Another Relationship Between Music and Law(yer Jokes)

“A lawyer’s relationship to justice and wisdom is on a par with a piano tuner’s relationship to a concert. He neither composes the music, nor interprets it-he merely keeps the machinery running.”

–Lucille Kallen

In my opinion (as a piano tuner), spot on..

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Why It’s Important to Keep Your Piano in Tune

ImagePeople see the statement: “Tune your piano twice a year,” and often say to themselves: “why?” Perhaps you had your piano tuned a few years ago, and it still sounds okay. Or perhaps your piano was tuned the last time that it was moved, but you don’t play it much, so it should be just fine, right?

Well…not so much, actually.

There are many outside factors that affect the tuning of a piano, the two most important being how much the instrument is played, and the changes of the weather.

Humidity and temperature change rapidly with the change of seasons (summer and winter) and the change in conditions in the atmosphere, (especially when you use central heating/air conditioning,) wreak havoc on your piano.

With the changes in conditions, the tension on the 200+ strings changes slightly, with even more severe changes the longer they are allowed to remain at the mercy of the weather. Over time, even though the piano may still be in tune with itself, the tension on the strings may be considerably less than is ideal.

A piano that is roughly 1/2 step out of tune or greater is what we consider to be an extreme case. These pianos can not simply be “tuned” in the regular manner. When bringing one of these pianos up to snuff, we must perform what is known as a “pitch raise” tuning, meaning several tunings are needed. First, the strings must be brought roughly up to their normal tension, with a more important emphasis on tension than pitch. There is a specific pattern than must be followed to prevent damage.

And oh, how damaging it can be…

Remember our post on how much pressure is exerted on the back plate? Right…around 60,000 lbs or 30 tons. Well, if all of the strings in a piano are 1/2 step out of tune, there is roughly 5,000 less pounds of pressure on the backplate than if the piano was perfectly in tune. This means that when a piano has been allowed to slide and adapt to the new pressure, changes up to pitch put a great deal amount more pressure on the instruments.

This allows for the potential of all sorts of problems, including broken strings, cracked wood within the superstructure, and in the worst case senario: a cracked or broken backplate.

And when this happens, dollar signs abound because major surgery is needed.

This can’t happen to you, right?

Well…if a piano is played every day without regular tuning, after roughly 4 years, it will be what we consider an “extreme case.”

Don’t risk it–tuning a piano is not just a way to keep tuners in business, it may save your piano. Brush and floss twice a day, and have your piano tuned twice a year.

Under Pressure!

Today, we put forth a short post dedicated to just how amazingly engineered the piano is. We all have some sense of how exactly a piano functions–when a key is pressed, it raises a hammer, which strikes a set of 1-3 strings, which produces sound through vibration. That in and of itself is the most rudimentary description I can come up with, however, in future posts, we’ll be getting far more technical. Okay, so this begs an answer to the question: why are pianos so damn heavy? The answer in simple terms: because they have to be.

The piano is made up of over 200 strings–some notes have only one string (the bass notes), some have 2 strings tuned in unison (bass/tenor notes)  and the majority have three strings tuned in unison (the treble notes). The lower bass and tenor strings are made up of steel cores, wound tightly with either brass, or in older pianos, silver. Pianos with silver wound strings are extremely rare, and replacement strings are nearly impossible to come by. The treble notes are made up of the same gauge steel, and pitch is affected by how long or short the string is, as well as tension placed on the string.

Here’s the fun part: with all strings tuned up to their respective pitches, the strings themselves exert anywhere from 18-30 TONS of pressure on the metal plate holding them in place. That’s over 60,000 pounds of pressure, or the weight of 30 elephants, contained in a wooden box.

To put this in perspective–if you were to take the lowest string on a piano (A-0) and string it from the top of the ceiling of your house to the floor, and had a way to adjust the tension, the tension of the string would collapse your house before it were to reach 1/2 of its normal pitch.

Wow.

To compensate for the enormous amount of pressure put on the body of a piano by its strings, pianos are specially outfitted with an [extremely heavy] cast iron plate that takes the brunt of the squeeze. In addition, the strings are wound around steel tuning pegs that are mounted into a piece of wood known as the pin block. The pin block is made up of several pieces of hard wood glued together with alternating grain directions (for extreme strength) and drilled out to accomodate tuning pins. The final result of the construction of the pin block is a piece of wood almost six inches thick, weighing almost 60 lbs.

This is the cast iron backplate for an early 1930's Vose and Sons upright grand piano. Note all of the construction elements mentioned earlier.

Early pianos did not have the luxury of cast iron plates, and so had strings under much less tension, which produced a much weaker sound. Todays powerful concert grands can fill a hall with rich and powerful sound, but do so at the cost of weighing over 800 pounds.

Find out why it’s so important to keep your piano tuned regularly in the next post!