What We Do In There

Within the wooden confines of a piano, a mystery resides. Hundreds upon hundreds of years of human tinkering twined with an unstoppable streak of mad inspiration have brought us this magnificent and enduring instrument. Although newer technology has ostensibly relegated it to the “old world”, its elegance, its sheer melancholic expressiveness met with weight and solidity, have yet to be surpassed.

And yet more subtly,  the piano embodies a formidable compromise inherent within our musical system. The physics of soundwaves demand that, in order to be playable in twelve different keys, the simplicity of “pure” harmonic intervals must be sacrificed, and the attendant “shadow” of dissonance distributed evenly among the notes. Like a carpet slightly too large for the room it’s in, the tuner’s challenge is to try to spread that one wrinkle evenly across the floor.

The art of piano tuning developed around this line of thinking for years, until with the onslaught of the digital age, people discovered something that further complicates the puzzle: the overtones (higher notes that sound along with the main note) of strings are slightly out of tune with the fundamental (main note) itself! And not to a fixed degree – the inharmonicity of strings, as this phenomenon is called, varies from piano to piano and from string to string within each. So no wonder tuning is considered an art! Each style, and to some extent each individual piano, represents a unique problem with a unique set of solutions.

And yet, as someone who’s spent most of his youth and adult life working on his ear, I can think of no challenge more satisfying to pursue than the beauty of a well-tuned piano, than the hundreds of individual decisions that lead to the overall harmonic character of the instrument. Formidable as the task is, I am not stymied. For although it’ll never be perfect, it can always get better.

I am a piano tuner and associate member of the Piano Technicians’ Guild. While tuning is my primary focus, I also work on voicing, regulation, and minor repairs.