Technical Library

TUNING X: Harpsichord tuning problems

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Why does a harpsichord go out of tune?

The harpsichord as an instrument has a largely undeserved reputation of requiring too-frequent tuning. Even other excellent instrumentalists have formed this opinion from bad experiences, usually with poor harpsichords. A good harpsichord, though, kept in stable surroundings, will stay in decent tune a surprizing time—perhaps even weeks. All instruments are subject to the vagaries of their environment. Many otherwise good harpsichords can be difficult to tune because of relatively simple problems in stringing or pinning. Harpsichords of the very highest quality will not have structural inadequacies causing tuning instability. This table lists the common causes of harpsichord tuning problems, and how they might be corrected.
















Environment Instrument has just been moved. A harpsichord goes out of tune not because of the move, but because of the different environmental conditions in transit and the new space. Protect instrument from extremes during a move, and allow it to acclimatize to its new surroundings before tuning.
Instrument is kept in a room with widely varying conditions throughout the day. A harpsichord needs stable conditions for stable tuning. Regulate the temperature and humidity, or tune the harpsichord at a particular time and be content that it will be likely return to decent tune at a similar time on subsequent days.
Direct sunlight, especially on strings. The case or the strings are heating. Move the instrument out of the direct sunlight.
Stage or film lights on instrument. Revize the wattage and proximity of the lighting.
Lid is left up. Instrument is needlessly exposed to environmental variation. Always keep the lid closed when the instrument is not being played.
Airconditioning. Draft from airconditioning is causing a local temperature cycle. Move the instrument out of the draft.
Tuning stability is difficult where the equipment is not run constantly. For stable environment, care needs to be taken if airconditioning is not run 24/7.
Strings Hitchpin loop is poorly made. Improper loops will unwind under tension. Replace string, using an adequate hitchpin loop.
Wire is slipping around tuning pin. Insufficient wire wrapped around pin. Rewind string around tuning pin, or replace string.
Wire is wound around tuning pin too loosely.
Excessive downbearing or backpinning. String is catching at pin points, so different segments of the string are at different tensions. Revize pinning angles.
Sticky nut or bridge surface. Clean or lubricate nut or bridge.
Some odd strings are wrong material or diameter. Instrument is being subject to unusual tension variations throughout compass. Replace odd strings.
Strings are all too thick. Instrument is subject to too great a tension. Revize entire stringing.
Bad wire is always stretching. Wire must stabilize for accurate tuning. Replace strings.
String is beating falsely and can’t be tuned accurately. Wire is twisted. Replace string.
Tuning pins Tuning pin is loose, perhaps even able to be rotated with fingers. Tuning pin is too high in hole. Reseat tuning pin with tuning hammer.
Hole is too big. Pull tuning pin and shim hole with paper.
Tuning pin hole in wrestplank is elongated, especially in bass. Poorly drilled wrestplank, or tuning pins have not been kept sufficiently low in wrestplank. Restring with larger pins after redrilling wrestplank.
Tuning pin leans away from player. Poorly drilled wrestplank. Reseat tuning pin in wrestplank with tuning hammer, or plug and redrill wrestplank.
Tuning pin cannot be hit lower in wrestplank hole. Wrestplank hole is not deep enough. Pull pin and redrill wrestplank hole to sufficient depth.
Tuning pin feels too tight and rather than rotating, appears to twist. Pin is too tight in wrestplank hole. Remove pin, ease hole and lubricate pin.
Tuning pin shudders rather than turning smoothly.
Tuning pin is being turned excessively during tuning. Poor tuning hammer technique. Practice tuning with minimum pitch change of the string.
Tuning pin is being pushed or pulled when tuning. Get comfortable when tuning and ensure the tuning pin is being rotated not pushed.
Structure Case is insufficiently braced for expected string tension. Poor instrument design causing collapse. Insert extra case bracing or discard instrument.
Tail or bentside hitchpin rail has pulled away from case rim. Poor assembly practices or excessive string tension. Repair or replace hitchpinrails, revize stringing.
Wrestplank has lifted and rotated from player. Reseat wrestplank.
Bridge has lifted from soundboard. Reglue bridge to soundboard.

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