How piano tuning can change your brain structure

I came across this interesting article from 2012 today that I thought I'd share.  The article is about a specific study that found significant differences in the areas of the brain related to memory and navigation when comparing piano tuners to control subjects.

http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/1208/29082012-Tuning-the-brain-piano-tuning-changes-brain-structure-Teki


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Broken Strings Cause More Trouble Than You Might Think.

There are a lot of heavy-handed pianists out there who seem to have a misconception about the ease of replacing broken piano strings.  Replacing a broken string is not a "fix it and forget about it" kind of problem.

There are two types of strings in a piano: wound strings and plain (straight gauge) strings.  Wound strings are found in the bass section and are composed of a steel core running the length of the string, and a copper winding that is wrapped around the core.  Plain strings are found everywhere else in the piano and are simply a steel wire of an exact, consistent diameter throughout its length.

When it comes to replacing a broken string in a piano, the procedure is fairly simple.  The problems arise after the string has been replaced.  Piano strings, whether wound or plain, will stretch over time due to the large amount of tension that they are placed under.  This has the effect of very slightly lengthening the string, which causes the tension to drop slightly as well.  Since the pitch produced by a string is affected by its mass, length, and tension, any changes in these properties will cause a change in pitch.

After a manufacturer has finished building a new piano, they will tune it a half a dozen times or more to ensure they get as much stretch out of the strings as possible.  Without this, the tuning of the piano would be very unstable and the pitch of all of the strings would drop very quickly as they stretched.

The problem here lies in the fact that most piano tuners aren't going to want to tune your piano six times over the course of a few days.  So, when a string breaks in your piano, it will be replaced and freshly tuned, but that new string will go out of tune much faster than the rest of your piano.  The best way to deal with this is to mute any new strings until they have been tuned enough times to become stable.  On a typical home piano, it can take years before the strings have fully stretched out and stabilized.  Muting the string ensures that it won't be audible as it goes out of tune.  However, this comes with the trade-off of slightly lower volume in the bichord and trichord sections of the piano.

In the low bass, where each note is only comprised of a single string, the pianist must simply deal with the string going quickly out of tune, as a mute would deaden the note completely.

In addition to this, missing strings can wreak havoc on action parts inside the piano.  hammers will wear unevenly, bushings in the hammer flanges will get torn up, and grand hammers can get wedged against their dampers.

Basically, take it easy on your piano and you won't have to deal with the long-lasting effects of string replacement.


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How Do Changes in Temperature Affect a Tuning?

It is a widely accepted fact in the piano world that changes in temperature can drastically affect the pitch of strings in a piano.  However, I've never seen a real demonstration of how quickly pitch can change due to a small temperature shift.  

I recently came across this short video by Christopher LaBarre that does an excellent job demonstrating the effect of temperature on string pitch.  With only a few quick passes of felt along a piano string, Christopher builds up enough heat in the string to drop the pitch by around 5 Hertz (heating the string causes it to expand, resulting in lower tension relative to the unheated string).

For those of you who are interested in seeing the calculations behind the relationship between temperature and string tension/pitch, take a look at this thread on PhysicsForums.com.

Big thanks to C.J.'s Pianos and Christopher LaBarre for putting together this great video.


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A440 vs A432

Over the centuries, the tones that comprise western music have fluctuated wildly. For a long time, there was a lack of any international standard for musicians to tune their instruments to. This meant that every orchestra would tune to a different pitch than every other. An orchestra playing a Mozart piece in Vienna would sound significantly different than an orchestra playing the same piece in New York. Since the 18th century, the keystone of western music has been the note A above middle C, also known as A4. This was the reference note that every instrument in an orchestra would tune their instruments to. The interesting part is that this single note could vary wildly (from 380 hertz to 500 hertz) depending on where in the world the orchestra was. Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven likely composed with an A4 pitch between 420 and 430. Some Italian and French orchestras commonly tuned to a pitch of 450 or higher. If you are unfamiliar with the sounds produced by these frequencies, you can plug them into onlinetonegenerator.com to hear the differences.

In 1953, the International Organization for Standardization set out to create a standard pitch for western music. This standard would allow for musicians worldwide to play the same music at the same pitch. The standard pitch set by the ISO was 440 hertz for the key A4. Though not universally accepted, this standard is by far the most common pitch in use today.

