Electronic Tuning Devices: Do we really need them and why?

Why do so many tuners today use electronic devices? Years ago no one needed those things. How necessary is that and is my tuning being compromised in any way? These are good questions and hopefully this brief article can clear up some confusion. Unfortunately, there usually isn’t time available for a long explanation while working on a piano in someone’s home so hopefully this brief article will help answer questions. We all know technology has filtered into almost every occupation today, and gradually we are becoming more comfortable with that. One thing however has not changed. ETD’s are no substitute for experienced aural skills. Let’s make that clear right off.

Most experienced tuners today learned their trade long before these devices became available, yet we still find them useful. There are several reasons for that. One of the most basic advantages of using an electronic device is that computers listen in a very different way then our ears do. This can be a disadvantage for tuners without good aural skills, but when properly edited another interesting perception of harmonics is revealed. This is easily proved with a small group of tuners working on the same piano as while doing a Master Tuning for the PTG exam. Especially while working in the extreme ranges we may all agree that one pitch sounds just right and everyone agrees, then we may find our software suggests the pitch ought to be moved up or down by a slight amount. We do that, and everyone agrees it sounds better. Fine, no big deal, but the opposite happens just as often. The program may suggest something is perfect, but it is not, and after that adjustment the computer reading didn’t change- or maybe it will. The software is only a template, a tool, that helps us get things close quickly. I’ve often made a comparison to computers and writing skills. Computers will not make someone a better writer, but it can make life easier for people who do a lot of writing. The same is true with ETD’s and tuning pianos.

Another great feature of ETD’s is the pitch raising function. When a piano is extremely flat or sharp it’s actually better for the instrument if pitch is roughly pulled back first starting from note #1 at the bottom of the piano. If only tuning aurally in the old fashioned way, this method is impossible. The software has become rather complicated and is able to calculate an exact over pull amount based on readings of the current pitch. This is a great time saving feature that enhances stability without compromise of any kind. I was trained to tune unisons going up the treble starting with the left string, then tune center and right as unisons, and move on. The problem with that method is that as we change pitch going up the scale the bridge also moves. That first left string has frequently moved by the time we finish tuning the second unison, so time is wasted tuning the right string solid to the others if it must be redone later. If the mistake is small it might not even be caught. With my ETD I have a record what has already been aurally decided for a particular piano so can tell immediately if a pitch changes while tuning these unisons up the scale. In this way tuning becomes more accurate, faster.

Probably my favorite feature of the Reyburn CyberTuner is that I can customize user temperaments and create accurate digital records of my own best aural work for any particular piano that I frequently tune. This is an amazing feature that requires sophisticated software and allows for more consistent, excellent results with no compromise in quality. I have hundreds of such tuning files recorded for the important pianos that I frequently see. These digital records and user custom user temperaments also allow professional technicians to share exactly what they are doing with other interested technicians or musicians. This process is referred to in my adjacent article on Victorian Temperament, where I provide user temperament offset numbers.

In summary, ETD’s and computers in general are here to stay and have many advantages to offer, but ultimately they are no more than a tool. Like any tool, some skill and mastery of the method is necessary for optimal results. One of the first things every beginning tuner learns is that deciding the exact “in tune” place for a particular pitch, flat or sharp to within tenths of a cent, is not the most difficult part of tuning a piano. By far, the most difficult skill required to solidly and accurately tune pianos is the hammer technique necessary to manipulate the tuning pin and wire. This skill takes years of practice and hundreds of pianos to master.
ETD’s can be a useful tool for beginners to demonstrate instable techniques, but unfortunately they too often become a crutch, which impedes the development of aural skills. That is another subject, but ultimately one of the reasons experienced tuners like ETD’s so much is because it allows us to conserve some of our brain energy for the most difficult aspects of tuning. This leads to less stress and fatigue overall at the end of the day. That’s really all we look for in a great tool.

Dennis Johnson, R.P.T. 2018

Victorian Temperament: What it is and why you should care

“Tuners are governed by instinct principally, and are necessarily emotional. They cannot be relied upon to tune at all times with equal results, for much depends upon mood. The most expert and rapid tuners are men possessed of a highly excitable, nervous and emotional temperament, verging on the border of insanity at times.” – Daniel Spillane, 1893.

