The Secret to Tuning a Piano by Ear

A recent poll suggested that 90% of professional piano tuners use a machine to help them tune pianos while most agree that you need aural skills to tweak the machine.

The piano tuning exam to become a Registered Piano Technician (RPT) with the Piano Technicians Guild (PTG) still requires examinees to tune part of the piano by ear, and many still fail that exam.

I have been teaching aural piano tuning since 2005 and since that time, I have be fascinated by how people learn to tune pianos by ear, and I am passionate about finding the best way to help people learn this skill easier.

Piano tuning has been around for a long time, yet the field of tuning pedagogy still seems young. There are schools and instructors still teaching methods that were taught 100 years ago. I find it interesting that few schools and instructors make use of technology to help students learn how to tune a piano by ear, instead of just using a machine to tell you where to put the pitch of each string. I make this observation based on the fact that at the time of this writing, no formal schools had any YouTube videos describing any of their methods. Actually, most had no videos at all.

Since I teach short courses about aural piano tuning, my methods have to be as succinct and efficient as possible. I have spent my entire career looking for specific skills that are necessary to learn this craft, while weeding out the myths and incorrect information, often perpetuated by professional technicians, that gets in the way.

Here are the three specific skills that I have identified as the most important skills needed to be able to tune a piano by ear. In fact, if you haven’t got all these, your aural tunings will be poor.

1) The ability to focus the ear, at will, to specific frequencies, filtering out all unwanted frequencies, in order to make accurate judgements on where the pitch of a string needs to be.

2) The ability to change the pitch of a string by the smallest of amounts, thereby zeroing in on the precise pitch that you know the string needs to be, based on your skill in #1.

3) The ability to tune a string to that specific pitch, and have it stay there, even when the pianist plays the note fortississimo.

If you have these specific skills, all you need is an accurate and precise procedure, or method, in order to produce high quality aural tunings that sound beautiful. My Double String Unison (DSU) method is one way to do this. It contains a complete set of instructions, based on beat speeds, that tells the tuner exactly where the pitch of a string needs to be.

For example, many aural piano tuners advocate tuning midrange octaves as wide 4:2 and narrow 6:3. (I’ll explain a bit more about what these are later, but an indepth discussion can be had on this subject, and is in my courses.)

Now, in very simplistic terms, we will listen to two intervals. They will be beating at a high frequency. If the 2nd interval beats faster, it is wide.

You will hear two pairs of intervals. The 1st pair will be the test for the 4:2 octave size. The 2nd two will be the test for the 6:3 octave size.

The Wide 4:2, Narrow 6:3.
In this video, you will first hear four intervals. Listen for these relative beat speeds:
1) This beat speed is the reference for the 4:2 size.
2) This beat speed is slighter faster than #1, indicating a wide 4:2.
3) This beat speed is the reference for the 6:3 octave size.
4) This beat speed is slightly slower than #3, indicating a narrow 6:3.
Then the actual octave is played.

The iPhone app, Soundbeam, allows us to zero in on the exact partials that are beating and actually see how they beat. We can even get an idea if one is faster than the other, even if we can’t hear it.

In the views below, the 4:2 partial is the first peak, and the 6:3 partial is the 3rd peak.

Many standard methods advocate that the octave should tuned as this one is; a wide 4:2, narrow 6:3. Listen and watch as the wide 4:2/narrow 6:3 octave is played (5th interval). Listen and watch as the 4:2 and 6:3 peaks are beating when the octave is played. A pure interval does not have any of this motion or beating in the upper partials. This octave does not sound as good as the next one.

The Pure 4:2, Very Narrow 6:3
Watch and listen as this pure 4:2, very narrow 6:3 is played. Here are the 4 intervals and their relative beat speeds:
1) This beat speed is the reference for the 4:2 size.
2) This beat speed is the same speed as #1, indicating a pure 4:2.
3) This beat speed is the reference for the 6:3 octave size.
4) This beat speed is very much slower than #3, indicating a very narrow 6:3.
Then the actual octave is played.

Watch and listen to the 4:2 partial (1st peak) and the 6:3 partial (3rd peak) as the octave is played. The 4:2 partial doesn’t move (beat) much while the 6:3 partial moves (beats) quite a bit.

Common methods tell us that this octave should not sound good, but compare its sound to the wide 4:2/Narrow 6:3 above. The pure 4:2 octave clearly sounds more pure, even though the 6:3 is beating wildly. I believe it is exactly this fast beat that allows our ear to ignore it.

I am NOT saying the pure 4:2 is always the best size octave for every piano, it isn’t. The actual size that sounds best on a piano depends on the inharmonicity of the piano strings. The DSU method has a procedure that shows you how to aurally measure the inharmonicity of a piano’s strings, and determine what size is the best for that piano.

See Tuning Beatless Octaves

CLICK HERE to watch a video that describes the DSU method in more depth, also called the Go APE method.

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