I have been reading much talk online about the benefits of A442 (European pitch – the standard Orchestras tune to on continental Europe in the present day) verses A440 ( concert pitch in the UK and the USA since the early twentieth century). The difference between the two is seven cents, which is so minute that the majority of people would not be able to hear the different in weight and timbre between the two (although they certainly would be able to hear that a piano tuned to A442 is out of tune with other instruments at A440 if played together). There are some musicians who genuinely prefer the added brightness that A442 can bring to a piano and on rare occasion I might opt for A442 if this is a quality that the customer is searching for. The other reason I might choose A442 is if the piano is already sharp or has been tuned that way by a previous piano tuner, I might in the interest of tuning stability, choose to tune the piano at A442 again. It’s not something I would like to do and I’d always discuss it with the customer before the tuning – my attitude as a piano tuner is that since equal temperament and A440 have been the default for nearly all modern music since the early twentieth century, one shouldn’t deviate from that without good reason.
Although rarely asked, I offer unequal temperament piano tunings for discerning Sheffield and Yorkshire piano tuning customers, if discussed prior to the piano tuning. When arriving at a piano tuning job, the default tuning system and pitch standard I choose would be equal temperament at A440 (which lines up with the majority of recorded music). This satisfies the vast majority of clients.
To those unfamiliar with the different tuning systems in music, Equal temperament is the standard tuning system of the current western world, and it involves dividing an octave into twelve equal parts, resulting in slightly imperfect fourth and fifth intervals and faster-beating major and minor thirds compared to earlier systems. Intervals are tempered in a way that makes all music equally “right” (or “wrong” depending on how you look at it) in all keys, hence the name equal temperament. It is in no way agreed upon that this is the best or the most musically-pleasing way to tune an instrument, only the most balanced across key signatures. Whatever gains are made in chords and keys being well-balanced, the unique and colorful characteristics of each key become lost in the trade off.
There are other reasons to request a non-equal temperament – If a customer is interested in medieval, renaissance or early baroque music for example, he or she may ask for an unequal temperament and an alternative pitch standard to compliment their repertoire. If that’s the case I’d also suggest a lower pitch standard than A440 – A415 tends to evoke the spirit of Bach more than anything else, but there’s something magical about A432 (the fundamental frequency of the universe, after all). For someone playing Bach and Handel, or earlier music, Wreckmeister III or Vallotti-Young are alternatives that give each key its natural color.
I also offer a wide variety of Pythagorean and Meantone temperaments for the open-minded customer. Please be aware that while such a job will yield exciting results, it will take me longer than usual due to Equal Temperament being so deeply ingrained in my psyche (tuning 3-4 pianos a day this way for 12 years, it becomes a force of habit). When tuning in an unequal temperament I have to be even more thorough with my checks to ensure the very greatest accuracy.
What separates a merely “good” piano tuning from a first class piano tuning service? From my ten years in the Sheffield piano tuning trade it comes down to several key factors that all require a lot of attention and diligence. The three factors are:
- Equal temperament – the tuning of intervals in accordance with the equal tempered scale. Using the high-end piano tuning software Tunelab plus my own aural checks of the beat frequency of intervals (fifths, fourths, octaves, major and minor thirds against their related sixths) I can achieve a first class equal tempered scale across the whole piano.
- Unisons – Eradicating the pulsing/beating from each note by fine tuning each string. This is one of my strongest areas as a piano tuner and its a good skill to be proficient in. A piano tuner who is strongly skilled at tuning unisons will achieve the purest tone from the piano, giving it the concert hall sound rather than a simply satisfactory sound.
- Stability – great piano tuning hammer technique and patience are the biggest factors in piano tuning stability. Achieving great stability is the reason a piano tuning can be so time consuming, taking up to ninety minutes or more to complete. The piano tuner must be certain that he or she leaves your home with the piano sounding great for another six months and that each note is securely in tune so that no call backs occur. Every piano tuner has their own way of setting the wrest pins that they achieve maximum stability – the position of hammer, tuning sharp then flat, moving the pin deep inside the wrest plank; all those are factors to consider. I have found best stability occurs when one hits the keys hard while moving the pin in tiny increments.
There are many other factors to consider, but a piano tuner who has taken care to become skilled in those three areas will have gone above and beyond the average. Being skilled is one thing, but being diligent on each every job (the right attitude to have) is equally important. The goal must be to ensure that every piano is brought to its very best.