There are many people around the world who oppose the assignment of 440 hz as the standard concert pitch. One alternate tuning that has gained a significant following is 432 hz. A Google search of this frequency will provide hundreds of thousands of links to various websites touting the perceived superiority of 432 hz. Many people have an almost religious addiction to this idea, using words such as “mathematically consistent with the patterns of the universe” and claiming that 432 “will support humanity on its way towards spiritual freedom”, as well as spreading ideas of a Nazi conspiracy to use a 440 hz standard to make humans more aggressive and violent.

A typical image from a pro-432 hz website.  This apparently shows the shapes formed when water crystallizes while certain music is played or words are spoken.

A typical image from a pro-432 hz website.  This apparently shows the shapes formed when water crystallizes while certain music is played or words are spoken.

One of the most vocal proponents of 432 hz is Brian Collins, who runs the website omega432.com. In order to witness the power of 432 hz, Collins recommends purchasing several frequencies of tuning forks (including a 432), striking them, inserting them into separate glasses of water, and then tasting the water in each glass. This will obviously somehow exhibit the superiority of 432 hz.

Omega432.com also contains plenty of nonsensical babble such as

Saturn completes one precessional Great Year of 25,920 years every 864 of its “years,” a half cycle every 432 of its “years,” a quarter cycle every 216 of its “years,” and an eighth of a cycle every 108 of its “years.” This equals (108 x 30) 3240 years, or 45 degrees of precessional arc. We can continue counting in Saturn years down to 9, one 96th of the precessional year, or 3.75 degrees of arc and 270 earth years, which brings us to the alignment period of the galactic meridian and the zenith/nadir axis.

What all of this number manipulation fails to mention is that the measurement of hertz is a ratio of cycles per second, and that a second is “a measurement of time that correlates with the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium 133 atom.” Now if that isn't the shiniest, most spiritual thing you've ever heard, I don't know what is.

Another supporter of 432 hz tuning was Rudolph Steiner, the Austrian philosopher responsible for the teachings behind Waldorf Education. Steiner had many strange ideas about music, not the least of which was that the piano was the worst possible instrument for a child to learn. Additionally, he stated

[...] musical instruments are derived from the spiritual world; the piano, however, in which the tones are abstractly lined up next to each other, is created in the physical world by man. [...] A piano is like the Philistine who no longer contains within him the higher human being. The piano is the Philistine instrument. It is fortunate that there is such an instrument, or else the Philistine would have no music at all. [...] Naturally, the piano is a beneficial instrument [...] but it is the one instrument that actually, in a musical sense, must be overcome. Man must get away from the impressions of the piano if he wishes to experience the actual musical element.

Plenty of “experiments” proving the value of 432 hz can be found online. One particularly popular one shows sound frequencies being used to produce patterns in sand on a large steel plate. What they fail to point out is that the “scientist” sabotages the 440 hz measurement by loosening the wingnut in the center of the plate to produce a less pleasing result. 

There are also plenty of instances to be found of 432ers taking the words of French and Italian vocalists out of context and using them for their own purposes. Many of theses famous vocalists have said that higher pitches add additional strain to their vocal chords and contribute to the early demise of their careers. However, what 432ers fail to mention is that these vocalists are usually talking about orchestras that tuned to 450 hz, 460, or even higher. These vocalists were generally not clamoring against 440. The 8 hz difference between 440 and 432 is hardly enough to ruin anyones vocal chords. The difference between these two frequencies can be heard at onlinetonegenerator.com.

I have also read claims that the extra tension required in tuning string instruments to 440 results in “additional strain of tension” and can cause warping and breakage. This claim is equally inane, as modern instruments are built with the purpose of handling the tension of a 440 tuning. In instruments produced before 440 was an accepted standard, this may be a legitimate concern. Of course, these antique instruments should be tuned to whatever pitch they were intended for.

All of these points aside, I have no problem with the fans of 432 hz tuning who simply claim that they enjoy listening to music that uses that pitch instead of 440. That reason is fine, just please cut out the faux science already.

For further reading, I recommend this article from Vice.


