You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can’t Tuna Fish, by K.Y.

Consider the aftermath of a societal breakdown, not only in terms of survival but in the quality of life issues that make surviving worthwhile. Most likely, the arts and entertainment aspects of a post-breakdown world will be radically changed– no more television, movies, large-scale concerts, or computer-generated games. We will default to a simpler era, where folks made their own entertainment and personal interaction defined the process of a meaningful life.

And in a hard-scrabble existence– after the farming, hunting, homesteading, defending, procuring the basics of life-after-disaster– there will eventually need to be something more. There will need to be music, if only to salve the wounds of outrageous fortune. Where will it come from? It will come from the people, of course, as it always has but without the power boosts, long-range broadcasts, and mass communication that have been the hallmarks of the last centuries’ electronic age. We will be left with our own voices and the acoustic instruments to support them. There will still be guitars, strings, woodwinds, brass, and drums– the makings of bands and orchestras, massed voices in choirs, and soloists to be heard. And there will be pianos, literally millions of them in this country and worldwide– universally acknowledged to be the most useful instrument of all, for accompanying singers and other instruments, for composing and arranging music, and with the most glorious classical and popular repertoire conceivable. All this, in a package that you don’t need to plug in!

There was a time in America, from the the late 18th century to the pre- World War II era, when nearly every upper class and many middle class households featured a piano in the “drawing room”. These were not merely for decoration, although they were considered a status symbol; they were played and used, whether for little Emily’s piano lessons, chamber music and vocal recitals, or hymn-singing around the fireplace. The instruments ranged from the most humble spinet to magnificent, elaborately carved grands, depending on the wherewithal of the their owners. Before the era of phonographs, they were the conduit for popular and classical music for the common man, and arrangements of concertos and symphonies, the piano works of Bach, Chopin and Liszt, as well as the latest ragtime number or popular song could be found on their music racks.

There are still thousands upon thousands of pianos in the homes and institutions of this country, some in the neglected “clunker” status, but many more at least serviceable and others of concert-level quality. It is a wide range of both types and brand names. What is common to all is that they require tuning and maintenance, for they are the most complex mechanical instruments yet created, with hundreds of parts made of wood, felt, steel, and iron within their decorative cases. They are thus subject to atmospheric changes– variations in heat and humidity affecting the wood and metal– swelling, corrosion, and the stress of constant and repeated pounding of the keys and hammers, all taking their toll. A piano that is neglected will certainly become unpleasant to hear and will eventually become downright unplayable.

With the progression of the seasons, all acoustic pianos will go out of tune. Variation in humidity is the main cause. The wooden sound-board swells and shrinks, causing the steel strings to expand and contract at differing rates. The two-hundred-and-thirty-odd strings are stretched at tensions between 150 and 200 pounds each, with the iron plate and heavy wooden framing carrying a strain totaling from eighteen to twenty tons. Other delicate wooden parts and felt liners also absorb and evaporate moisture; they can warp and seize up or dry out and crack.

Repair and maintenance of a piano’s “action” is a subject best left to professionals, or amateurs who have intensely studied the labyrinthine innards of their own instruments and have access to specialized tools and replacement parts. Many of these parts– joints, pins, bushings, flanges, et cetera are tiny, vary by type and manufacturers brand of instrument, and require specialized tools to access, replace, or adjust them. Pliers and a screwdriver will simply not do. There is also a certain element of artistry to the piano technician’s craft– a feel for the subtleties of weight, tension, balance, and uniformity that requires years of experience. That, and sensitivity to vibration and the understanding of acoustics, overtones, and the equally-tempered scale, the “stretching of octaves ” in the bass and treble extremes, make it a rather esoteric and rarefied skill. However, the process of tuning itself and the more common and simple repairs are well within the reach of the amateur who is willing to study the craft a bit and acquire a few tools. Modern technology offers shortcuts to the tuning process, with battery-operated tuning devices, which with some practice can produce quite accurate, even beautiful, results. With a few simple tools and some knowledge, a piano tuner/technician might well have a valued vocation in a post-collapse scenario.

The basic process in tuning a piano is to first set the “temperament” or “scale” in the middle range of the piano by muting the outer two of the three-string sets of unison notes with a felt strip that is pushed between the outer strings, leaving the middle string to be adjusted with a tuning hammer (wrench). Setting the wrench on the appropriate tuning pin, slight movements are used to bring the note into synch with the dial on the electronic tuner. Care must be taken not to jerk the tuning hammer too much, as very slight movements will adjust the string; you will get a feel for the resistance pretty quickly and will learn to “set” the string by pulling it a little sharp and then relaxing it to the desired tone. After the scale has been set, the other notes are tuned in octaves from that temperament, alternating treble and bass octaves to balance the tension on the soundboard. Again, rubber mutes are used to dampen the outer strings of each note, and once the middle string is tuned, the mutes are removed sequentially to tune each outer string to the middle one (unison). This all should be done by ear, as tuning octaves and unisons is much easier than hearing other intervals. You will learn to hear when an octave or unison is correct when the conflicting vibrations all but disappear. The highest and lowest notes of the piano are the most difficult to hear by the human ear and also by the electronic tuner. They are generally tuned a little sharp in the highest octaves and a little flat in the lowest, to compensate for subjective misperceptions in hearing. The electronic device can be used to check accuracy at both ends of the keyboard. Finally, the felt strip in the middle octave is removed note by note, and those unisons are tuned. It must be warned that pianos that have not been tuned for a long period will need to have their overall pitch raised, a process of several gradual tunings to avoid breaking strings. The novice may take several hours to tune a piano, as it is a fairly tedious and exacting affair. Fluency comes with repetition, and the pro can do it in under an hour.

Those interested in this subject would first be advised to purchase a good text– the old classic William Brad White Piano Tuning and Allied Arts relies on the old tuning fork “by ear” process of interval ratios in setting the basic scale or “temperament”. There are several more modern tomes, one of the best of which is Piano Servicing, Tuning and Rebuilding: For the Professional, the Student and the Hobbyist by Arthur A. Reblitz. This book plus a small kit, consisting of a tuning hammer (wrench), set of rubber mutes, and felt Temperament strip, plus a good electronic tuning device (by Korg, for instance), will be sufficient to get started. There are numerous online tutorials, and even some free or near free tuning apps for the i-pad. And all the tool kits, books, and electronic tuners are available online. A basic setup for all these might be purchased for under a hundred dollars, total. Access to parts and more advanced tools and tuning devices can be found online as well, and such relatively simple repairs such as replacing a broken string or hammer are well within the skill set of a beginner. This is not to suggest that the casual tuner will replace the dedicated professional in the care of pianos, especially at the concert level where perfection in both the sound of a fine instrument and the sensitivity of the action to allow subtle nuances of expression and projection of power; these are luxuries we should savor now, as they may not survive in a clouded future. So we must prepare, adapt, and do the best we can. A field medic in that future will be as valuable as a surgeon in the present. Of course, a tuning fork and a “good ear” would be the default method in a “forever” grid-down situation, but the electronic tuner and a few batteries could last for years and be a source of income as well as artistic satisfaction for the essential balm of music in an injured world.