Music Meets Physics As Students Learn Piano Tuning Technique

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From left to right: Jie Pan, Professor Emeritus Jim Southerland, Autumn Zhao

The piano in the Black Box Theater on the Gainesville historic campus was sounding like an old saloon banger from the Wild West that had been fed more beer than maintenance. In order to reverse the “saloon tune” it had for the recent Victoria Wilcox event, two Brenau students assisted Professor of Physical Science Rudi Kiefer in a lengthy instruction workshop session on tuning a piano.

“I had learned about harmonics in physics,” said Mengqiu (Autumn) Zhao, graduate Interior Design major. “But I’d never heard about fundamentals, partials and beats. There’s a lot more to tuning a piano than just getting the notes right.” Kiefer introduced the students to a standard tuning technique, using an electronic strobe tuner. This instrument does not tell the technician what to do but makes the characteristics of each string visible, showing its pitch and the many secondary vibrations it produces.

“We also saw, and then heard, that some of the strings are wearing unevenly,” said Jie Pan, a vocal performance senior. “By watching the behavior of the strobe, we learned to match the partials of a note to the fundamentals of the one on the next octave, and create a bright, clean sound.”

They had to do it more than 200 times, given the number of strings in a piano. After several hours of work with the tuning lever and other professional tools, arm muscles began to feel tired. Autumn and Jie quickly improvised a “tuning team” setup, with one student striking the keys while the other worked the lever.

“There are areas in every art form where art overlaps with physics, and that’s one of my favorite topics,” Kiefer said. “In addition, the students add an element of sustainability to their own lives by extending their practical knowledge, and being able to make informed decisions regarding instruments and their technology.”

After 5 hours of work and instruction, the piano sounded clean all the way to the last, 88th key. All walked away with the satisfaction of knowing that the Black Box Piano is in fine shape again.