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Tuning in the Modern Age

A common tuning fork

A common tuning fork

Historically, pianos have always been "tuned by ear."  This means that a single reference pitch is tuned to an outside source, then the entire rest of the piano is tuned from that pitch using specific predetermined intervals with known desired outcomes.  In common terms, a piano tuner knows that if an A note has already been tuned to an outside reference, the next higher E (an interval known as a "fifth") needs to be tuned so that only a slow rolling beat can be heard when the A and E are played together.  When this rolling beat has been achieved, the tuner can move on to the next interval, whether it be another fifth, or any other interval with a known desired outcome.

Tuning technology has become more and more sophisticated in the past 300 years.  The first great leap forward was the creation of the first tuning fork in 1711.  Prior to the tuning fork, pitch pipes were used by singers to produce a reference pitch before starting to sing in a specific key.  Although they were adequate for vocal purposes, these pitch pipes had many undesirable characteristics for use in piano tuning.  The brass reeds in them were subject to varying temperatures, humidity levels, and air pressure which caused significant inconsistencies in the tones produced by the single pipe.  The tuning fork solved all of these problems by providing tuners a means to produce a consistently accurate pitch that was practically unaffected by temperature or humidity.  In fact, these tuning forks were so precise that they later became key components in quartz clocks and watches.

Korg OT-120 ETD

Korg OT-120 ETD

Today, in the modern age of piano-technology,  it has become commonplace to encounter successful piano tuners who don't carry a tuning fork with them.  The reason for this is the development and refinement of Electronic Tuning Devices (ETDs). ETDs have been around for a long time (about 80 years!). Historically, they have been very bulky and inconvenient to use in field work, not to mention expensive.  These days, simple electronic tuners are extremely common in the form of small battery powered units used mainly by guitarists, violinists, and players of other string instruments.  When it comes to pianos, however, these units are completely inadequate.  Many guitar tuners only provide a reference for the 6 pitches that comprise the "open strings" of the instrument. Even more sophisticated orchestral tuners are all but useless for range of pitches encompassed by an 88-note piano.   This is due to the fact that these tuners do not account for the inharmonicity present in the strings of a piano.  If you are not familiar with this phenomenon, take a peek at my previous blog post.

The first benchmark in electronic tuning was the development of the "strobe tuner" which was made famous by Peterson Strobe Tuners in 1967.  These tuners provided remarkable accuracy and allowed for extremely minute adjustments of pitch.

An early Peterson Strobe Tuner

An early Peterson Strobe Tuner

Sanderson Accu-Tuner I

Sanderson Accu-Tuner I

Not far behind in production were ETDs made using quartz oscillators, made famous by companies like Korg.  These tuners are very useful for tuning string instruments and come in many different styles with different types of displays.

The first truly sophisticated ETD was the Accu-Tuner produced by Inventronics.  It was produced in the 1980's and was fairly bulky by today's standards, but it was the first device to measure levels of inharmonicity and to be able to compensate by offsetting the desired pitches by appropriate amounts. Following the Accu-Tuner were several other advanced tuning systems such as the Cyber-Tuner and the Verituner.

The main page of TuneLab showing the Phase Bar and frequency graph

The main page of TuneLab showing the Phase Bar and frequency graph

Today, these bulky machines have been widely replaced by software products like TuneLab.  This program can be installed on any computer or mobile device and will use a device's built in microphone to provide visual feedback during tuning.  A "Phase Bar" as well as a frequency graph are displayed to give the tuner multiple ways to view the same information.  Tunelab can also be used to record "test notes" along the length of the keyboard, calculate an instrument's inharmonicity, and produce "tuning curves" that the tuner can manually customize to produce any desired result.  Also available is an "Overpull Mode" that calculates the amount that each string must be raised over the target pitch during a pitch raise in order to be left with an approximately in-tune piano after the pitch raise is finished.  Limits are set into the mode to prevent any strings from being raised sharp enough to break.  Using the frequency graph, a successful pitch raise can be performed without having to mute a single string!  At first, I was quite skeptical about the program's ability to use a smartphone's microphone to produce satisfactory results, but I can say that it is quite remarkable how consistently accurate it is.

TuneLab's Overpull Mode settings

TuneLab's Overpull Mode settings

TuneLab can be downloaded here and can be used in trial mode for free.


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