THE A-440 PIANO
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FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

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What is A-440?


Today's concert reference pitch of A=440hz was not always the case.  


"A-440" was only officially adopted by the U.S. government in 1920 and by the international community in 1939.   Before 1920, A=435hz had become the more commonly used concert pitch reference for the modern turn of the century piano.


A piano tuned to A=440hz means that the A key, located six inclusive white keys up the keyboard (i.e., from left to right) from Middle C, will reliably vibrate at a frequency of 440 cycles per second - which directly translates to the actual pitch heard. 


However, because the piano is a natural "C" concert - i.e., non-transposing - instrument, many tuners were trained and continue to this day to employ a C=523.3hz pitch reference - this being A=440hz's concert pitch reference equivalent.


Having your piano referenced to A=440hz (or C=523.3hz) requires establishing this same frequency onto the piano - traditionally employing the aid of a tuning fork, tuning bar, or electronic / digital device.  Only after the piano's reference pitch is established, checked, and assured, may the rest of the tuning proceed.

How Often should my piano be tuned?


It's a question, offering a host of possible solutions.


Here's what Major Piano Manufacturers Recommend:


"At least four times the first year" and "a minimum of twice a year thereafter."

  -- Baldwin, Kawai, Pearl River, Yamaha


"Two to three tunings the first year and a minimum of two tunings per year thereafter"  -- Samick


"Depending on location and climatic conditions, at least two to three times in the first year or two.   An instrument played often and intensively could require additional tunings."  -- Schimmel


" ... at least three or four times a year. You, however, are the final judge and should have the piano tuned as often as you think necessary. To put the matter of tuning into perspective, remember that a concert piano is tuned before every performance, and a piano in a professional recording studio, where it is in constant use, is tuned three or four times each week as a matter of course. -- Steinway & Sons


"Due to the natural elasticity in new piano strings, we recommend that your instrument be tuned two to four times the first year, twice the second year and a minimum of once per year thereafter. Of course, you may choose to have your piano tuned more or less often to satisfy your own personal requirements."  -- Young Chang America, Inc.


Source:  PTG web-page article


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Thus, dependent upon the intended use and your own very specific needs, one of the following considerations may also
apply:



The New Piano


-- New pianos simply demand more attentive tuning care, due to significant new string stretch - especially in the first year or possibly two.   Three to five tunings in the first year of a new piano's string life may not prove excessive or over zealous care - but, you will still prove to be the best judge of just how many tunings will serve to meet your piano's first year's expectations / needs.


Time-dependent 


-- The longer the piano has gone without a tuning, the more tuning care that may be required in order to restore your piano's tuning temperament and pitch stability.


Please Note:  Even the longer neglected piano will more often prove predictably resilient - almost always responding favorably to renewed interest in tuning care. 


The Student / Teacher / Professional


--  If you are a beginning to intermediate student, you should see to have your piano tuned at least once a year.  The advanced student:  At least every six months.


--  If you are an undergraduate level student of the piano, a minimum of 2 tunings per year may serve you well, budget permitting. 


--  A masters / doctoral student may determine to have their piano tuned a minimum of 3-4 times per year of study, with two tunings still being the minimum yearly recommendation.


--  If you are a piano teacher, you will most likely have your piano tuned at the start of each new teaching year.  Additionally, you may wish to have the piano tuned prior to your students' recital program.


Note:  A partial tuning, which serves to clean up non-complementary octaves and out of phase unisons may prove in some cases a satisfactory compromise to the more lengthy and costly full tuning procedure.   If the partial tuning service is recognized to be unsatisfactory upon completion of this limited service, the 1/2 hour fee will be fully credited to your next scheduled complete tuning.


--  The piano being used for a recording session should undergo a full tuning with possible additional full / partial tuning check(s) later in the day if your session goes long. 


--  In a live performance situation, ideally, a highly efficient (quick!) check of all unisons and any non-complementary octaves will be conducted during the anticipated 15-20 minute program intermission.


The Casual Use Piano


Having your piano tuned every two years may suffice for the casual user.  If after two years, the piano, however, has drifted more than 10-12 cents away from its originally established pitch reference, then a follow-up tuning may be recommended much sooner.

