The violin may be sharp, but the piano is flat…

My recent posts on KZ and Franz Mohr have left me wanting to follow up with some of my own, rather inexpert, opinions on piano tuning.

This may sound like an outrageous sacrilege, but I really struggle with the intonation of pianos, and I find myself very much at odds with Franz Mohr’s description of equal temperament as perfection. Even at the KZ concert the other day, it took me a good part of the Bach to let go of the fact that none of the chords were in tune, in spite of it being one of the most perfectly maintained pianos in the world.

Sorry, guys, but pianos just are not in tune.

Of course, neither are most orchestras. How do I cope with the varied intonation standards of orchestras? Well, I don’t, really. I get frustrated, I get down, I work at it, I try to let go of it. Talking is not the friend of intonation, so a conductor working on tuning is always a clumsy business. If you really, really want to take a section’s intonation to another level, you need lots of time and patience and goodwill- not something easy to find.  I break down the work of conducting into two areas- 1: painting the picture, which is sorting out all the details of phrasing, color, dynamics, mojo and articulation, and 2: tuning the piano, which includes not only intonation work, but putting the right people on stage, sorting out accuracy issues and so on. Just as some pianos can never be as in tune as others, even in the hands of Franz Mohr, so to some orchestras can only ever be so in tune, but you still have to paint the picture the best you can as a conductor.

I think the thing I enjoyed most about my time in Ischia with Byron and David was their commitment to intonation work. Call me crazy, but I like working on intonation, as long as doing so is not a substitute for individual preparation. I could write a book on the tuning issues of playing a chamber music with strings and piano. It is not as simple as the strings simply playing in equal temperament- that actually ends up sounding like crap. On the other hand, you can’t simply go all idealistic and try to tune like a string quartet as some keys and chords wander too far from the fixed reference point of the piano. The Mozart Piano Quartet in Eb we did in Ischia is SO challenging for intonation, and there are no easy answers. A string quartet can play a chord in isolation perfectly in tune, and shape the tuning to suit the mood of the piece, but playing music involves constant compromise and, er, fudging…. You can’t just say that strings can play more in tune than pianists- we’re both dishonest in our own ways.

Ivan Fischer used to have the Budapest Festival Orchestra do Bach Chorales in rehearsal, a marvelous idea, but not something you could try in most orchestras. They also did regular sectionals- much more so than I’d ever seen in American pro bands- where intonation was a prime focus.

But today, I’m talking about piano intonation. Funny that Mr Mohr said that in his entire career, no artist ever asked him to use a historic temperament. I find that a little depressing.

A bit of personal backgound- I grew up with a nice but modest Baldwin upright in the house, but we had a secret weapon- my best friend’s (from the age of about 2 1/2) dad was a semi-legendary piano tuner. That Baldwin punched way out of its weight class when he worked on it. After he moved to Chicago, we actually had a few local tuners come to the house and say that since the humidity in the house was stable, they felt it was better to leave John’s work intact than attempt to tune it.

Eventually, a string broke and I looked long and hard to find someone who could sort the piano out to John’s exacting standards. Finally, I found a friend of John, named Tim, who came round to the house one quiet Saturday morning when everyone was out. Like many good tuners, Tim struck me as extremely, well, eccentric. And opinionated! When he saw the cello and heard a bit about my background, he decided to educate me on his beliefs about piano tuning.

You see, Tim couldn’t have disagreed more with Franz about the merits of equal temperament. Tim actually thinks that equal temperament killed composition and the understanding of and appreciation tonal music. His point was simple- in any of the other temperaments, each key has its own very distinct color. This is because the major third in a C major chord will be a different width than the third in a Db major chord or a B major chord.

The expressive potential of such a system is powerful- the difference in the speed of beats in different keys can be used to create varied tiers of intensity, much as string players can vary the speed of their vibrato.

Tim retuned our piano using a modified mean-tone temperament, but over the next few years he rotated through a few different tunings so I could hear the characteristics of the different tunings. It was quite an education, in spite of the tuning limitations of our piano’s rather short strings (physics dictates that a piano’s tuning potential is limited by the length of the strings, which means a bigger piano can be more perfectly in tune than a small one, which is the main reason for using a 9 foot concert grand, not for volume).

Another of Tim’s points was that composers like Brahms and Schubert tuned their own pianos, and that he felt that modern composers suffered for that lack of training and experience.