The above quote should prove apparent that the process, expectations and perceptions of piano tuning has changed significantly over the past 100 years.  This is not to make a judgment good or bad, but there is no question our scientific approach to tuning has evolved, along with the new music written for the instrument. The purpose of this article is not to outline that development but rather offer an explanation of the contrast, as we look back, and see what this means for the music. If the piano music you play was primarily written before 1910, then this is very relevant and will open a colorful new window of music expression- that has been lost over time.  The transformation to equal temperament was gradual indeed, but the first published instructions in English for a correct aural equal temperament method was not published until 1917 by William Braid White in his “Modern Piano Tuning and Allied Arts”.  The mathematical understanding of ET is very old and there are plenty of examples throughout western history where it is referenced, but understanding is one thing, having the acoustical knowledge necessary to aurally produce it with inharmonic fixed strings is quite another.  Please note the page of requested readings for greater detail regarding that interesting history.

In a nutshell, our history of temperament over the past 600 years has been a gradual process of change from a highly restrictive style where ¾ of the keys sounded nearly perfect, the others being mostly unplayable, through systems where less keys were unplayable, to where all keys were playable but with different color, and finally today where all keys sound the same being equally out of tune. Much acoustic beauty has been compromised in this process but if one never knows what they are missing, does it matter? I believe it does, and the answer ultimately lies in the music.

The temperament style commonly in practice during the 19th Century, particularly the later half, we now call Victorian Temperament. This is a subtle, non-restrictive tuning style that preserves the similar philosophy of key color as earlier methods, but designed to fit the modern piano.  Each tonality, major and minor, has its own unique characteristics and much has been written about these characteristics. If one listens carefully while playing these characteristics are apparent and it will impact your playing technique and appreciation of the music written for it. For those who don’t listen carefully, the color is subtle enough that all this will go unnoticed- good or bad.

There has also been much written and discussed about how composers used this language of key color in their compositional styles. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, etc…. choose specific key colors for specific works and they used appropriately different compositional styles. When Chopin writes in C major he uses large block chords, and lingering harmonies (Nocturne opus 48 Nr. 1 in c min). While using the darker keys he was so found of tenths are rarely used on a prominent beat, but the shimmering background they produce is effective and beautiful (Opus 15 Nr.2 in B major).  Another favorite example is Liszt’s popular Notturno 111 in Ab. Compare how his style and mood abruptly shifts during the brief middle section in B maj. There isn’t space in this article to bring more examples to light but if interested I encourage you review the list of suggested readings that follow. The examples are countless, and consistent. No one writes in C, F or G major in the same style as B, F# or Db.  A great deal has already been written about key color in Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, and easily accessible in print.

For tuners, I make available publically my own Victorian Temperament formulas, which have been honed and perfected in over 25 years of regular use. I call these Temperaments the 1/7 syntonic comma (s.c.) Victorian Temperament, and the 1/8 s.c. Victorian Temperament. Admittedly, they are difficult tunings to do aurally and require a good sense of aesthetic judgment. Fortunately, with use of User Temperaments in Cybertuner a custom template for any piano can be easily calculated and stored.  This formula was most recently presented at the PTG National Convention in Lancaster, PA. in July 2018.  I wish to note there are other Victorian temperaments available also, most notably Bill Bremmer’s Equal Beating Victorian Temperament.  The EBVT may be easier to tune aurally, but the emphasis of this temperament is a more accurate balance between sharps and flats as was first theorized by Thomas Young in 1799, only tailored to more comfortably fit the scales of our modern pianos.

I present 2 styles here, and you will notice some pitches are altered hardly at all, others only slightly, and a few notes a little more. The note F has the greatest change from ET.  The first temperament I call 1/7 syntonic comma Victorian (1/7 s.c. V.T.)   The other is a 1/8 s.c. V.T.  Use the 1/7 on any piano smaller than a 6 foot grand.  Use the 1/8 s.c on any piano, but it is especially designed for large grand pianos, like the Steinway B, M&H BB or Steinway D.  It can also be used on a 6 foot grand if a more subtle key color contract is desired for any reason.  I take full responsibly for the accuracy of these calculations and offer them freely, asking only that you respect that and not try to claim them as your own.  Note the offsets below, and best of luck. I encourage professional tuners to experiment with these temperaments and enthuastically welcome your feedback.

1/7 s.c. V.T.

A    0.00

A#  3.72

B   -1.72

C    3.33

C#  0.21

D    1.11

D#  1.76

E   -1.11

F    4.44

F# -1.00

G    2.22

G#  1.11

A    0.00

1/8 s.c. V.T.

A    0.00

A#  2.46

B   -1.47

C    2.19

C#  0.00

D    0.73

D#  1.00

E   -0.73

F    2.92

F# -1.00

G   1.45

G#  0.73

A   0.00

Dennis Johnson, R.P.T.