The Minimum "Maintenance" Tuning Schedule

This is an admitted compromise to what I have too often seen in the field:  The woefully neglected piano.  In other words, a few of my - albeit seldom witnessed - clients have taught me that a bare minimum "maintenance" tuning service is still better than no tuning service.

Hence, if no one is currently using your piano, please, appreciate that the piano still goes out of tune - mainly due to daily / seasonal humidity fluctuations throughout the year.  Little by little and year after year, the neglected piano inevitably drifts further away from its original A-440 reference pitch.

In order to justify / retain your original investment in the piano, please, consider having your currently housed but unused instrument tuned at a minimum of every three to five years.  Please, do not permit the piano to go beyond 5 years without some professional tuning care.

Assuming the piano will one day again enjoy increased playing, it will therefore likely require a smaller "pitch correction" tuning - than the completely neglected instrument - as preparatory service to any follow-up fine tuning consideration. 

The Just Moved Piano

If you just moved your piano to another location in the same room or even to another room in the house, unless you notice some obvious discordant sounds, allow for a 3-5 week acclimation process to occur if scheduling to have your piano checked / serviced.

If you just moved your piano from one home to another, whether in the same block, city, or state, allow a minimum of 4-5 weeks when scheduling to have your piano tuned. 

Of course, the one caveat to all of the above is:  if your piano was already badly out of tune prior to being moved, then you may wish to initiate the piano's preparatory tuning (i.e., pitch correction) as soon as convienent.  A follow-up second tuning would be scheduled about 4-5 weeks following the piano's move.

Note:  The 4-5 week rest period offers your piano the chance to substantially acclimate to both its new home and possibly its new regional / country environment. 

The Piano in Storage

Cover / insulate / buffer your instrument from the elements (
with quilts / soft blankets, etc.) if placed in storage.  Be prepared to have your piano tuned about 4-5 weeks after it has been taken out of storage and moved to its new location, unless determined to be badly out of tune - in which case a preparatory pitch correction may be considered immediately upon relocation.  


How do I tell Ivory from Plastic?


Ivory


A.  Ivory - like wood - reveals unique grain characteristics.   The grain may share similar characteristics to a finger print.  No two ivory tops share identical grain.


B.  Ivory will tend to yellow over time, returning to its natural state, prior to having been processed for the piano's keyboard.


C.  Ivory keytops come in two sections:  A Front and a Tail.


Plastic


A.  Plastic keytops - unless "simulated" (uncommon to see in the field) - offers a perfectly uniform, even, glossy surface, lacking any grain characteristics.  


B.  Plastic keytops manufactured today do not change color over time.  However, earlier plastic not only yellowed, but it would also become increasingly brittle over time.


C.  Plastic keytops come in one piece, manufactured to the generic shape of the key its intended to cover.    


Procedure


Examine carefully your piano's keyboard from a somewhat angled position (to reduce glare) and look for an ivory's grain.  At the same time observe whether there is a line (sometimes very fine, sometimes rather course and darkened, suggesting a less satisfactory repair) separating a keytop's ivory front from its complementary tail. 


If no natural, irregular grain is discerned - the keytop is not ivory.


Be aware that any manufactured attempt to simulate the ivory grain - in a plastic keytop - will invariably come across as artificial or "simulated".



When should I consider having my Piano Rebuilt?  


The better quality piano may enjoy a lifespan not so unlike our own.


A key difference between piano and man (and to a lesser extent, woman ...) is that a piano can literally be born again, enjoying a brand new second life in the hands of a highly skilled piano rebuilder / refinisher.  In fact, today's critically detail-oriented crafts-person, may possess the contemporary know-how and extensive experience to effectively remake the restored piano into one that is technically improved over the original, from new and improved string scaling, corrective action geometry, improved soundboard and bridge design, etc., etc..


Expert rebuilding / restoration is usually best reserved for the higher quality grand, exceptional heirloom, or especial antique instrument.   In defining a family heirloom, sentimental value may understandably trump all other cautionary considerations or reservations.


In measuring the long term value - both as an emotional and financial investment - to restoring the small grand or any vertical piano - i.e., spinet, console, studio, upright, caution and even consultation may be advised.


