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THE DUCHESS HAS A NEW "SOUND OUTFIT"! (Which do you like best?)

Updated: Oct 10, 2023


As promised in the earlier blog post a few days ago, The Duchess has a new "sound outfit!"


Bay Area piano tech David Amendola was kind enough on Sept. 5, 2023 to understand my keen interest and find an appointment to squeeze my Steinway Model M in between two other pianos needing tuning, with the specific purpose of downtuning strings from 440 Hz to 432 Hz; you can read about some of the pros and cons and my reasons for wanting this in my former blog.


For nerdy details you may wish now or in the future to consult PianoForum discussions which can get quite technical (including a few wild or unfounded claims, so reader beware!) as it is frequented by both piano technicians and pianists. Here is one on tuning in various hertz. (Interesting to note that a male pianist encountered a tech who refused to tune down his piano to anything other than 440 Hz and exhibited impatience with the owner's questions, something I encountered a number of times in my search for The Duchess -- until I found David to hopefully, take care of my Duchess for a long time to come.)


David, in his characteristic and courteous way of supporting my eternal curiosity and thirst to learn about all things piano, and permitting me to interrupt his tuning process with a number of questions, first tuned one string of the two-set and three-set treble strings (the bi-chord and tri-chord unisons) in 432 Hz, leaving the rest at about 442 Hz, a bit above what he had previously tuned the entire piano strings to be at 440-441 Hz. He told me that flattening the two dozen strings to 432 Hz caused the adjacent unchanged strings to sharpen a bit.


He then played the piano because he wanted me to hear and realize the huge difference, and I did! I noted a quite lovely, mellifluous, lyrical, romantic sound -- JUST KIDDING -- I'd call what resulted the "bar room rinky-dink piano sound"!


I about fainted at that sound, mainly from the thought that he had ruined my gorgeous Duchess! I was particularly struck hard by that sound test, because I had carefully and insistently chosen her tone during my search and rebuilding process. I worked with the rebuilder to chose and install sample sets of five different hammers in the three ranges of the keys. The samples were of three different kinds of felts (bacon, wurzen, and weickert) and manufactured by three companies, Ronson, Renner, and Abel. I chose the Ronson wurzen felt hammers for The Duchess; pictured below I'm testing the hammer samples (along with four friends) on December 16, 2021:

At the time I was curious because my rebuilder wasn't as concerned as I about the difference that by then I knew felts could make in a piano's tone, or how they need to be fit to the individual piano according to the tone one wants. It's also possible or likely he wanted to save rebuilding time and trouble, and just install what he had stocked in his warehouse, namely the "standard" he was used to installing and one that he said most people preferred, but I surmise that I was never "most people" during the rebuilding and piano-purchase process of The Duchess.


In any case, David's extremely dissonant experiment for my benefit, shocked me. (I tried to upload this recorded example but Soundcloud automatically attaches commercials to the end of it and I cannot yet find out how to eliminate those unwanted additions).


Talk about making the lady quake in her boots about the wisdom of her decision to experiment in downtuning the pitch! Who knew this would have as much or more effect as the choice of hammer felt did on the tone of The Duchess? I was beginning to understand David's perspective regarding this new element impacting tone.


With my occasional interruptions to ask questions, the complete downtuning to 432 Hz obviously took a ton of hard labor and dedicated attention by David to muscle the strings into submission, and almost three hours later, the deed was done. Even my curious kitty Mo got into the act of observing and listening (pictured above), but I couldn't tell if he liked or disliked the noisy process as he sat on the sofa beneath the piano action cover that had been removed and stationed there (was he cowering?)!


Below I am playing the composition "Waking" and the composition "Loving" both composed by Garreth Brooke. (You can purchase or sometimes find gratis these and many other scores on Garreth's website.) I recently took two happy zoom lessons with this Frankfort, Germany resident and just loved the easy back and flow discussing various elements of pianism and "Waking;" I haven't yet had time to play "Loving" for him and receive feedback. Because of their lyrical simplicity which fits my style to a "T", I chose these for the hertz comparison (the "before" and the "after" pictures). In the near future I'll also post some recordings of my memorized repertoire in both hertz.


My partner when listening just after the tuning to 432, to this piece as well as to my memorized repertoire, said that he was not certain but that he thought he liked the 432 tuning better. His jury is still out.


After downtuning I played "Loving" and in the middle I noted that tears came to my eyes. I was struck by a new something I was hearing, perhaps a sweetness? I also thought I heard my playing reflecting a wider dynamic range, perhaps more nuance, although the recording does not make either possibility crystal clear.


When I played though my existing memorized repertoire later on the same evening, because my ears were accustomed to 440 Hz tuning, in some pieces a few notes or chords sounded a bit odd, perhaps a bit dissonant? I preferred to listen to the two new pieces by Garreth, in the new tuning.


However, by the second day of practice, I no longer heard uncomfortable notes or chords pop out at me.


Some days later Joe listened to my sound comparisons and very much liked the 432 Hz demonstration, Gareth listened and said "I like them both. Actually I don't think this is really a cop out at all, I just think it's complicated. I definitely enjoy the 432, there's something gentler about it, but the crispness of the 440 is also very beautiful and it seems to reach farther upwards." I agree with his observations, and also with David's that orchestras might prefer hertz higher than 440 because music sounds "more exciting" at a higher pitch. A few days after writing this blog and relistening to these sound comparisons, I now hear something I call a "more complete" or "whole" sound in the 432 Hz trial. Music in my modest-sized living room seems more intimate, and it seems to move more inside me as if hearing from the inside out. By comparison there seems to be something more superficial and lacking in the 440 Hz trial.


Are any differences notable to you and do you have any preference? What do you hear?


First is "Waking", but which picture is the 432 Hz tuning and which is the 440 Hz tuning? (Hint: you'll find the answer at the bottom of my "Hello" message under the Ukraine flag on my home page!)




Here is "Loving." but which is the 432 Hz and which is the 440 Hz tuning?



I haven't yet been able to find a similar YouTube example using pianos, but examples with other instruments, usually guitars, abound.


Now that the downtuning is accomplished, we are going to apply a tuning app at home to keep an eye on the exact hertz so that we can tell when another tuning will be required. David says it won't last as long as the normal tuning for 440 Hz. That's because of the significant change made to the tension of strings on the instrument which change will stabilize over time with successive 432 Hz tunings. However, he includes a return visit in his original fee, so there is that benefit to my experiment!


Meanwhile I am studying diligently to understand the various temperaments in which The Duchess can be tuned, so that I can have an informed discussion with David about some possible options that might interest me at the next tuning.


Will there ever be nothing to learn about pianos and possibilities?

* * *


Introducing myself to the remarkable and resonant poetry of Kathleen Raine in her 2001 Collected Poems, I happened upon this poem which I hope you enjoy as much as I did:


WHO LISTENS...


Who listens, when in the concert-hall,

The great whispering-gallery

Vaulted ear of the encaverned god

Scattered in our multitude

Ebb and flow the waves of the world?

In deep ocean weed

Sways, like a caress,

Life's delicate responsive cilia,

Sound passes like air

Over a field of grass, whose thousand ears

Bend to the wind, to the oracular voice

Ten thousand auricles attend

As the one hearer hears in all.


(Published in The New Yorker in the 1940s.

Set to music by Marshall Bialosky, 1981).


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