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Chapter V. MECHANICAL TECHNIQUE OF TUNING.
The art of tuning the piano comprises two distinct and separate elements. That part of our education as tuners which relates to the science of the art has already been discussed in full in the previous chapters. We must now consider what may be called the general mechanical technique of the art, including the special subject of the tools required and their manipulation.
The Raw Material.
The raw material with which the tuner works may be described for practical purposes as consisting of the string, the wrest-pin or tuning-pin, the wrest-plank or pinblock, and the tuning hammer. The piano action, the digitals, the wedges for damping strings, and the tuning-fork may alike be considered for the present, as accessory to, rather than as part of, the essential material. Let us consider these in their order.
It is well known, of course, that the pitch of a string — that is to say, its frequency of vibration — varies as the square root of its tension. Hence, if the tension be increased, the frequency is increased likewise; whilst if the tension be relaxed, the pitch is lowered. Now, the tension of a string is increased by tightening it on its pin ; that is by turning the pin so as to stretch the string more tightly. The relaxation of tension is achieved in precisely the opposite way; that is, by releasing the string somewhat.
String and Pin.
The piano string is wound so that the pin lies, as seen from the front, to its right, on an upright piano and to its left on a grand. But actually the positions are the same, and the difference stated is due to the different position from which we view the strings on an upright and a grand respectively. It would be better to say that the string is always on the treble side of the pin in a horizontal and on the bass side in an upright piano. When the tuner wishes to raise the pitch of a string he turns the pin so as to wind up the string on it. To lower the pitch he turns the pin so as to unwind the string. The mechanical problem therefore is to turn the pins in the wrest-plank in such a way as to adjust the pitch of each string to the requirements of the Equal Temperament at the standard of pitch agreed on.
In following chapters, I give a general description of piano construction and necessarily include remarks on the functions of all the parts herein mentioned. In the present chapter, however, I shall treat these only with relation to the tuner's work.
The piano string varies in length inversely as its pitch and may be from 2 inches to 80 inches long, according to its position in the scale and the size of the piano. Steel music wire is used, varying in diameter from .03" to .06". The lower strings are wound with steel or copper overwinding or covering. The tension at which the strings are stretched varies within the limits of 100 and 275 pounds ; but it would be fair to name as an average range of tension per string in modern pianos 150 to 160 pounds, although there is much inequality as to details.
The opposite end of the string is passed around a hitch pin in the iron frame. In order to transmit its vibrations to the sound-board the string passes over a wooden bridge provided with double raked pins, so as to give it a side bearing. At the end near the tuning pin the string passes over a wooden or iron bearing bridge which determines the upper, as the soundboard bridge determines the lower, extremity of its vibrating length. This upper bridge gives an up and down bearing to the string. It is important that these points be kept in mind and the student carefully study the construction upon an actual piano; which I am presuming he has at hand.
The Pin Block.
The torsional stress on the pin being what it is, considering the high tension at which the string is commonly stretched, it follows that efficient means are required for the maintenance of the pin in a given position under this stress. The common method is to drive the pins into a wooden block called the wrest-plank or pinblock; which is built up by cross-banding several strips of hard wood. Such a block, when drilled for the reception of the tuning pins at right angles to the plane of the banding, gives an exceedingly stiff bedding, for the cross-grained strips present alternately end-grain and cross-grain, making a structure which interposes a very great frictional resistance to the rotative movement of the pin. It is the frictional resistance which is responsible for the pin holding its position, and hence for the string remaining at a given tension.
The tuning-pin is a stout steel rod almost uniform in diameter from end to end, and threaded with a light fine thread. One extremity is bluntly pointed and the other is squared off to receive the tuning-hammer and pierced for the insertion of the end of the string. It is customary to wrap the string around the pin in three or four coils.
The sound-board bridges carry the strings between pins set at an angle to each other, in such a way that each string is diverted from its line of direction and carried on from the bridge to the hitch-pin on a line parallel with the original line. The side-bearing thus given to the string is intended to ensure its tightness and steadiness on the bridge. The upper bearing bridge sometimes is in the form of a separate stud or “agraffe” for each string, and sometimes consists of a ledge cast in the plate over which the string passes, to be forced down into a bearing position by a heavy pressure bar screwed over it. The object is to give bearing to the string. The “capo-d 'astro” bar is simply the pressure-bar arrangement cast in one piece. The student will be well advised to study all these constructions on the piano at first hand.
The tuning-hammer, with which the actual turning of the pin is accomplished, is a steel rod carrying a head bored to receive the pin. The hammer is placed on the pin,which is turned by pressure of the hand on the hammer handle in the required direction. There are many interesting points about the manipulation of the hammer, however, which must now be considered. The mechanical problem relates to the turning of a pin acting under a combined tensional and torsional strain; in other words a pin which is being simultaneously pulled down, and twisted around. If the wrest-plank is well made, the pin will resist successfully both of these strains and when turned by the hammer will retain its new position. But in order that this should be so it is necessary to acquire a certain technique of manipulation.
