Friday, March 09, 2007

The Dark Arts: Piano Tuning I

Yes my friends, that is a Yamaha U1.

It is not new. But, anyone who knows Yamahas knows that one is best advised to buy a slightly weathered model - not too old, of course. There is a sweet spot of 15-35 years, of which mine approaches the upper bound.

Why? Quite simply, it guarantees that your piano is made in Japan. I'd elaborate on why this is a very good thing, but this could get me into trouble. Just note the Japanese are known for what can only be described as an exquisite attention to detail.

But no matter. On to more important things.

Firstly, I have gathered enough information about it to know that it was made the year of my birth.

I espied this ebony beauty just before Christmas. I'd gone in to take a look at a shop run by this friendly fellow. It was out of tune, and there was no weight to the keys. But the tone showed promise, and for many of my old teachers, the U1 was the piano of choice.

So we bought it.


Tuning is one of the many ways in which we organize sound to create music. But tuning is not merely designating certain frequencies as pitches in one's system, it's also accepting the great mass of frequencies outside of that system as "out of tune".

Westerners are exceedingly familiar with the division of the octave into 12 (now typically equal) pitches. But there's no need to limit pitch organization to this division. Indeed, there is a fantastic podcast devoted to microtonal music, where works are composed using alternative divisions of the octave (or alternate tunings of the 12-note octave).

The latest podcast, on "neo-medieval music" has an historical bent, imagining the ways in which western music could have been organized differently.

The music will sound strange at first. It will sound out of tune. But that will change.


Some background on tuning will probably make what will unfold here less painful.

As a primer, the composer and scholar Kyle Gann has a wonderfully informative and opinionated website in which he does a great job of explaining microtonal music. He also provides a helpful precis of the current debate raging amongst musicologists and performers around how composers tuned their keyboard instruments before equal temperament came along and extinguished other temperaments, or divisions of the octave.


We waited a month before having the tuner come along. A middle-aged Russian appeared at the door - Yuri. Laying his large fur hat on my couch, he set to work. He didn't labour long before asking for the phone, and calling the people we'd sold the piano to - also Russian. They conversed, and I wondered what was going on.

"Mice", Yuri sighed. (In a thick Russian accent)"They could have been there 20 years ago, but the action's a mess - I need to remove it and take it to my shop."

He attempted to show me what was wrong, and I could see nothing. It was like a doctor asking me to evaluate an ultrasound - I had no criteria for knowing what mice through a piano looked like!

And then I realised something- why didn't I know? Why had I been playing the piano all these years, and yet knew nothing about how it worked? I'd never peered inside?

This man, with his hammer, and his wrench, who stretches octaves, who tempers, who forges, why was his work such a mystery to me? And was it just me? How many pianists know their pianos, know how to tune one?

Why do we no longer think about tuning?

As this blizzard of queries blew around my mind, I carried the soul of my piano out through the snow and placed it gently into Yuri's car.

For a week, I waited. As will you, hopefully, for the next installment of the Dark Arts.


Gawain said...

it is interesting to watch Indian classical musicians tune their instruments to the singer's voice prior to the concert: she gives them what she will use as her "low c" (often closer to b#). this is apparently hard to keep track of (especially for violinists?) so they use a drone -- a musician sits in the back and keeps strumming the 3 principal notes of the scale throughout the concert.

Calla said...

Well said.