More and more, we hear musicians returning to using fortepianos and period instruments for music of the 18th and 19th centuries, but those smaller instruments have inherent tuning limitations because of their string length. Wouldn’t it be lovely if more major artists were experimenting with the possibilities of tuning? Wouldn’t it be fascinating to hear Brahms’ piano music on a piano tuned as his would have been?

As it happens, one of the commenters (Brian Barone from Wrong End of a Telescope) on my Mohr piece has found a book that seems to speak to this very subject, which I’ve now ordered. What a thing the blogosphere is when it works!

Anyway, to me, equal temperament is an illusion- at first everything sounds out of tune, but since everything is equally out of tune, your ear quickly gives up the fight and can revel in everything the pianist is doing. Maybe this is right, because the piano is the instrument of illusion- what other percussion instrument can convince us it is crescendo-ing on a single note when we know that to be a physical impossibility? Those Horowitz recordings are pretty sublime- would he have sounded any better in modified mean-tone temperament? I’d certainly rather listen to Horowitz in equal temperament than Joe Schmo in well temperament.Which reminds me- I’ve heard from several sources that Mohr’s Christian prosteletyzing used to drive Horowitz up the wall. Mohr must have been a very great technician indeed. I was just reminded this week that Horowitz also once said that there were only three kinds of pianists- Jewish pianists, gay pianists and bad pianists….



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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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8 comments on “The violin may be sharp, but the piano is flat…”

  1. Richard Sparks

    Great post, Ken!

    Any tuning system with a keyboard and fixed pitches will always be out of tune in some ways, of course (although proper tuning–meantone, for example–in the right music will work wonderfully). I seem to remember some treatise calling for the organist to leave out the third at a cadence if it was out of tune and let the instruments or voices (who could alter the tuning) play/sing the third.

    Early on while at the University of Washington I did an independent study with Chris Leuba, the horn teacher (a former principal horn under Reiner in Chicago), to learn how better to work with brass and woodwind instruments. But we spent lots of time at first working on tuning, particularly learning to hear pure thirds. He’d worked out interesting systems with tuners to demonstrate/practice on this, and also had a system for players to go comprehensively through their instrument so they knew if the core pitches on their instrument were high or low compared to equal temperament–so they’d also know how (and what direction, and how much) they had to adjust.

    I also worked regularly with musicians who played period instruments and they, too, had much to teach about temperaments and tuning.

    With choirs that don’t understand what a pure third may sound like (the third one hears in the harmonic series–you’ll hear no “beats” with a pure third), I do an exercise where they first need to sing in tune octaves, fairly strongly with no vibrato (usually on a bright “ah,” which they also have to match closely). Then we figure out what a really pure fifth sounds like, having two parts move to the fifth. In a reasonably good room acoustically, the third will then appear as a harmonic. It sometimes takes a while for all the singers to hear it, but when they can, I then have one of the parts singing the fifth move to the third, matching the harmonic. Then we try it with different parts singing the third. Sometimes I’ll also then go back to the open fifths, let the harmonic re-establish itself, and then play the third on the piano, which sounds amazingly out of tune. After doing this a bit in warm-ups, I can often just have the part singing the third drop out (when a chord, particularly at a cadence, is out of tune), and sing the third for them and simply say, “sing the third here.”

    The whole system is sometimes referred to as “just” intonation, where adjustments are made to keep pure thirds at all cadence points. Of course, if you’re singing or playing with a fixed pitch instrument like piano or organ, you can’t make this work all the time, although I’ve occasionally asked the organist to leave out the third at a final cadence, or not worried too much about the piano tuning on a final chord, since that sound will die away and my choir’s sound will not.

    Tons more to say, I’m sure, including about those historic organs or harpsichords with split “black keys,” so there are different pitches available for an F# or Gb, for example. Anyway, thanks for bringing up an incredibly important and interesting topic.

  2. ComposerBastard

    Have you ever actually tried to tune a piano? I think that would change your mind a bit – if you dont go mad. I spent a great deal of time in HS screwing around on Church pianos late at night when no one else was around – just me a piano key and a couple of wedges and a 440 tuning fork. Its lucky I am still alive and not in hell.