Please, Note:  The "Cabinet Grand" or "Upright Grand," described a turn of the century marketing scheme.  No upright during this period shared the prized characteristics of the more sophisticated, highly responsive grand action and expressive "una corda" and "sostenuto" pedal mechanisms.  The upright "grand" typically was the best vertical piano sold by a given manufacturer, offering a solid upright action, but in no way was it a "grand".


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If your larger upright or grand piano is approaching eighty to one-hundred years old, still has most of its original strings (any string breakage duly noted), tuning pins, hammers, dampers, key and action felts, etc., and additionally has been diagnosed with a serious to chronic case of "loose" tuning pins (10-15 inch pounds of torque constitutes a non-tunable pin), chronic action clicks, rattles, soundboard-bridge emitting buzzes, a number of missing keytops, and an equally distressed finish / case, etc., then, yes, it's time to consider rebuilding or replacing. 


Spinets and consoles typically suffer a shorter lifespan, closer to sixty years.


Why should I have my piano tuned to A-440 Concert Pitch?


1)  The modern era piano was designed and built to comfortably sustain the roughly 18 tons of string tension resulting from an average-sized upright or grand piano being tuned to A-440 concert pitch.


Maintaining a piano manufacturer's original tuning specifications assures minimal fluctuations in string tension, during a typical year of fluctuating temperature and humidity changes. 


The result of regular tuning care offers two tangible benefits to the owner: 


a)  increased tuning precision and stability.

b)  greater piano life expectancy.


2)  In order to play in an ensemble environment - i.e., play with other vocalist(s) or instrumentalist(s) - it is generally recommended to begin by tuning the piano to A=440hz (or C=523.3hz) concert pitch, and then have all other(s) tune directly off of a selected reference pitch from the piano.  Exceptions may be made, of course - most typically, perhaps, with the pre-pitched church organ - where the organ may be used to establish the piano's reference pitch.  


Tuning compatibility is the key operative herein; because, note for note mirroring of the organ and piano frequencies is simply not a viable optionOnce the organ's reference pitch is established onto the piano, the piano is tuned as normal.


3)  In order to play along with a prerecorded tape, CD, DVD, Blu-ray or other device, including televised programming which you might wish to accompany, your piano must be referenced to A-440 in order to offer mutual compatibility and pleasing results.  

What is meant by "RPT"?


A Registered Piano Technician (RPT) has passed a series of rigorous examinations on the maintenance, repair, and tuning of pianos.  Only RPTs are authorized by The Piano Technicians Guild to display the logo containing the words “Registered Piano Technician”.


Source:  What is a Registered Piano Technician (RPT)?


Please, refer to the PTG source link above for a critically detailed review of how to qualify as an RPT.


Annual PTG national and state chapter membership dues are required to remain in good standing.  Both National and Regional Conventions are held annually, providing individual tutoring, exam testing, and class instruction on a host of highly technical topics.


One need not be an RPT to qualify to provide professional service for your piano, but the Registered Piano Technician certification does provide an identifiable measure of reassurance of a piano technician's professional technical skill, commitment, and competence. 


Beyond this, there is still nothing like experience, continuing practice, and earnest perseverance to build upon one's initial recognition and qualification as an RPT.

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How should I clean Ivory or Plastic keytops?


What you will need:


-- A washcloth-sized terry type cloth  (no slick sheet linen) - for cleaning.

-- A cotton-soft handtowel-sized cloth - for buffing dry.

-- Access to preferably hot water

-- Low residue cleaner - like Windex - or mild dish / hand soap - for "squeaky clean" keytops


Note:  When cleaning ivory the procedure is the same as plastic.  While more porous than plastic, ivory is still resistant to moisture penetration, so long as water is not allowed to pool for a lengthy period on top of a key.  This is no concern, given the brief amount of time required to properly clean your keytops.


Procedure


Wash


1)  Soak your wash cloth under hot running water and then ring out.

2)  Spray a little Windex or work a little mild soap into your warm cleaning cloth.


note:  Do not spray directly onto the keyboard - as there is no way to manage the 'over spray'.


