In Tune with Woodworking
By Glen Hart
I have been in professional piano repair and tuning for more than 30 years. My father taught me how to tune by ear. That’s “old-school” style.
The piano is an imperfect instrument. When a note is played, a series of imperfect harmonics are produced in the string. In the tuning process the ear and brain immediately calculate how much to “temper” each note so it is acceptable with other imperfect notes.
Using this method of comparing frequencies tells you exactly how to best tune a piano.
This tempering is the aural equivalent of sfumato, a painting technique in which lines are blurred – Leonardo da Vinci used this technique when painting the Mona Lisa. Many consider it to be a masterpiece; however, a person might argue that work from a paint-by-numbers set is the perfect painting with its predetermined colors placed perfectly between the lines.
Similarly, an electronic tuning device measures the fundamental frequency and a harmonic of one note, then calculates a value that is then used to place all the notes inside the lines.
The difference between a properly done aural tuning and a tuning using an electronic device, in a nutshell, is akin to the difference between a painting by da Vinci and that from a paint-by-numbers kit.
So what does this have to do with woodworking? Piano builders back in the day were rarely restricted by measurements. They had a few critical numbers to get them going for a particular model, but old documents and plans are lacking in dimensions. These craftsmen didn’t need or use many measurements, yet old instruments are some of the best ever made.
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From the October 2013 issue, #206
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