    Anyway, I have no qualms about strange ghost beats and such with the out of tune pianos. As for Brahms tunings etc, I think its more of a practicality their ability to tune their own instruments that theoretical. I mean, are you going to be able to call your nearest piano tuner in the middle of a rainy night from Madam Tussels – where you are giving a concert – and have him jump on a horse and come over in the rain? Or let the Madams nephew Fritz, who has been asking you stupid musical questions and wondering how he can give up his career in the Calvary to become a composer / pianist just like you try one of his experimental tuning tricks he learned from a German Scientist named Mantz in Waltberg? I think not. You need to tune what you get and when and where you will be next. It comes with the job of a chamber pianist.

    Two things are lost though – tuning in general: 1) Historically, harpichord strings are tuned lower else they will break, which affects a lot of Baroque music we hear on pianos being higher pitched. 2) Acoustical synthetic overtones are missing in concert places. Two notes vibrating to create an additional note above it to make chords – lost in translation using equal.

    But string sections out of tune drive me absolutely bonkers. You need a good out of tune piano to keep them correctly wrong.

    Although it would be nice to actually hear Op 131 in true c# moll

    hmmm…why do i like Maj7 and 9 chords so much?

  3. ThePianoHasBeenDrinking

    So it appears that you actually can’t tune a piano, but you can tuna fish… especially a bass… just play up and down the scales.

    …thank you, I’ll be here all week.

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Richard- Great to hear from you. Intonation with choirs is quite a huge issue- I like your excercise, which I’ll try next time I get a chance.

    It’s such a pity that when people learn to sing in choirs, they learn notes from the piano, which means once you get to a level where everyone can sing and you can start working on tuning, you have to unlearn everything. A dear friend who was chorus master at Glyndebourne once spent 4 hours tuning G major chords with the choir there- a fully professional, annually re-auditioned choir! You can imagine how their ears evolved over the course of a summer, but there are few places on earth where you have that kind of time and controll.


  5. Sheridan

    Hi Ken,
    I haven’t listened to the Mohr interview yet, but this is a very interesting post to me. Intonation has always been a sensitive issue for me- for many of my student years, I feel it was my biggest weakness. To this day I continue to struggle with it, though at this point mostly in my mind. I have been tortured for the past decade by the perpetual flatness of one of my adjacent colleagues *cough*standpartner*cough* but the good (?) that has come of it is that I have worked my own intonation like crazy, driving myself bonkers with scales, double stops, etudes, electronic tuners, special tuning exercise CDs, etc. In essence, I am trying to make sure I am blameless before I go postal on the aforementioned colleague.

    I particularly love playing chamber music with conscientious (um, anal?) people like you who like to tune things. Maybe it’s because of those years in the Masala Quartet. But it seems like many (but certainly not all) “professional” musicians think that spending a quarter of an hour tuning some passages is beneath them or something. It’s very sad.

    But then orchestra tuning is another matter completely. Granted, I’m not in one of the world’s great orchestras, but when the clarinets are sharp and the flutes (and your stand partner) are flat and the horns just f-ing need to retire already, what does a lowly violist do? I usually feel like Olive Oyl, stretched from one side to the other to the point of snapping. Literally. If they ever cart me off stage in a straightjacket, it will be because of one thing and one thing only: pitch.

  6. Reid

    Reminds me that one of the most spectacular performances I’ve heard was one of our professors playing the A major Brahms Intermezzo (117? 118? I never remember) on an 1815 Broadwood our school had purchased. In a pretty big hall, it was very delicate, and the combined listening attention of the audience, to me, helped elevate the performance.

    Hope the summer holidays are treating you well. Bend is awesome.


  7. Kenneth Woods

    Sheridan! Great to hear from you and great comment. You remind me of my first week in a nameless *cough*columbus*cough* orchestra. In those days the cellos sat in the usual viola spot and I was at the very back, squeezed between the bassoons and double basses and cut off from the rest of the cellos. I quickly realized a few things. 1- the cello part almost always doubles the bloody bassoons and the bloody basses. 2- both the bloody bassoons and the bloody basses were really good and really confident. 3- the bassoon is a sharp instrument and the bass is a flat instrument….. It was my first week- I didn’t want a bass player saying “the new guy plays sharp” or a bassoonist saying “new guy- flat!” Of course, the difference in the two sections was miniscule, completely imperceptible to someone 10 feet away, but for those first few days (I eventually made an executive decision to ignore one section, and got moved a few feet forward), I was feeling pretty stressed.

  8. ComposerBastard

    Shall we move on to something less sensitive to pianists, bassoonists, and bass players…such as the English Horn intonation, which is quite crippling?

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