When I decided to tune my piano myself, I found little practical information for the amateur. I bought some tools and figured it out for myself. This video and website share what I have learned.

Note that my piano is a 64-key spinet, and has one less string per key than a standard piano. It is a Pinafore by Gulbransen.

Piano tuning is not as easy as it looks, and if done poorly can damage the piano. If your piano is precious, or you need perfection, call a professional. The simple method here can fix a sour note but it will not replace the skills of an experienced tuner. Even so, tuning your own piano can be an enjoyable way to learn more about this fascinating instrument.

Piano tuning tools on an open piano

Tools

You cannot tune a piano without a few basic, specialized tools. At minimum, you will need to purchase three things:

  1. Tuning lever
  2. Electronic chromatic tuner
  3. Several rubber tuning mutes
Piano tuning lever

Tool One: The Tuning Lever

Also called a tuning hammer or wrench, a tuning lever is special tool made just for tuning pianos. Do NOT attempt to substitute with socket wrench or other makeshift set-up. Proper tuning needs a delicate touch and a secure hold on the pin. Without both of these, at best you will have a poor tuning result, and at worst you can permanently damage the pin or the piano.

This is not a place to save money on some cheap tool. Find a real piano supply house to purchase a quality tuning lever. A poorly made tuning lever is nearly as bad as a socket wrench. It will frustrate you at best, and permanently damage the piano at worst. A good lever will start in the $40 range.

Note the 8-point "star" socket. This fits the square head perfectly and at multiple angles. You want the tool in just the right angle at all times so that you can apply the fine touch needed...and in the tight quarters of the piano cabinet. Most pianos made for the American market use the #2 sized head. Pianos made in or for other countries may use other sizes. Consult your piano tool supplier for advice if you are not sure.

Better hammers come with interchangeable heads or tips, in case you have an odd size pin or need a longer or shorter head or a different angle to fit in the cabinet. If you size it right for one piano, you can get by with one head, but it never hurts to keep your options open. Poor-quality levers have fixed "goose-neck" heads. Additional heads or tips can be purchased as needed. I use pianosupplies.com. TIP: If you purchase a tuning lever with interchangeable tips, be sure to also purchase a tip wrench to tighten them. Otherwise, the tip may unscrew itself when you are trying to tune.

Korg chromatic tuner

Tool Two: Chromatic Electronic Tuner

You will need some sort of external tuning reference. Some pros use a tuning fork; others use expensive electronic piano tuners specially designed for pianos. We're going to use a simple pocket tuner. It won't be as accurate as a true electronic piano tuner, but it will work well enough for our purposes. At $20 or so, the model shown, a Korg CA-30, which has been replaced with the Korg CA-40, is the least expensive tuner that works well. It needs to be chromatic; a plain guitar tuner is not enough. The LCD needle on these can be hard to follow. I now prefer the Korg OT-120 Orchestral Tuner for its physical needle and greater versatility.

Piano tuning rubber mutes

Tool Three: Tuning Mutes

These rubber wedges are mutes that fit between strings to silence the ones you are not working on. Very inexpensive, don't waste time trying to rig a substitute. Get several sizes and shapes because string size and position varies within any single piano. Buy them where you get your tuning lever. If desired, you can purchase a kit that has a tuning lever and a selection of mutes.

Procedure

Our tuning procedure has these steps:

  1. Prepare the piano
  2. Tune each note in the middle octave to set the temperament:
    a. Tune one string per note using the electronic tuner
    b. Tune the remaining strings in each note by ear
  3. Use the temperament to tune the outlying octaves by ear
Small piano with lid open

Preparation

Now that we have the tools gathered, it is time to tune. Open the piano cabinet so that you can work. Make sure you have good light, as well.

Screwdriver removing screws that hold the piano fall board

You may want to remove a few extra pieces in addition to just opening the top. It lets more light in. It also makes it easier to follow which key is working which string. These pieces are easily removed, but often require a screwdriver.

Small piano with cabinetry removed for tuning

I've opened up my piano completely, and the lever is in place on the first pin. You can see I have removed all the cabinet down to the tops of the keys. Again, you don't have to go this far, but it can be helpful.

Tuning the Temperament

Begin by tuning all the keys in the middle octave, middle C to C', using the electronic tuner. This is setting the temperament; the temperament will become the reference by which we tune the rest of the piano.

A finger tracing a piano string

First, identify one string from one note to tune. Most notes except the very lowest ones will have two or three strings per note. My little piano only has two in the this octave, but it's more common to have three. Press the key, see which hammer moves, then trace the string up to its corresponding pin.

Piano string muted with a rubber mute

After selecting the string to tune first, mute the other string(s) in the set for that note. Wedge a rubber mute between the string to be muted and the soundboard or the next string over.

Person seated at the piano, using a tuning lever and an electronic tuner

Tune the unmuted string using the electronic tuner. Silence the room; any extraneous note, even a motor, will be picked up by the electronic tuner. With one hand on the lever, one finger on the key, and one eye on the electronic tuner, strike a key firmly. Move the lever very, very slightly while striking the key firmly over and over. Turn the pin clockwise to raise the pitch, counter-clockwise to lower it. (Righty tighty, lefty loosey!) I want the needle on the tuner to be as close to the middle as possible.

Tuning lever on a tuning pin

Tune the other strings in the note; this is tuning the unisons. Remove the mute from one of the other strings in the set for that note. Put aside the electronic tuner, and use your ear to match the untuned string to the string you just tuned. Repeat for the third string, if necessary; unmute all three, so that the third string matches the first two. Why no electronic tuner? Because hearing the match is more accurate than trying to adjust that pesky bouncing needle tuner.

Repeat Tuning the Temperament steps for entire middle octave.

Important considerations about this process:

  • Minimal pin movement is important; too much wiggling can loosen the pin so that it will not hold. Loose pins need professional repair. Do not overwork the pin! It's also possible to break a string. It can happen if over-tightened, but even professionals break a string on occasion. It is a common repair, but beyond this tutorial. There are books on piano repair, or call a pro.
  • It's difficult to get the needle dead on. I usually err a little to the sharp if in doubt, as my piano usually goes flat. Alternatively, the Korg can play the tone for you, and you can match by ear.
  • A professional tuner will tune the upper octaves increasingly sharp and lower octaves increasingly flat. This is known as stretching the octaves, a sound more pleasing to the ear than tuning to equal temperament, which would ideally follow a pure mathematical progression. This is because error is introduced by the physical differences between strings (e.g., the fat lower strings react differently to being struck than the thin, short, upper strings.) The best stretch is a judgement call determined by a professional tuner's experience. If we were to tune the entire piano with a simple chromatic tuner the result would be poor. The more we tune by ear, the closer we can approximate what a professional does.
Person seated, tuning octaves with the tuning lever

Tune the Octaves

Once you have the first octave tuned in this manner, use it as the reference octave for the rest of the piano. Use your ear, not the electronic tuner, to tune these octaves. As before, start with one string in the set, tune it to the matching note in the temperament, then tune the remaining strings in the set to the first string tuned in the set. Work your way up and down the piano, tuning a high octave then a low octave to adjust the tension on the soundboard evenly.

Now What?

This a bare-bones presentation on tuning. There is much more to learn! If you would like more tips on tuning your own piano using the simplified method given here, please visit our first site, piano.detwiler.us. You will find our favorite links to other on-line resources as well.

For a quick reference on some piano tuning terms, visit our Piano Tuning FAQ.

If you would like to explore tuning in depth, then try these well-regarded books on piano tuning and care.

For more on the technical underpinnings of piano tuning, see Wikipedia.