On Piano Tuning

LMY—We've done measurements on strings. I have a very good engineer who works with me, Bob Bielecki. For the tunings of The Well-Tuned Piano, I've always prided myself on doing them by ear myself and then teaching them to my disciple Sarmad Michael Harrison, who now does all the tunings for me. When I walk on stage for a concert, I don't even have to touch the piano. When he tells me the piano is ready, I know it's ready, because he studied tuning with me for years and he really then developed his ability to tune. He knows exactly which harmonics I would sacrifice, due to the inharmonicity of the strings. He not only tunes it just the way I would want it, but he also uses his own judgment and maybe tunes it better than just the way I would want it, because he's doing all the tuning now and I'm doing all the playing.

One day Bob Bielecki said to me, he'd built this frequency counter with about ten digits of resolution, its quite a nice counter. I was pointing out that maybe Michael wasn't going to be able to make a certain concert series, and he said, "Don't worry." He said, "I think that 1 could measure one of his best tunings and 1 think I could tune it up for you." And 1 said, "Oh no, this is impossible." I said, "You could never do it, you could never get all of the subtleties of fine tuning that we get." But he said, "Well, let me try." And I said, "O.K." So he did some measurements of some of Michael's best tunings. And it turned out that I didn't particularly have a problem with Michael being able to make the concerts, but there was a time or two when Bob had the opportunity to tune up the tunings. And they sounded very good. Apparently, Bob is able to duplicate them so well that we take Michael's very best tunings, the ones I like the best, and before Michael comes in to tune, Bob sets up that tuning. Which saves Michael a lot of time, because when you're [tuning] the whole thing by ear it apparently takes longer, even though you can do it better. And so he's starting now with one of his favorite, best tunings, and then he improves on that by ear. And then, when he's finished the tuning, just before I play, they measure it, and then I play the concert. Because when you play on it, it naturally gets it somewhat out of tune by the end of a five or six hour concert. You know the best way to keep a tuning is to take the piano and put it in a vacuum and never touch it. [Laughs] So it's interesting how we have begun to use technology, even though we use our ears as the final determining factor, that we found a way to use it in tuning the piano, which surprised me, because I wasn't expecting... I was doubtful that he could get it that fine. But he is able to. But what really led me in to talking about this is that Bob did some measurement of piano sounds, and it's very tricky, because there's the attack, and there's the decay and you have to get some average part of the ... when the string is just in its most natural state of harmonic vibration and measure that. It's really difficult, compared to measuring sine waves.

DD—I take it you're using only one string per note on the piano?

LMY—Yeah. I invented a special action which allows me, with the soft pedal, to play on only one string when the soft pedal is engaged. Well, actually what I did was to have a special set of hammers designed by the Bösendorfer factory in Vienna, that are thinner, so they play on only two strings when the soft pedal is not engaged and on only one string when the soft pedal is engaged. It's hard enough to get only one string in tune.