Hearing Loss in Piano Tuners

From http://marshallchasinassociates.ca/faq.htm

“I am a piano tuner. Can piano tuning lead to hearing loss and should I be wearing ear protection?
Indeed many piano tuners do suffer from hearing loss. Recall that it is not only the intensity of the sound that causes hearing loss, but also the duration. A piano tuner can spend many hours each day with various pianos and like most musically inclined people, tend to also visit night clubs and other loud venues. The total exposure can add up quickly.”

Many piano tuners use hard blows to settle the strings so they will stay stable and not drift when the pianist plays hard. It is this loud playing, or “test blows” as they are sometimes called, that can cause hearing damage for the piano tuner.

As well as damage to the ear, this loud playing can also cause joint pain in the hand, wrist, arm, neck, or shoulder. As well, they may place excessive strain on the piano’s action.

To protect hearing, a tuner may choose to use ear plugs. However, for me, I find ear plugs to be uncomfortable, and they change the tone of the piano.

But tuning with excessive test blows is not necessary. There are other ways to tune the piano with a minimum of test blows.

A “soft blow” technique is one which combines a more theoretical understanding of how friction, force, and elastic deformation in the tuning pin/string system, are affected by the force of the tuning hammer on the tuning pin.

Also, the tuner can use a “lean test”, where they massage the pin in the direction of the string, thereby testing if it is ready to go flat at the first hard blow, without having to use a hard blow at all.

Hard blows can still be used occasionally with the soft blow technique, but because they are not the only way the tuner creates stability, they are not used as much, and the tuner’s hearing is protected, without the use of ear plugs.

Warning, do not think you are not damaging your ears because you “think” you are not using hard blows that much. Any hard blows can be damaging. Have your hearing tested now, as a base line, in order to gauge hearing loss, if any, in the future.

Soft blow tuning technique also has the following benefits:
– Less joint pain
– Less ear fatigue
– Less wear on the piano
– More endurance. (It can be easier to tune for longer periods of time because the ear and the hands are not being overly strained.)

Be also warned that it is not easy to develop the sensation of how the pin and tensions respond to certain hammer forces, especially if the tuner does not have a strong grasp of the forces at play.

I have been using soft blow tuning technique since I started tuning. My stability has not always been 100% and it has taken me a while to develop a system that is relatively easy to explain and use, but the biggest benefit to me from using this technique, is my hearing.

Below are two audiograms. One taken in the early years of my tuning career, and the second one: eight years later. I was relieved to find out that my hearing had stayed virtually the same since that time of tuning full-time, without any hearing protection at all, but always being careful not use an excess of test blows.

If you are interested in more information on the Soft Blow tuning technique, please leave a comment below or use my contact page.

In the audiograms below, you can see a slight dip at about 6000Hz in my right ear, but it has not increased appreciably, if at all, in eight years. The slight decrease in my left, the audiologist said was typical with age. I do remember I had just tuned a piano that morning and could hear some ringing in my ears as I took the test.

Piano tuners or anyone tuning pianos should not use this article as evidence that hearing protection is not needed when tuning pianos. But if you want to reduce the strain on your ears, joints, and the piano, you can by using less hard blows, which can be effected with the Soft Blow tuning method.

Mark Cerisano. Audiogram 2004
Hearing Test Mark Cerisano 2004

Mark Cerisano. Audiogram 2012
Hearing Test Mark Cerisano 2012

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4 Responses to “Hearing Loss in Piano Tuners”

  1. Bob Runyan says:

    Hi Mark,

    I’m interested in learning more about your soft blow technique. I am learning piano tuning from an RPT who does not frequently use hard test blows and employs a “jerky” technique for getting the pin to turn, rather than a smooth pull, which I had previously been using.

    Bob Runyan
    Ben Lomond, CA

  2. Hi Bob,

    I am teaching a course over Skype starting October 21st, 2014. Let me know if you are interested. $497 for 20 hours.

    Best Regards,
    Mark

    P.S. Jerky (or Impact/Impulse) and Slow Pull can be used together on the same piano, depending on hammer able, out of tuneless, pin block reaction etc. They are both valid. The more tools…..

  3. Andy thomas says:

    Hi
    Sounds really interesting am a student piano tuner and would love to know the soft blow piano tuning technique to set the pins quietly. Would be interested in any more information.
    Thanks Andy

    Best regards

    • I will working on a course that explains. But in the meantime, you might be able to figure it out; nobody told me, I had to figure it out myself. If you’re mechanical, you might do it. Email me questions.

      Concepts:
      Non-Speaking Length – String between tuning pin and v-bar.
      Non-Speaking Length Tension – Tension of string on tuning pin side of v-bar.
      After Tuning – The unbending and untwisting of the tuning pin after we remove the lever force.
      Pitch Window – A range of pitches of the speaking length, that are stable.
      Tension Band – A range of NSL tensions that result in stability.

      Goal – Leave the NSL tension near the top of the Tension Band.

      Slow Pull – Come from away. Make one slow pull to pitch and stop. Make sure you are so far away that you have to turn the pin foot. The lever angle determines the amount of unbending. After Tuning results in unbending and untwisting, that affects NSL tension after pitch is acheived.

      Massage and Move
      Massage – Sometimes called bending, flexing, flagpoling (although massage is controlled and in only one direction). Some technicians swear you should never do this, but unless you are using a T-hammer of Levitan’s C-lever, everyone bends the pin; a lever with a handle where applied force is off center and above the plate plane, cannot NOT bend the pin. Massage, as I advocate, must produce bending forces that are LESS than the typical bending forces present everytime we turn the pin.

      If massage doesn’t change the pitch, the foot must be moved. Now there is a new pitch window. Hopefully your target pitch is in that window.

      Good luck. I will put your name on my list of people interested in the video course.

      I also offer Skype lessons.

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