Manipulating the Hammer.
The implement used for turning the pins and known as the tuning hammer is, by its very shape, susceptible of wrong use. It presents the constant temptation to manipulate it as if it were a wrench. The resistance that the pin and string impose against turning is sufficiently great to cause the novice nearly always to twist and wrench at the pin in the effort to turn it. Now, it must be remembered that the distance through which the pin is turned is so very slight that where it has been tightly driven, or presents any other obstacle to free turning, the hammer nearly always gives too hard a twist or pull, so that the pin, after sticking, turns too far. In an upright piano the tuner stands in front of the pins, which are about on a level with his chest, and his natural inclination of course will be to pull downwards and outwards on the pins whilst attempting to turn them, in such a way as to drag the lower surface of the pin against the bushing in the plate and so gradually wear away the bushing and the wrest-plank hole and finally loosen the pin altogether. In order to overcome these possible faults, the student will have to work out his own method of manipulation, bearing in mind always that his object is to turn the pin and not merely bend it. If he merely bends it he may alter the string tension enough to change the pitch as desired ; but a smart blow on the piano key will soon knock the string back again where it was before. That is why young tuners do not tune “solidly.” They do not turn the pins; they merely bend them. I shall offer the following suggestions regarding the general handling of the piano in tuning, out of my own experience, with the understanding that I do not put them forth as rules, but only as notions which have been found practical in one man 's work.
1. Length of Hammer.
Other things being equal, the experience of the best tuners points to the use of a short handled hammer, instead of a long one. I prefer a handle not more than 12 inches long.
2. Position of Hammer.
The hammer should be held nearly vertical when tuning upright pianos, and it is well to rest the arm, as this tends to give better leverage.
3. Turning the Pin.
In attempting to turn the pin, do not jerk the hammer back and forth, nor on the other hand, use it like a wrench, but rather try to turn the pin by gently impelling it in the desired direction, feeling it all the time under the hand and avoiding the mistake of pulling down on the pin whilst turning it in the sharp direction.
4. Use of Left Hand, in upright piano.
The best way of making sure that the pin is not pulled downwards whilst the string is being sharped is to hold the tuning hammer in the left hand. The pin is then raised in the process of sharping ; which is as it should be. In any case, the hammer should be held vertical, or still better, inclining slightly over to the bass side. The above applies to the upright piano only.
5. And in Grand Pianos.
In a grand piano, to tune with the right hand is best on account of the position of the tuner with relation to the strings; which is opposite to the position with reference to the upright. But the highest treble strings, on account of the peculiar construction of the grand piano, are most conveniently tuned with the hammer held in the left hand.
6. Tuning Pure Intervals First.
All intervals that are to be tempered should be first tuned pure and then raised or lowered.^ Other things being equal, it is better to tune slightly above the required pitch and let the string slack back; which can be assisted by a smart blow on the key. Coaxing the string up to pitch usually involves its slacking off as soon as the piano is played.
7. Strings Hanging on Bridges.
Strings often hang on the belly bridge and on the upper bearing. The waste ends at either extremity sometimes cause this trouble. The tuner must acquire the habit of so tuning that the string is pulled evenly through its entire length, from tuning-pin to hitch pin, maintaining the tension of all its sections uniform. To be sure that the pin is thoroughly turned gives the best assurance that the above requirement has been fulfilled.
8. “Pounding” Condemned.
I do not believe in brutally pounding on the keys of a piano in an effort to “settle the strings.” It is quite uncertain how much the strings can be “settled” in any way like this ; and the process is objectionable in every other way.
The simplest way of muting the strings is by using a long strip of felt to stop off the outside strings of the triples and the alternate strings of the doubles, from one end of the piano to the other, before the tuning begins. Then the temperament Octave may be tuned on the middle string of each note and the Octaves up and down therefrom; after which the outside strings of the Unisons may be tuned all together. If however for any reasons such as those mentioned below, this causes the piano to stress unevenly, the Unisons can be adjusted section by section.
10. Position at the piano.
All things considered it is better to stand up to tune all pianos, even grand pianos. The practice of sitting to tune upright pianos is certainly to be condemned, as it leads to slovenly handling of the hammer and general slackness.
11. Raising Pitch.
In raising the pitch of a piano, go over it at least twice, the first time roughly, the second time smoothly. If the amount of rise required is very great the piano will need three tunings at once and another shortly after. Arrangements should be made with the owner of the piano in accordance with the extra amount of work to be done.
12. On Old Pianos.
Raising the pitch on old pianos is always risky, as strings are likely to break. In emergencies, rust may be treated, at the upper bearing bridge and hitch pins, sparingly with oil. But oil is only to be used in emergencies, and with the utmost care to see that it does not reach the wrest-plank or soundboard bridges.
