Tuning the Same Row Unisons

By Ken Eschete, RPT

Inland Northwest WA Chapter

The purpose of this article is to demonstrate the advantage of tuning strings that have similar front lengths, one after the other. By tuning the strings with all similar front lengths, one becomes familiar with exactly the motion that is required with the tuning hammer. It becomes just like tuning the same string over and over again. It gets faster and easier with just a little practice. Moving from pin to pin becomes faster because the pattern is clearly seen. Stability is improved because attention is being paid to keeping the front length tension on the same level as the speaking length. You may also find that listening to notes that are a whole step apart is less fatiguing on the ear.

Consider that every time we tune one string, there are two segments of that string that are involved. The one that is heard is the speaking length, and the one that we can’t hear is the front length, between the tuning pin and the front termination point. When one tunes chromatically, every note will involve tuning strings with different front lengths; and in some pianos, the notes are staggered to utilize more of the pin block wood, making those differences in front length even greater. 

Making Your Own Strip Mutes 

This is a tuning sequence that proceeds by whole steps instead of half steps and is best done with the use of a strip mute. I recommend making your own strips by splitting the felt that is sold as “Bellyman felt.” It is intended to fill the gap between the iron frame and the stretcher, but it can easily be split down the middle of the thickness into two strips that are just right for a strip mute. This is done by splitting the very end with a knife blade. Then secure one side in a vise and gently pull the other side, continuing the split along the entire length. You can also make the split wider on one side to control the thickness that is desired. I sometimes taper the width on one end of the strip so it can be used on vertical pianos.

The Five-Step Tuning Sequence

  1. Insert the strip between every unison in a section, leaving only the center string sounding (Figure 1). I start with the temperament and continue octave tuning through the whole middle section. This can also be done using two strips. (Illustrations courtesy of Daniel Levitan, RPT.)

Figure 1: Strip mute and tune the center string of each unison. Use two strips as shown or follow the same pattern with one strip.

  1. Remove the strip and reinsert it between every other unison. Tune this section of unisons by tuning in whole steps instead of half steps and staying on the same row of pins from left to right (Figure 2). On a second pass, tune the pins that were skipped in the first pass, again staying on the same row from left to right (Figure 3).

Figure 2: Tune the un-muted outer strings in whole steps.


Figure 3: On a second pass, tune the other open outer strings, again in whole steps.

  1. Remove the strip and reinsert it, starting one unison over from where it was previously. Now repeat the sequence above, tuning only the tuning pins that are in a row from left to right (Figure 4). This takes two passes.

Figure 4: Move the strip mute one unison over and follow the same process to tune the rest of the unisons in the section. 

  1. Remove the strip and correct any unisons and octaves as necessary.
  1. Repeat the process on the remaining sections. 

This tuning method is particularly helpful when using the “one-note pitch raise” technique. While all tuning apps have a “pitch-raise mode,” it takes time to make the necessary measurements, and they don’t always come out correctly, particularly regarding the bass strings. The “one-note pitch raise” is a very practical alternative, in which you quickly increase string tension on just one string of each unison to invoke any movement of the soundboard that will occur during the pitch raise. 

This method starts by measuring how far the pitch has dropped in cents, then raising one string in a unison by that much plus 50%. As an example, on a note that measures 10 cents flat, one would tune just one of the three strings five cents sharp. After doing a few notes, one gets a feel for how much to turn the pin, and how dissonant it sounds. Tuning by ear without any mutes, one can go from front pin to front pin, taking only about 10 minutes. I do not do this on bass strings or in the top octave. After the pitch raise is done, one can strip mute the middle and bass sections and proceed with normal tuning.

In the tuning that follows, one must remember that one string in a unison is already sharp. Otherwise, there is a good risk of accidentally pulling that string sharp again, with bad consequences. By tuning every-other note, tuning pins that are already too sharp are in the same row, and the strings that are already too flat are in another row. This reduces the risk of breaking a string and increases stability at the same time.

Using the combination of the “one-note pitch raise” and “same-row tuning sequence” techniques can make a big difference in speed and tuning stability. The savings in energy and time allow the technician to spend time refining the tuning and addressing hammer voicing and other maintenance issues. After all, the tuning may not be the worst thing wrong with a piano.

Ken Eschete, RPT, is the owner of Bentside Arts in Spokane, Washington. Following his initial training at the North Bennet Street School, he continued his studies with Franz Mohr at Steinway and Andre Svitchlichny at Baldwin. After 20 years as the principal concert tuner in New Orleans, Ken took a job as head technician at the Northwestern University School of Music. He is the author of the Paraloid B72 Voicing Protocol and has published several articles in the Piano Technicians Journal and the Euro Piano Magazine. These complete articles can be found at BentsideArts.com.

Ken also has credentials as a museum conservator. His restorations can be found in many museums, including the Smithsonian Institution, the Vanderbilt/Roosevelt Historic Sites in Hyde Park, NY, and the National Music Museum in Vermillion, SD.