Tuning Unisons

Now engage the tuning lever on the pin for string 1. We will tune string 1 to string 2. The motion you will practice is: (1) flat, (2) sharp, (3) flat, (4) sharp and (5) flat (tune). Except for (1), each motion must be smaller than the previous one. As you improve, you will add or eliminate steps as you see fit. We are assuming that the two strings are almost in tune. As you tune, you must follow two rules: (a) never turn the pin unless you are simultaneously listening to the sound, and (b) never release the pressure on the tuning lever handle until that motion is complete.

For example, let's start with motion (1) flat: keep playing the note every second or two with the LH, so that there is a continuous sound, while pushing the end of the lever handle away from you with the thumb and 2nd finger. Play the note in such a way as to maintain a continuous sound. Don't lift the key for any length of time, as this will stop the sound. Keep the key down and play with a quick up-and-down motion so that there is no break in the sound. The pinky and the rest of your RH should be braced against the piano. The required motion of the lever is just a few millimeters. First, you will feel an increasing resistance, and then the pin will start to rotate. Before the pin begins to rotate, you should hear a change in the sound. As you turn the pin, listen for string 1 going flat, creating a beat with the center string; the beat frequency increasing as you turn. Stop at a beat frequency of 2 to 3 per second. The tip of the tuning lever should move less than one cm. Remember, never rotate the pin when there is no sound because you will immediately lose track of where you are with respect to how the beats are changing. Always maintain constant pressure on the lever until that motion is completed for the same reason.

What is the rationale behind the above 5 motions? Assuming that the two strings are in reasonable tune, you first tune string 1 flat in step (1) to make sure that in step (2) you will pass the tuning point. This also protects against the possibility that you had placed the lever on the wrong tuning pin; as long as you are turning flat, you will never break a string.

After (1) you are flat for sure, so in step (2) you can listen to the tuning point as you pass through it. Go past it until you hear a beat frequency of about 2 to 3 per second on the sharp side, and stop. Now you know where the tuning point is, and what it sounds like. The reason for going so far past the tuning point is that you want to set the pin, as explained above.

Now go back flat again, step (3), but this time, stop just past the tuning point, as soon as you can hear any incipient beats. The reason why you don't want to go too far past the tuning point is that you don't want to undo the "setting of the pin" in step (2). Again, note exactly what the tuning point sounds like. It should sound perfectly clean and pure. This step assures that you did not set the pin too far.

Now conduct the final tuning by going sharp (step 4), by as little as you can beyond perfect tune, and then bringing it into tune by turning flat (step 5). Note that your final motion must always be flat in order to set the pin. Once you become good, you might be able to do the whole thing in two motions (sharp, flat), or three (flat, sharp, flat).

Ideally, from step (1) to final tune, you should maintain the sound with no stoppage, and you should always be exerting pressure on the handle; never letting go of the lever. Initially, you will probably have to do this motion by motion. When you become proficient, the whole operation will take just a few seconds. But at first, it will take a lot longer. Until you develop your "tuning muscles" you will tire quickly and may have to stop from time to time to recover. Not only the hand/arm muscles, but the mental and ear concentration required to focus on the beats can be quite a strain and can quickly cause fatigue. You will need to develop "tuning stamina" gradually. Most people do better by listening through one ear than through both, so turn your head to see which ear is better.

The most common mistake beginners make at this stage is to try to listen for beats by pausing the tuning motion. Beats are difficult to hear when nothing is changing. If the pin is not being turned, it is difficult to decide which of the many things you are hearing is the beat that you need to concentrate on. What tuners do is to keep moving the lever and then listening to the changes in the beats. When the beats are changing, it is easier to identify the particular beat that you are using for tuning that string. Therefore, slowing down the tuning motion doesn't make it easier. Thus the beginner is between a rock and a hard place. Turning the pin too quickly will result in all hell breaking loose and losing track of where you are. On the other hand, turning too slowly will make it difficult to identify the beats. Therefore work on determining the range of motion you need to get the beats and the right speed with which you can steadily turn the pin to make the beats come and go. In case you get hopelessly lost, mute strings 2 and 3 by placing a wedge between them, play the note and see if you can find another note on the piano that comes close. If that note is lower than G3, then you need to tune it sharp to bring it back, and vice versa.

Now that you have tuned string 1 to string 2, reposition the wedge so that you mute 1, leaving 2 and 3 free to vibrate. Tune 3 to 2. When you are satisfied, remove the wedge and see if the G is now free of beats. You have tuned one note! If the G was in reasonable tune before you started, you haven't accomplished much, so find a note nearby that is out of tune and see if you can "clean it up". Notice that in this scheme, you are always tuning one single string to another single string. In principle, if you are really good, strings 1 and 2 are in perfect tune after you finish tuning 1, so you don't need the wedge any more. You should be able to tune 3 to 1 and 2 vibrating together. In practice this doesn't work until you become really proficient. This is because of a phenomenon called sympathetic vibration.