13. Lowering Pitch.
In lowering the pitch, not less than three tunings will be required usually. This work is even more delicate than the above and needs even more care. The first tuning should be merely a rough letting down. Then the second may be a rough, and the third a smooth, tuning. But it is well to have an interval of a day between the second and the third tunings.
14. Gang Mute.
Even if a felt strip for a whole section is not used, it is advisable to have the entire temperament Octave wedged up whilst tuning it, so as not to have to disturb Unisons after they have been tuned. It is usually necessary to make various corrections in the temperament Octave as it is being tuned.
15. Uniform Pitch.
Uniformity of pitch is a desideratum. Every tuner should have an international pitch guaranteed fork, kept carefully in a felt-lined box and carefully guarded from rust. Tune to this pitch whenever possible. But do not make the mistake of trying to adjust all pianos to one pitch. It cannot be done.
16. Theatre Pianos.
In tuning pianos for use in theatres with orchestras, it is advisable usually to tune a few audible beats above the pitch of the instrument which is used as a standard. This instrument is usually the clarinet or cornet (in symphony orchestras, the oboe), which rises in pitch as it warms in the course of playing.
17. False Beats.
The worst single enemy the tuner has is the string with false beats. In a good piano factory such strings are taken out and replaced before the piano leaves the premises. Sometimes faults in the scale, and especially the fault of uneven tension, make for strings that beat when sounded alone. This beating arises through sections of the strings being unevenly stressed, whereby the corresponding partial tones are thrown out of tune. Such uneven stress may be the result of a twist put in the wire during the stringing, or of uneven thickness of the wire. When false beats are encountered, sometimes the tuner will find he can neutralize the beats by tuning the string slightly off from the other two of the triple. If no such expedient will work, then the strings must be left alone. Such false beats are especially to be found in the upper treble.
18. Bass Tuning.
The real fundamental tones of the lowest strings are not actually heard. We hear instead upper partials thereof. Hence it is very often impossible to tune bass octaves by mere audition of beats between coincident partials. In this condition of affairs the tuner may tune by testing the Tenths, which is a good plan, or by isolating some partial and testing it with the corresponding note above. To tune a clear bass is sometimes impossible.1
19. Test Intervals.
All the tests recommended in the previous chapter should be used constantly during the progress of the work, for the tuning will not be good otherwise. The most prolific source of imperfection lies in the accumulation of exceedingly slight errors; which soon mount up to intolerable mis-tunings. Constant testing, note by note, is therefore absolutely essential.
20. Sharp Treble.
The temptation to tune the treble tones too high is one constantly to be avoided, for it is constantly present. Careful testing will alone rid the tuner of this error, which is insidious and habit-forming.
Not twenty, but a hundred and twenty, rules or suggestions like these could easily be laid down; but I prefer to leave the subject here. The student will learn at least one more: the value of Patience.
“Style.” The student will also determine for himself, as time goes on, the characteristics of what may be called his special ''style." Tuning is an art and one which suffers more through being misunderstood than through any other single condition. The fine tuner is an artist in every sense of the word and the mental characteristics he must possess are such as not everybody can hope to have.
Understanding and Patience.
Understanding and Patience are the foundation of the tuner's art and for my part I am not sure to which of these qualities I should award the primacy. Certainly it is true that without Understanding the tuner is groping in the dark; whilst without Patience he is already condemned in advance to failure in the attempt to do artistic work.
Experience too, is vastly important. The most talented student of the art finds that there is a mechanical technique to be mastered in tuning, just as in playing the piano. The necessary delicacy of wrist and arm, the necessary intuitive feeling that the pin has been turned as it should be; the necessary exquisite delicacy of ear:1 all these faculties are the product of patient experiment and practice. The novice cannot expect to possess them; nor can he have any reason for being disappointed when he finds, as he will find, that to gain anything worth gaining, one must work — and work hard.
“Playing the Game.”
Still, it also remains that when one does take the trouble to play the game as it must be played, the reward is certain — and by no means contemptible; even when measured by mere money, the lowest of standards. On the whole, good tuners are as scarce to-day as they were fifty years ago. The tuning of every day is not good, usually; and the artistic tuner will find a hearty welcome, and adequate compensation, almost anywhere.
All that can be taught by a book I have here set forth. But mastery comes only through experience, combined with patient study and application. Various matters incidental to the art which do not come within the scope of “tuning” proper are treated in the following chapters of this book.
1Cf. the discussions in Chapters II, III and IV.
1 Delicacy" here means rather "power of discrimination" than mere intuition. What is usually called a "musical ear" is nothing more than, at best, a feeling of tonality sometimes extending so far as unaided recognition of individual tones and tonalities on hearing them; and at worst, an inclination towards simple melody, harmonically bare. The tuner's audition is acoustical, not artificially musical. The ordinary "musical ear" is of little value to him.
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