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2012 July

Archive for July, 2012

A Piano that Tunes Itself? Now What am I Going to Do?

I read an interesting article in Popular Science today about an invention that is due to come on the market soon. It is not a new invention; in fact, it began development back in 1993. The invention is an acoustic piano that tunes itself. That’s right, soon the job of a piano tuner will be going by the way of a typewriter repairman or a keypunch operator.

Well, not so fast. I am not contemplating changing careers just yet. First, I am not here to say anything negative about this invention. I actually am very intrigued by the idea. Being a tuner for over 35 years, I know exactly what is involved in the tuning of an acoustic piano. It is not easy to do, and much harder to learn how to do.

When tuning a piano, the tuning pins are turned very slightly to bring the string to proper pitch. Accomplishing this is hard enough, but then the tuner must set the pins in place so there is no torque on them, as they will simply jump out of tune after a few minutes. Finally, the tension on the strings must be equalized in order for the tuning to hold. Knowing this, I think it would be impossible to develop a mechanical device that would be able to accomplish all of this and be reliable.

Instead of building a machine that turns the tuning pins, this apparatus changes the tension on the strings by heating them up, using the process of running an electric current through them. Infrared sensors measure the string’s frequency and apply the appropriate amount of heat to change the pitch. If you want to tune the piano, simply push a button and each string heats up to the proper tension for it to be at the correct pitch. You must keep the device on while you are playing the piano, as turning it off causes the strings to return to the pitch they were originally at.

The automatic tuner has some serious limitations, however. It cannot increase the tension on the strings-it can only decrease it. Heating the strings causes the metal to expand and therefore relaxes the tension. This causes the strings to go flat. In order to increase the tension, the strings would have to be cooled, and there are no provisions for this. In 80% of the pianos I tune, the strings are flat from pitch and the tension needs to be increased. The only way this automatic tuner would work is if the piano was sharp from pitch, and the pitch would be decreased by heating up the strings. The problem with that is if you bring many of today’s pianos sharp from standard pitch to facilitate the use of this device, you run the risk of breaking many strings. In addition, the automatic tuner would sell for about $1000.00. With my prices today that would buy eleven annual tunings. In other words it would take eleven years to pay for itself.

If a piano is properly tuned and serviced, it should require no more than a tuning every six months, minimum one year. Keeping the climate in your home as constant as possible will ensure your piano will hold a tune, providing it was tuned properly to begin with.

Still, the idea is very interesting to me. I applaud Don Gilmore for developing this technology, and I think it might find some use in a few  pianos. I also think the technology might be applied to any acoustic instrument that requires tuning by shortening or lengthening the speaking portion of the instrument.

Applying modern technology to acoustic instruments is not something every inventor is working on, and those who do are true pioneers.