Pitch Raising

Pitch Raising

Any piano if at all possible should, be tuned to concert pitch for at least three reasons. One, it will be in tune with most other instruments thus making accompaniment possible. Two, the tone will be at its best, sounding brighter with more "life". Three, players will become accustomed to how the correct pitch should sound.

Prior to tuning any piano I always consider the following:

The capability of the piano to hold the pitch, such as the condition of the pinblock and evidence of strings having been replaced through previous breakages.
The customer's need for the pitch to be raised e.g. the presence of other musical instruments in the house - especially brass and woodwind which have a very limited adjustment for tuning.
The customer's desire to have the pitch raised - often they may choose to leave it where it is due to financial constraints in having the necessary extra tunings done.
All new pianos should be tuned to pitch regardless of any of the above, as it would have been on leaving the factory.

The customer should be made aware of all the above prior to any work being done.

At the piano. A typical case is a piano which is roughly between a tone and a semitone below C523.25. The bass will probably be only a semitone below and the treble will be a tone below. Ideally I do two tunings at the first appointment (where the real hard work is done), and a third and final one a week or two later. The customer is be advised to have another tuning done after six months. The "pull up" starts with tuning an F to F temperament approximately 10 cents above concert pitch without worrying about doing any tests. The reason for tuning above the desired pitch is obvious - it's going to lower somewhat by the end of the first tuning. I am aware that the pitch can be raised way higher on the first tuning, but I have believe that this can cause damage to the strings. Each string is gauged for the pitch that it will finally be tuned to (with a little latitude either way) and I see any overstretching as being unnecessary. There are no real shortcuts with pulling up the pitch on a piano. The middle section is tuned in the normal way, without being too fussy with the unisons. The bass is then tuned just a few beats above the corresponding octave in the middle section. Any higher runs the risk of breaking a wound string. As the tuning progresses down the bass, I am more inclined to raise the strings only up to concert pitch and not a beat more. Bass strings can be expensive!

If a string does break during the initial pull up process, this is an anxious moment for me. If another one breaks shortly after (especially if it's a wound one), I start to sweat. At this stage the tools go down and I reconsider the idea of raising the pitch. I recall only one, maybe two pianos in my whole tuning career when this has actually happened. If all the previous factors have been taken into account and the tuning is done as described, this problem should not arise. If it does, then the pulling up of that piano may have to be abandoned and a lower pitch settled for. The customer will almost certainly agree to this decision!

Assuming that all is well at this stage, I check the middle section and expect it to have slipped down slightly below concert pitch. The octaves will be slightly out, but there should still be some "order". The treble section is now raised. Starting at the break, I raise the strings so they are about 20 cents above its corresponding lower octave, keeping in mind that they should not be overstretched. It is probably necessary and really more prudent to go over the treble section twice at this stage. My experience has shown that from the break onwards (but diminishing as the extreme treble is reached), the pitch drops back considerably during the raising process.

To spread the increase in tension more evenly across the instrument as the pitch is raised, I usually work in "steps", tuning all the As in the treble first, e.g. A61, A73, A85, then all the Cs and so on until the entire treble is tuned. I may also use the same method in the bass section as I work my way downwards. Remember that I am not doing any tests at this early stage.

The first "tuning" has now been done which should have taken up to an hour to complete, assuming no strings have had to be replaced.

This welcome break now allows me to see how well the piano has stood up to the extra few tons of increased tension. Reference to my tuning fork should tell me that the pitch is considerably higher than at the start of the appointment, but still about 20 cents below concert pitch. The piano could be said to have "gone up four notches, and slipped back one". Having used all the techniques described so far, I would expect the piano still to be "way out" but the octaves to be more or less even across the entire instrument. Order would have now been regained in the piano and at this point I would be happy with this result.

Prior to the second tuning I strike every note sharply several times to set the strings, concentrating more on the middle and treble sections as it is these strings that will move the most. The noisy five minutes doing this are best spent when the customer is in another part of the house.

The second tuning now takes place, this time raising the pitch just a few cents above concert. The tuning is done as in the first pull up, except that tests can now be used to get an even temperament, but not worrying about them when doing the octaves. Why waste time at this stage? A chromatic progression is now used with the octaves rather than in steps, as was used in the initial pull up. More care now can be taken with the unisons. The keys are struck firmly when doing this second tuning in order to set the strings.

At the end of this second hour, the piano will now be very close to concert pitch and should remain playable for a week or two. The session would have been quite physically demanding, but I would be confident in knowing that the hardest part of the task is now over. The customer is now advised that even though the piano is by no means fine tuned, it can now be used for practise purposes. I would encourage her to play the piano as often as she can, to help it settle. An appointment for the third and final tuning is now made.

After a few weeks, when sitting down to do the final tuning, another assessment is made. Has the piano stayed reasonably in tune and is it still close to concert pitch? In both cases it should be. If not, especially if the pitch has dropped back significantly, I would suspect that the piano is incapable of holding well and that a lower pitch should be settled for. I find that some old but otherwise "good" pianos are happier when tuned a little below concert pitch.

The fine tuning is now done - with all the usual tests - aiming for an even temperament and progression of thirds throughout the keyboard. I would regard any minor adjustments to regulation, including pedals, as being part of this job.

The customer is told to expect a little movement over the next few weeks at this stage and that another tuning in six months would be necessary.

I would charge the equivalent of around one and a half tunings for the first session and offer a small discount off the final tuning.

Tuners will have differing opinions on pulling up a piano, but after having raised the pitch on countless pianos I find that the methods outlined here work well for me.

Brian Holden (1998)

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