3)  Work the cloth over the entire surface of each key, being sure to work the in between all sharp (black) keys.  I tend to work from left to right, starting at the bottom (bass section) of the keyboard.


Part way through #3 above, observe whether your cleaning cloth has lost much of its warmth - if so repeat running the cloth under hot water, ringing out, and spraying with more cleaner or working a little more soap into the cloth and continue working up the keyboard, cleaning each key until satisfied.


Rinse


4)  Completely rinse out the cleaning cloth with more hot water and ring out.

5)  Wipe down all keys, repeat if necessary / desired.


Dry


6)  With your soft, dry second cloth, buff all keys to a "squeaky, clean" dry.


Clean keytops are almost as gratifying to the eye as they are pleasing to the touch.   


How do I tell if I own a Spinet - Console - Studio - Upright type of vertical piano?


The vertical piano's height is measured from the floor to the top of the lid.


1.  Spinet - 36 in. to 38 in.

2.  Consolette - 38 in. to 40 in.

3.  Console - 40 in. to 42 in.

4.  Studio - 43 in. to 47 in.

5   Upright - 48 in. to 60 in.


Notes:


The Drop Action


The typical 36 inch "spinet," was specifically designed for the Drop Action. 


The Drop Action may be identified by removing the entire front bottom panel (typically spring-latched) and observing whether there are descending wooden or metal rods - called "stickers" - linking the back of each key to its individual, corresponding action / hammer components.


The Direct Blow Action


b)  The "consolette" - like the console and studio - incorporates a Direct Blow action.  The consolette's unique difference, however, lies in its key design / shape.


The consolette's key is engineered so as to drop several inches down before returning to a level  position.  This drop in each key allows the Direct Blow action to sit lower within a consolette's lower cabinet design. 


c)  The key technical difference between a Console and a Studio piano is that the Studio action incorporates a full-sized Upright action, whereas the Console action is visibly "compressed" in design - all console action dimensions are engineered to be smaller in order to fit within a console's 40 to 42 inch cabinet design.

The Upright Action

d)  The 48 to 52 inch upright action typically incorporates a shorter 3 to 5 inch wired wooden dowel / capstan, ascending at the back end of each key, linking to a slightly elevated action design. 


e)  The 53 to 60 inch upright incorporates a set of ever longer, ascending wooden linkage - called stickers" - (almost the mirror opposite of the Spinet design) - which serves to extend the action placement to an even more lofty (elevated) position within the upright's case.  


Additionally,


--A spinet's music rack typically extends above the top lid by about 4 to 5 inches.

--A consolette's music rack may extend 2 to 3 inches above the top lid.
--A console's music rack may almost prove level or extend 1 to 2 inches above the top lid.
--A studio (and upright) piano usually replaces the music rack with a simpler, hinged music shelf / ledge.

How do I identify a Petite - Baby - Studio - Parlor - Small Concert - Concert Grand?


The Grand piano's length is determined by measuring above the strings in a straight line - from the front edge of the key strip (the long wooden rail, protecting the front edge of your keyboard) to the center of the rear edge of the grand's beautiful curvature.


The following is not exactly written in cast iron. 


Consensus on model identification among technicians remains a challenge.  So model identification may depend more upon a specific manufacturer's description.

 
1.  Petite / Small Grand - 4' 6" to 4' 11" - typically 4' 7".
2.  Baby Grand 5' to 5' 6" - typically 5' 2".
3.  Medium* / Studio / Living Room* - 5' 7" to 5' 10".

4.  Professional* / Drawing Room* / Conservatory / Parlor* - 6' to 6' 8".

5.  Music Room* / Ball Room* / Small Concert / Semi-Concert - 7' to 7' 8".

6.  Concert Grand -  8' 11" to 9' 8".

*Source: Types & Sizes of Grand Pianos


Notes: 


a)  The Petite Grand action and pedal system has generally been observed to be a more compromised (less costly) engineering design compared to the standard quality grand action, typically offering less sophisticated performance features.


b)  The higher quality Baby Grand action and pedal system favors standard grand action engineering, as well as the more expressive una corda and sostenuto pedal mechanisms found in the larger grands.

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