Essential Piano Tuning Tools – #1. Train Your Ear

Essential Piano Tuning Tools – #1. Train Your Ear

The top 10% of successful musicians have great ears. 

They hear “deeply”. Musicians that understand what they are hearing don’t hunt and peck notes on their instrument, but are directed by what they internally feel is correct.

Pitches are connected to harmonic and melodic structures.  Internalizing the correct pitch is a valuable tool that unlocks your creativity.

As a musician, you need to gather your tools and develop your skills. I feel that instruments are the extensions of our musical voice and ear training is the number one asset in our musician skills.

How I Learning Music in School

In 3rd grade, students were approached by the music department with a demonstration of band instruments. We were encouraged to choose an instrument to become a member of the school band. I didn’t know how to spell “Xylophone” so I small wind classgot that crazy trombone instead. It was a ‘King’ brand trombone with a slide that made it easy to change notes. And notes are all that we learned to play. During school, sections of instrument owners would be characterized as “brass players”, “wind players” and “percussion players”.

When the cafeteria wasn’t being used for lunch, a group of us would meet there to orient us about the technical aspects of making music. Tuning the instruments was a first priority. Therefore, we could all play a basic note that didn’t conjure up the vision of ailing elephants swaggering through the jungle. Now trumpets had valves and clarinets and saxophones had pads, but the trombone could slide through all the notes in between.

Teach the Notes and the Ear may follow

The first piece of music that I learned to play well was “On Top of Old Smoky”. I guess it was because I knew how it was supposed to sound. All of us played in the band we were assigned chairs. The “First Chair” trombones got the better music and the “second and thirds” got the tromboneleftovers. To make others think we weren’t that dumb we followed the slide movements of the first chair dudes. Now, I recall this because no one taught us how to hear the correct pitches, just the slide positions.

Some of us caught on to using our ear, they were the jazz soloists, the ones that formed rock bands.

Reading notes did help me when discovered a guitar and a ‘Mel Bay’ guitar lesson book in our basement. I learned how to tune and read the notes on the first 5 frets of the six string. I had two much older brothers, who joined the Navy when I was six. Who played that guitar, that was abandoned in the basement?

My mother played piano and was very good at playing classical pieces. Her approach to music was definitely the reading skills she learned while she was a child.

Music Theory was my hiding place

When I attended college, I studied Music Education with the trombone as my major instrument. Trombone was not my major instrument; it was the instrument that I had formal training in. In fact, all the instruments were my majors.

I could see myself as a theory major, but that is not how the music department works. The college is geared towards performance skills. I worked hard on becoming a better pianist and the trombone became an albatross.

I envisioned the piano is a more universal and teachable instrument. As a creative type, my life’s ambition as a teacher would be enhanced by knowing the piano more intimately.

I became a piano instructor after the age of 35. Looking at a keyboard of 88 notes was like having the world at your fingertips. I was well versed in reading skills and they were my tools for teaching. I would break down the essential piano skills into seven areas of focus and one of them was ear training.

What About Tuning Pianos and Ear Training?

Ear training grew to be the major factor that powered the better musicians. 

using ones musical ear

I passed all the dictation and ear tests back in college. I sang in college ensembles at the university level, but my ears were only “so-so” next to the best. The techniques and tricks I learned in college, were only a false crutch to becoming a better player.

Therefore, I decided to strengthen the weak skills I had with an activity that would force me to listen better, more intensely.

With improving my ear my level of music awareness began to increase and my creativity levels soared.

My First Piano Took 5 Hours to Tune

I offered my availability as a piano tuner to my student’s parents first.  I had taught some of them for years and the piano never got tuned while I was there “week after week”.  Their piano always sounded a bit “rough” and wasn’t getting better on its own. I could help this clunker find a new life.

Most piano technicians had a grander skill set than “just tuning the strings”, but just getting the pitch right, would make a vast improvement in the keyboards “playability”.

The Major Tool for Piano Tuning is Your Ear

The digital tuner, tuning hammer, temperament felts and mutes are necessary for tuning the notes of a wayward piano to pitch.  The most important tool is the tuner’s ear.

Use both of them; you need all the help you can get!  The rules are the same for teaching the music student to achieve a better ear:

  1. Listen to the correct pitch.
  2. “Own” the note by humming or signing it.
  3. Isolate the target note by using felts or mutes.
  4. Adjust the pitch of the target note with the tuning hammer.
  5. Tune the target note slightly sharp, then lower it to pitch
  6. Move to the next note chromatically
  7. Tune 5 or 6 notes above and the same below your target note.
  8. These twelve notes are the reference notes for the others.

Tune the Entire 88 notes From the Reference Notes

Tuning the rest of the notes from the 12 reference ones is an easier job. You will still have to mute the neighboring notes as you tune in threes at the treble end; and the bass notes to the left are in sets of three, two and singles for the lowest notes.

When I break for coffee, I usually resume by going down instead of up the keyboard. At the topmost notes, I use a guitar pick as the piano’s hammers are in the way of effectively muting the strings in a group.

The lowest bass notes are too low and colored with overtones to hear correctly. I place my fingertip on the bass string where I can induce a harmonic an octave or two above the fundamental.

In Conclusion

Before I close the piano up, I play the key-bed notes from lowest to highest, listening for obvious duds. Playing scales is important to seeking inconsistencies in all the registers.  Celebrate by playing a song or two, then pack up your tools and get paid.

A piano needs to be tuned periodically.  the physical strings in a piano will degrade in pitch over time.

This degrading of pitch is not apparent to most piano owners, at least until the instrument cries, “help me – I’ve fallen”. 

Remind the owners that a piano will hold it’s “value” when it is tuned regularly.  An untuned piano is only a piece of furniture. Well informed piano owners will schedule several tunings throughout the year to protect their investment.

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