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How does humidity level affect my piano's tuning?
What is relative humidity?
What can be done to minimize humidity problems?
How will humidity control benefit my piano?
Your piano is made primarily of wood, a versatile and beautiful material
ideal for piano construction. However, being made of wood, your piano is
greatly affected by humidity. Seasonal and even daily changes in humidity
cause wood parts to swell and shrink, affecting tuning stability and touch.
Extreme swings in humidity can eventually cause wood to crack and glue joints
Other materials in your piano also are affected by changes in moisture content
in the air. The many felt and leather parts in your piano's action can change
dimension, affecting regulation and friction, or stiffness of the touch.
Very high humidity can even create condensation on metal parts such as strings,
tuning pins and hardware, eventually causing them to rust.
Swelling and shrinking of the piano's soundboard is the most immediate and
noticeable effect of humidity change. The soundboard, a sheet of wood
approximately 3/8 of an inch thick, is made with a slightly crowned shape.
The strings pass over the soundboard and are connected to it by a wooden
piece called a bridge. The upward crown of the soundboard presses the bridge
tightly against the strings.
As the moisture level in the soundboard increases during periods of high
relative humidity, the crown expands and pushes the bridge harder against
the strings. The strings are stretched tighter and the piano's pitch rises.
Because this increase in crown is greater in the center of the soundboard
than at the edges, the pitch rises more in the middle octaves than in the
bass or treble registers.
During periods of low relative humidity the soundboard shrinks, reducing
the crown and decreasing pressure against the strings. The pitch drops, again
with the greatest effect noticeable in the center of the keyboard. When relative
humidity returns to its previous level, the average pitch of all the strings
will return to normal, although the exact pitch of individual strings will
be slightly changed from their original settings. Thus, a piano only will
stay in tune as long as the relative humidity level in the air surrounding
the soundboard remains constant. Extreme humidity changes require making
greater changes in string tension to bring the piano into tune. This upsets
the equilibrium between the string tension and the piano frame, and the piano
never becomes stable.
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Wood swells and shrinks in response to changes in the relative humidity of
the air around it. Relative humidity (RH) is the amount of moisture contained
in the air, compared to the maximum amount of moisture that the air is capable
of holding. The moisture content of air is affected by weather as well as
conditions and activities within the home, while the moisture- holding capacity
of air varies with temperature. One way of thinking about RH is that it is
a measure of air's tendency to absorb or release moisture to its surroundings.
Thus when the RH of air in a room increases, moisture will tend to transfer
from the air to wood and other absorbent materials in the room. When the
RH of air decreases, moisture will transfer from other materials back into
the air. The RH of the atmosphere is always changing by the hour, and more
dramatically, with the seasons. Consequently, the wood and felt parts in
your piano are constantly changing dimension as they absorb and release moisture.
Since RH depends upon the temperature and moisture content of the air, it
is not possible to maintain a constant RH by controlling room temperature
alone. In fact, maintaining an even temperature while moisture content varies
will cause RH to change.
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Keeping the humidity level around your piano as constant as possible will
help it stay in tune longer as well as slow such damage as soundboard cracks,
loose tuning pins, and glue joint failures. The first and simplest precaution
you can take is to position your piano away from areas where it would be
exposed to extremes of temperature and humidity such as heating and cooling
vents, stoves, doors and windows. Direct sunlight is especially damaging.
If your home is not well insulated, an interior wall is preferable to an
Controlling the humidity within the home is another step you can take to
preserve your instrument. In most areas of the country the relative humidity
is very low during the cold winter season, and very high during the spring
and summer. In other areas these humidity cycles are reversed. Wherever you
live, you have probably noticed the symptoms of low RH (shocks from static
electricity when sliding out of a car or after walking across carpet), and
the signs of high RH (limp, soggy feeling newspapers and sticking doors).
To monitor RH changes in your home, you may wish to purchase a moderately
priced wall hygrometer available from most instrument supply companies or
Use of a room humidifier during dry seasons will help somewhat. However,
too much moisture added to a room during winter months can cause condensation
to form on cold surfaces such as windows, eventually causing mildew, rot,
and in extreme cases, damage to the building structure. During the humid
season de- humidification is needed. If your humid season is winter, keeping
the home evenly heated will help. However, humid summer situations require
much more elaborate de- humidification systems. Unfortunately, it is seldom
possible to adequately control the relative humidity of a piano by controlling
the room environment alone.
A very practical and effective answer to humidity problems is to have a humidity
control system installed in the piano itself. These systems consist of three
parts: a humidifier for adding moisture to the air, a dehumidifier for
eliminating excess moisture, and a humidistat or control unit which senses
the RH of the air within the piano and activates the system to add or remove
moisture as needed. These systems are designed to maintain the RH of the
air within the piano at the ideal level of 42%. The components are installed
out of sight, inside the case of a vertical piano or under the soundboard
of a grand. They are easy to maintain, and can be installed by your piano
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While not eliminating the need for regular piano maintenance, humidity control
will allow more stable tunings by reducing the radical pitch changes your
piano may experience through the seasons. When your piano stays closer to
its correct pitch level of A440 (A-440 cycles per second), your technician
does not have to perform a large pitch raising or lowering procedure prior
to fine tuning. Thus, a balance of forces is maintained between the strings
and the frame of the piano, allowing more accurate and stable tunings to
In addition, a stable environment will help to preserve your piano through
the years. Wood parts, glue joints, metal parts and your piano's finish will
all last longer if not subjected to excessive humidity swings. Maintaining
the correct environment will preserve your piano investment for a lifetime
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The preceding article is a reprint of Technical Bulletin
#1 published by the Piano Technicians Guild, Inc. It is provided on the Internet
as a service to piano owners.
Piano Technicians Guild is an international organization of piano technicians.
Registered Piano Technicians (RPTs) are those members of PTG who have passed
a series of examinations on the maintenance, repair, and tuning of pianos.
For a copy of this or other PTG Bulletins and Pamphlets, or a list of PTG
members in your area, vist the PTG web site or contact Piano Technicians
Guild, Inc., 4444 Forest Ave, Kansas City, KS, 66106. Ph: (913) 432-9975
Fax: (913) 432-9986 E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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