The most common thing piano technicians are asked to do it tune a customer’s piano, but would you believe that in many cases, a very good tuning the piano can still leave it sounding or playing terribly? This is because a tuning adjusts only the 230 strings in the piano, and doesn’t attend to the piano’s other 11,000 parts. To help simplify this, we generally think in terms of three broad categories: touch, tone and tune.
Touch deals with the condition of the keys, hammers, dampers, whippens, and how well-adjusted they are–or aren’t. When these components are finely adjusted to factory spec, the touch of the piano is sensitive, responsive, and delightful. When these parts go out of adjustment, either from use, neglect or the passage of time, the touch becomes uneven, erratic and frustrating to play, with each key having a different feel and response than the keys around it. To correct this the piano technician performs adjustments collectively referred to as “regulating”, or “doing a regulation”. With the regulation complete, the touch is once again even and responsive, and you feel like the piano is working with you, rather than resisting or fighting against you.
Tone deals with the quality of sound the piano produces, and is influenced by the condition of the hammers, strings, soundboard and bridges. That’s a lot of things that can affect the tone. When the tone has not been adjusted regularly, the sound of the piano can be harsh, strident and uneven. We also observe that it lacks sustain, clarity, and does not “bloom”. On the other hand, when the technician carefully adjusts all the parts of the piano affecting tone, the piano’s sound becomes clear, full, warm, round and singing. It’s hard to impossible to make music sound beautiful if the tone is poor; the piano just doesn’t sing the way it was designed to. It’s like wine gone bad: sure, its a liquid, but it neither tastes good nor satisfies thirst. On the other hand, beautiful tone makes any song sound beautiful. Beautiful tone wraps itself around you like a silk scarf or like beautiful perfume, filling the air around you and your senses with delight.
That leaves tuning. When the touch has been brought to its best condition and the tone has been carefully coaxed to it’s fullest potential, then the piano can finally be tuned and it will actually sound wonderful. If the tone and touch are poor, however, no amount of expert tuning will make the piano sound beautiful, or be truly pleasing to play.
To sum up, a good technician always pays careful attention to the tone and touch first, discussing with the customer if any aspects of those are less than optimal, and only then thinks about tuning. When the touch and tone are at their best, then and only then will the tuning make the piano sound lovely. A piano with tone and touch that need improving will not sound beautiful just because it has been tuned.