The end of Piano Technicians

I think not.   Although, if you read the news you might be forgiven for thinking that.

This item has been making the rounds:

Wall Street Journal

Technology Review

Here’s the full study

To state that the best human tuners are able to outperform electronic devices is, at best subjective.   This is a long debate within the Piano Technicians Guild although it seems to have lost a bit of steam.   Scratch any piano tuner and you’ll find a long internal dialogue about this.

My first thought is that anything that makes tuning a piano easier then I am in favour.   It isn’t getting the pitches right that is the tough part of the job, a current digital device does that extremely well calculating equal temperament, stretch and inharmonicity across the keyboard.   What a pianist notices most, is how long it stays in tune.   Longevity of tuning only comes with skillful and practiced use of the tools.

I have several customers who own their own tuning tools and do their best to keep their instrument sounding  sweet….unfortunately keeping an instrument sweet usually means having to adjust the toughest interval to tune, the unison.   But like playing; it’s practice, practice, practice.

I often compete with my Veritune device on the tuning of unisons.   Setting them precisely to the machine results in a very good unison tuning, no question about that, but more often than not there is a false beat or an out of whack partial which requires a little tweaking to be sweet.

The problem with pianos is that they are not perfect, tuning is not a perfect science, tuners are not perfect, where the piano sits is not perfect … and did I mention that pianos are not perfect.

The vast majority of technicians today use a digital device of some sort as well as tapping into their experience and learned skills to make that individual piano sound it’s best on that day.   It’s pretty hard not to use your ears, so the vast majority of instruments get the best of both the aural and digital world.

There are simply good tunings and bad tunings.

St. Petersburg Conservatory

St. Petersburg Conservatory

Not really the same subject, but something related was in this past month’s Piano Technicians journal.

A test on tone and touch done in St. Petersburg, Russia involving a dozen high-end professional pianists from the Conservatory.   I’ll briefly summarize.

Three concert grands, a Hamburg Steinway, a Bechstein and a local Leningrad made instrument.   The actual name of the Leningrad instrument isn’t given.   With all the pianists able to see the instrument, Steinway scored highest, then Bechstein and last, the Leningrad instrument.  All pianists were confident they could tell the instruments apart based on tone quality alone, and found the touch largely indistinguishable.

Then came the listening portion of the test in which single notes, chords and scales were played by someone else and the pianists didn’t know which instrument was played.   They couldn’t tell which piano was which.

Taking it a step farther the three pianos were set up so the keyboards formed a triangle, and a rotating stool was placed in the middle and the blindfolded pianist was turned to face each instrument and play.

A secondary test was done in which the pianist was also effectively deaf to the sound of the piano through noise cancelling headphones and again asked to identify which piano was which.

In both those tests the pianists again ranked Steinway top although very close was that unnamed Leningrad piano and not far back the Bechstein.

What this seems to tells us is that although the pianists were confident the difference in the pianos was in the tonal quality it was in fact through touch and playing comfort that they were best able to distinguish the instruments.

If Steinway and Yamaha are to be believed then a piano has 12,000-plus parts which all have to work together.     Me and gazillions of pianists are inclined to agree.

Which I suppose brings us back to the machine vs. aural tuning discussion and whether the new machines coming down the pipe will put me, the poor piano technician, out of work.   They might well result in improvements to electronic tuning devices.  If they do, I want one to help my business not end it.   They might even get really cheap.

If the piano tuner is going to be out of work because somebody improves on electronic tuning devices, then we can’t be discussing the same instrument.

I have always, somewhat facetiously, told people that I could work on one piano for the rest of my life and probably never finish.   This wouldn’t be so bad if I had 3 lifetimes and didn’t already own three pianos.

Did I mention that pianos aren’t perfect?

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