The lost art of piano tuning

Seth Winter
Feb 20, 2018 · 6 min read
Prepping a concert grand to tune

“So what do you do?”

Everyone gets that question, but the reaction to “I tune pianos” is nearly unanimous: “Oh no kidding! A piano tuner!” People are gobsmacked this is still a job. But they’re always curious about what I do, if I do it by ear, how I got into the field, etc. Many friends have suggested I write about the lost art of piano tuning. And there’s plenty to write about. In fact, there’s an untold 200 years of piano service, plus a glimpse into how the business looks now. I’ll do my best to share what I know about this unique — although household — profession.

What is a piano tuner?

In the industry, we refer to ourselves as “piano technicians.” We typically service many parts of a piano-not just tuning its strings to reach the preferred pitch. I myself tune pianos, rebuild, voice (lowering the volume of loud pianos), repair broken keys, move pianos, touch up cases and refinish the case. You’ve got a piano problem? We can probably solve it. We’re a jack-of-all-piano-trades.

Piano tuners are among the many professions that become overlooked because the career simply hasn’t been seen important enough to document. It becomes pedestrian and commonplace, not as exciting or unusual as say, a racing pit crew member. Or perhaps it’s because we tuners have never taken it upon ourselves to grant our industry the significance of a history.

The evolution of the piano itself dates to the simple harpsichords, which gave way to more robust, square pianos in the early 1800’s. It’s at this point that professional piano tuning became a career because the instrument had become too difficult for the amateur piano player to tune themselves. Three inventions caused this difficulty. Whereas harpsichords used one string per note, square pianos used three. Secondly, square pianos required players to bend over at the hip, which was uncomfortable and took much longer to tune. Finally, the “equal temperament scale” for tuning was introduced, which greatly improved the sound of pianos but tuning in this manner was much more difficult than the prior scale, called “mean tone tuning.” Not unlike the modern vehicle, new pianos became more difficult and more precise to tune. And what aristocrat would want to deal with that backache?

Square piano from an 1884 catalogue (via Wikimedia Commons)

Piano ownership and popularity exploded between 1837 to 1913. The pianoforte was the instrument of choice for entertaining kings. Cultured women were expected to play as part of their education and marriage eligibility. Technical developments appealed to the general population. The piano was considered the “household orchestra” of the people. To this day, no other musical instruments possess so many claims of consequence as the piano.

The boom decade of 1860 produced 100,000 pianos per year in London. Piano companies were popping up all over Europe and the United States. Growth of the piano from its beginnings in the late 1700’s was unprecedented. People loved this instrument. But then again, pianos weren’t competing with Netflix, iPhones or video games. They were novel.

The Great War changed the world, and pianos, forever. Increased newspaper distribution, radio and television viewership and proliferation of the automobile decreased society’s attention on the piano. Piano tuners rode this wave of decline, too. Today, the average piano tuner is 55 years old and it’s well known within piano service circles that fewer people are getting into the business. In fact, there are only two piano technology schools in the U.S. and about 8,000 tuners left to service the remaining pianos.

My brother and I working on a piano as young kids.

Most piano tuners learn the art by apprenticing under a master craftsman. This was precisely the method for my training. My father was the master craftsman from whom I learned and in turn, he learned from my great uncle who was also — you guessed it — a master craftsman. It takes a newbie about 100 tunings to be skilled enough to charge for their work. And with the roughly 12,000 working parts contained within a piano, there’s a lot to know before you can repair or service the instrument. Learning how to fix the wide variety of problems that pianos can have takes time. A lot of time, in fact: most apprenticeships last five years. Many of these professionals commit to lifelong learning as an art form in order to create a beautiful sound. Their education is never truly mastered. I did mention it includes 12,000 parts.

In the 22 years I’ve been tuning and repairing pianos, I’ve seen a wide variety of problems a piano tuner can face. I’ve also seen a wide variety of piano people. In some of the most affluent homes in Indianapolis, I check my driver’s license at security and am “babysat” (my word) by security for 1.5 hours as I tune. A customer once asked me to tune his accordion. (Side note: I don’t tune accordions.) Mostly, I deal with slobbery dogs, cats that shed on pianos and toddlers who bang on the keys I attempt to tune. I have two cats and a rambunctious two-year-old son - I get it! There’s no part of my life not covered in graham crackers, either. Truly, my customers are wonderful, and I’m honored that they invite me into their homes to help improve their music.

My day is typical of a personal service professional: The day before, I’ll confirm my three appointments and the directions. I’ll ask if any keys aren’t working because this clues me into a need to take additional tools, parts or supplies. The tuning day is full of traffic, fast food, coffee from customers, playing with the family dog and chatting with my clients. One thing I particularly love about this business is the fact that people get their pianos tuned every six months. (Fun fact: the change in weather affects the wood and string of a piano so it’s best to get it tuned each half year.) Over time, my customers and I become friends. I get to see their children grow up, witness the changes in their lives, different homes and careers. It’s a real blessing to tune pianos and a fulfilling reason for me to connect with others.

The 200-year life of a piano thus far is not really that long in terms of human history. And with so much competition for our entertainment, I expect piano playing will continue to decline and eventually, the lost art of piano tuning will truly be lost. I’m grateful you’ve spent the last few minutes learning about the rarely told history of piano tuners. I hope it serves you well. Like on trivia night.

For more information on piano tuning contact Seth Winter at
(317) 363–1931 or visit www.sethwinterpianotuningrepair.squarespace.com

Seth Winter

Written by

3rd generation piano technician who loves my customers. husband and father, go-kart racer and downhill skier.