floorboards swell in the summer and plants have to be watered more in the winter. I usually follow Cy's advice of waiting about 3 weeks after the spring and fall changeovers to have the piano tuned.
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Postby minorkey » Mon May 15, 2006 6:13 am

Cy Shuster wrote:Yes, the latest Dampp-Chaser system really makes a difference in tough environments. Indoor heating in cold winter places like Minnesota and Massachusetts causes drastically low indoor humidity, around 10%, and yet summers are still very humid.


Dampp-Chaser has been making these systems for almost 60 years, and there are a lot of older versions still out there. If you have a silver-colored heater bar in your piano, especially if it doesn't plug into a control box, I suggest that you unplug it. It's not strong enough to help much with humidity (25W vs. the 100W currently used), and most people don't remember to unplug them in winter, so it dries the piano out even further.

Cy,
I'm confused: I got my Dampp-Chaser one year ago, and I don't know exactly which version it is -only know that it didn't do squat to prevent the piano from going WAAAAY out of tune this winter, which makes me feel as though I wasted money ):):):
-but I'm not getting your drift when you say to "unplug them in winter". Isn't that exactly when you would want them to be working, to keep the piano humidified?
Sorry if I'm missing something obvious; it's early and I've not had enough coffee to fully wake up the brain cells....
Thanks for any enlightenment on this issue. BTW, how does one keep the piano humidified in winter in New England? I can't keep this room at 42% in the dead of winter- just impossible, even with large, expensive humidifiers. -too high-maintenance, and they barely make a difference anyway. Do I just need to accept the fact that I will have a suboptimal instrument for 6 months out of the year?
One technician suggested- a bit tongue in cheek- that I get a lot of houseplants to keep the room humidified. Would that make a difference? I'd rather water plants than a humidifier!
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