I’ve been told that I must have a good ear, usually by someone I’ve just met who has learned that I’m a piano technician, and I’ve always wondered exactly what it meant.
Piano tuners do train themselves to hear components of piano tone, usually called partials or harmonics. These are pitches within pitches (the g that sounds 1 1/2 octaves above midde C on the piano for example) and they are an important part of what the tuner listens to when tuning. However the process of learning to tune was not easy. In fact it was quite agonizing and long and there are still times when I think the piano is going to win.
I think I now know that “having a good ear” means being able to detect very subtle differences in sound or musical tone and, secondarily, having the skill to adjust those tonal differences, either with a tuning hammer or a voicing tool.
David Anderson talks about listening “down the long tunnel” of a unison which means listening to the very very slow beats that make up a very slightly mis-tuned unison. Voicing can be even more subtle since one listens to different parts of the piano tone; the attack at high volume compared to the tone at much softer volume…is it the same (not good) is it different (possibly good). It means being able to hear the difference between a tone produced by bad hammer fit and that produced by an unseated string at the bridge.It means being able to hear the difference in tone created by subtly adjusting the key height.
Once, while tuning for a retail store, I got into a discussion with another technician about tuning unisons, or the 3 strings that make up one note on a piano. Afterwards one of the sales people told me “nobody hears what you are listening to” which was quite surprising and somewhat disappointing to me. If nobody hears it, why do I bother.
I think the reason I (and a number of other people) bother is that somebody needs to set the standard. There needs to be somebody who raises the bar above mediocrity and establishes, over and over, what a piano really should sound like and what is the best that can be gotten from a particular instrument. To do this one really needs to have trained ones ear to know what is good, what is ok and what is bad. And that training only comes from listening, critically, over a very long time to a large number of pianos.
The reality is that very few normal people know what a piano is supposed to sound like which leads to a very large number of crappy pianos. Unfortunately many of these people, when told that their piano can sound much better with a little work, brush off the recommendation with the comment “it sounds fine to me”.