Back when I used to play the flute, I had to mind my intonation all the time. It’s something wind instrumentalists need to take care of that pianists don’t.
There’s a tendency to go sharp in the higher register, and there’s a tendency to go flat in the lower register. There is also a tendency to go sharp when we do a crescendo, and flat with a diminuendo. We have to be mindful of these tendencies and compensate with our lips accordingly.
Pianists don’t ever have to worry about intonation, because the piano sets the tone for us. We do not set the tone. The pitch of the strings is already predetermined based on Mersenne’s Laws. This is why you might hear the conductor shouting at a flutist to ‘play in tune’, but he would never tell that to a pianist. ‘Get your piano tuned’ is probably what he would have said instead.
A piano that is out of tune simply means that the predetermined pitch of the strings is incorrect. You’d probably get quite an unpleasant sound as a result.
Before I go any further, you should understand that the unit used to measure pitch is the hertz (Hz). Hertz is used to measure the frequency of the sound waves (no. of cycles per second), which is what determines its pitch.
So what does it take then, for the predetermined pitch of the piano strings to be correct?
There are two requirements for a piano to be in tune.
1. Every note on the piano has to be in tune with itself.
If you’re a wind instrumentalist who has never looked inside the piano before, this might sound ridiculous. How can a note be out of tune with itself? But if you have already looked inside the piano before as I have recommended in my previous article, you’d know that this is totally possible.
Why? Because most of the piano hammers are striking more than one string!
If you decide that you’d like to tune the A above middle C at 440Hz, then all three strings have to be tuned at that exact same frequency. Any higher or lower, and that note would be considered out of tune with itself.
Note: A=440Hz is the tuning standard.
It should go without saying that the lowest notes of the piano which have only one string cannot be out of tune with itself.
– This is how you check if a note is in tune with itself:
If you hear something like a ‘wowowowow’ from a note, that would be an indicator that it’s off. If you are unsure, the next time your tuner comes to tune your piano, try asking him to tune just one of the three strings slightly off from the rest, and then listen for yourself how this out of tune sound actually sounds like.
2. Every note on the piano has to be in tune with each other.
There are many tuning systems that exist, but the one that we predominantly use on the piano today is equal temperament. This means that the pitch distance between every semitone interval is the same. The pitch frequency ratio of the octave will always be 2:1 (If A1=440Hz, then A2=880Hz).
Take the space you have between that octave, divide that space into 12 equal parts (12 semitones in one octave), and there you have it. A piano tuned in equal temperament.
Please take note that when I say ‘space’, I do not mean the answer you get from subtracting 440 from 880!! And you definitely do not divide that answer by 12. You cannot do this because the pitch frequency increases exponentially for every semitone.
To determine the pitch frequency for every single note in the octave, you would first need to determine the frequency ratio for a semitone interval. That requires some serious maths and is not within the scope of today’s article.
– This is how you check if every note is in tune with each other:
Can you sing out your major scale? Can you sing do-re-mi-fa-sol? Sing it as you play your C major scale. Then do it again with Db major scale to cover the black keys. If at any point in time the pitch of your piano and your voice do not match, then you know something’s off. Depending on how sharp your ear is, you could also check by listening to melodic and harmonic intervals. The octave would be a good place to start.
I’m so glad for equal temperament on the piano. As an ex-flutist, I hated having to deal with pure temperament which required me to bend my E note slightly flat if the ensemble was in a C major chord.
Anyway. Do let me know how you’ve leveled up in the comments below! :)