Can You Learn to Tune Pianos Online?

The internet has changed the way we think.

“Right now there is a revolution going on, and the revolution has already wiped out travel agents…hammered away at newspapers…you can go down the list. All these industries have changed.”
Seth Godin, interviewed by Michael Hyatt

All these industries have changed, including education. I don’t think anyone would say that that has not happened. Just look at all the websites that offer online courses.

In fact, many universities are now offering free online courses that are identical to the courses and lectures being held in the schools and paid for by students.
See A complete list of Massive Open Online Courses (free online courses) offered by the best universities and entities.

At first, I was sceptical that teaching piano tuning online would work. How could I demonstrate effectively? Would the internet distort the frequencies? Would the students be able to hear the beats effectively?

Then I was contacted by one of my students who had, in the past, travelled from Australia to take some of my courses. He was interested in more, but the cost and timing wasn’t working out.

Because of my interest in “the Revolution” Seth Godin speaks about, I asked him if he wanted to try a course over Skype. (We ended up using Google Hangout for better quality, but Skype now is its own verb and more people know what that means, so I often describe the course as a Skype course.)

The result was fantastic; way more exciting and effective than I ever thought it would be.

“I learned much more than I thought I would.” – Roger from Australia.

And the questions I had, were answered.

How could I demonstrate effectively?
It turns out some things are easier to demonstrate online. I can take my camera and point exactly at the spot in the piano where I want the student to look.

Would the internet distort the frequencies?
Turns out, it does. What we did was start Tunelab, an Electronic Tuning Device (ETD) software, on each of our computers, then play and measure a string on each person’s piano. Then compare measurements. In our experiment, the internet caused a consistent drop of seven cents both ways. The only part of piano tuning where that would be a problem, is if we were trying to set A440 to exactly 440Hz and measure it in order to give a mark, similar to the PTG exam.

(Edit – Robert Scott of Tunelab has informed me that frequency cannot change. It is like creating something from nothing. If the frequency did indeed change 7 cents down, it would have to rise 7 cents later so that no vibrations were lost or created from nothing.)

Would the students be able to hear the beats effectively?
This actually turned out to be the most surprising result of all. You see, when learning to tune pianos, there are certain skills that one needs to master.

1) Theory
2) Stability
3) Hearing beats

The theory is easy to learn if it is well taught, especially if it is taught to a student who is a musician already.

The stability can be a little more challenging, but with the techniques I have developed, we are able to dramatically reduce the variables that can cause confusion, and we are able to discuss the theory of friction and elastic deformation. This helps people visualize how the pin and string are behaving and that helps them choose superior hammer techniques for superior stability.

The beats. Ah, the beats. You see, tuning a piano by ear involves making many compensations for the physical limitations of the piano as an instrument, and demands us to tune the piano “out of tune”. (See Lesson on Equal Temperament)

When one tunes an interval out-of-tune, beats are created and sound like pulsations of the volume. The problem is, the beats occur in high frequencies and some students experience difficulty hearing these beats because they are high (the beats, that is) and quiet and conflict with the actual pitches of the interval being tuned. We have to “learn” to filter out the lower interval frequencies, and focus on the higher beating frequencies.

Easier said than done, because this kind of “learning” cannot be fast tracked (even though I have developed some techniques that make it easier); the ear has to be trained; it has to continually try to hear those beats, until the physiology of the “ear” and brain change and the beats are more audible to the student.

However, I discovered a wonderful byproduct of teaching piano tuning online using computers and speakers poor at replicating the audio portion of the course, (which is basically most computer speakers.)

Aspire-S5-HP Compuiter Speaker Frequency Response
Image source:
http://www.digitalversus.com/laptop/acer-aspire-s5-p12524/test.html
edited by Mark Cerisano, RPT, B.Sc.(Mech.Eng.)

In the diagram above, the frequencies of the actual notes being played in the temperament octave, are not reproduced very well. The frequencies of the pitches where the beats are occurring, are reproduced much better, and therefore the beats easier to hear over the internet. It is in this area where we have to focus our hearing when comparing beats for the purpose of improving temperament. The internet and computer setup makes this easy.

CONTACT ME NOW if you are interested in learning more about piano tuning online.

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