Revised on 11/21/2017
Write me an essay. I demand that it be handwritten because handwritten essays are always better.
It is easy to see the fault in such a request. An essay that is handwritten can be better than, equal to, or worse than a typewritten essay. What is more important than the method of getting words on paper is the author's understanding and mastery of the language in which they are writing.
Piano tuning is no different. Just as an author must master their language, a piano technician must master the theory of piano tuning. The technician must know what makes a proper tuning and how it is achieved, by ear and by machine. Once the technician has done so, they can achieve equally beautiful and correct tunings by both methods. Just as in the example of writing, using a machine can help a piano technician work more efficiently with less strain on their body, specifically their ears.
So, why do some people insist that their pianos be tuned by ear? Electronic tuning devices (ETD's) were first invented in the 1930's. Those ETD's did nothing more than measure frequency. It is because of those devices that people gained such disdain for tunings completed by an ETD. Rightly so. The devices did not account for an important factor present in all pianos called inharmonicity.
When a key is struck on a piano, it results in a hammer striking a steel, or steel wrapped in copper, wire and we hear a tone. That tone is composed of the fundamental frequency, which we easily hear, and higher frequencies that are multiples of the fundamental frequency. The higher frequencies are commonly referred to as harmonics. In a perfect world, the harmonics within a piano string would be exact multiples of the fundamental frequency, but they are not. In the real world, the harmonics are a little higher in pitch than the exact multiple. This is called inharmonicity. The amount of inharmonicity within any given piano varies due to piano size, string length, string diameter, etc.
Early ETD's did not account for inharmonicity and tuning by ear did, and still does. That is why tunings achieved by those early devices were displeasing. In the 1970's, the first ETD to account for inharmonicity was introduced and they have continually improved since then. Fast forward to the present day. We now have extremely advanced devices, most being in the form of software on a laptop or handheld device, that can accurately measure and account for inharmonicity. These devices sample several notes within a piano and calculate an extremely accurate tuning based on those samples. The piano technician then tunes the piano to the device.
Just as owning a word processing program does not make the owner an author, an ETD does not make one a piano tuner. There are many other critical facets of tuning in addition to setting a string to a particular frequency, but they are beyond the scope of this article. One that I will mention is the ability of the piano technician to know what a proper tuning sounds like. Upon completing a tuning with an electronic device, the technician must check everything by ear to make certain that everything is pleasing to the human ear. It is similar to proofreading after writing an essay in a word processing program. A computer may find a tuning or an essay acceptable, but what really matters is if it is pleasing to a human. Only a properly trained piano technician is capable of making such checks after completing a tuning with an ETD.
ETD's are invaluable tools when placed in the proper hands. They save piano technicians time on tuning just as a word processor does when writing an essay. It is less likely that a neglected piano will require two tunings (a pitch raise and fine tuning) if a sophisticated device is used by the technician. The device makes precise calculations to leave the piano in tune with less tuning. The end result is the same tuning that a properly trained technician would produce by ear. So, when someone says aural tuning is better it is simply not true. Both yield the exact same result when completed by a trained technician (though ETD's offer a wider array of tuning options such as historical and hybrid temperaments). This is emphasized by the fact that piano technology schools now implement ETD's into their curriculum and encourage students to purchase a competent device as soon as they are able (competent software prices range from $700 to $1,700).
Because of their effectiveness, ETD's are quickly becoming a standard in the profession and are used in factories, dealerships, and concert halls the world over. In fact, a survey of 140 concert-level piano technicians worldwide revealed that 78% of those technicians use ETD's when tuning for concerts (see the complete survey here). ETD's have achieved a very high level of precision and allow piano technicians to accomplish more in less time, with less physical strain.
There are many technicians who continue to tune by ear only, usually because that is how they have always done it and do not feel a need to change. There's nothing wrong with that. However, many technicians try to discredit the effectiveness of electronic tuning devices simply because they do not wish to put forth the money or the effort to learn how to manipulate an ETD to their advantage.
I have received numerous new clients who contacted me because they were unsatisfied with the tuning of a previous technician. In every case, I knew the technicians who had completed the tunings and that they only tuned by ear. I tuned the pianos using my ETD and aural checks at the end and in every case the result was a happy client. This does not mean that a proper tuning can only be achieved using an ETD. It simply illustrates that tuning by ear does not always yield a better result, as some believe. It is important to remember that both an aural tuning and a tuning completed using an ETD are only as good as the ear and the training of the piano technician. It is common for us as humans to lose some of our hearing as we age. Older technicians benefit greatly from ETD's for this very reason.
ETD's have arrived. They are extremely sophisticated and accurate and continually improve. It is important for piano technicians to grasp onto modern technology and use it to their benefit and to the benefit of their clients.