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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