The piano was invented in the early eighteenth century and has improved by leaps and bounds since then. The modern piano has the widest range of tones of all instruments! But, did you know these complex marvels evolved from string instruments?
The invention of the piano, like many other instruments, happened after centuries of evolution of other instruments that were slowly shaping up to look and sound like the modern piano. The early ancestors of the piano had keys but used a plucking mechanism on the strings to produce sound. But soon it was all about to change.
Who Invented the Piano?
Most musical instruments usually have a long list of people who have contributed to their evolution. However, there is always that one person who makes a contribution that transforms the instrument into a whole new type and is named its innovator.
When it comes to the piano, Bartolomeo Cristofori takes the credit for transforming an instrument called the harpsichord into the world’s first piano about 300 years ago. Cristofori was a skilled harpsichord builder from an Italian city called Padua. Around 1688, he was employed by the Prince of Tuscany, Ferdinando de’Medici, to maintain and restore various instruments, but during his service, he was also encouraged to innovate.
The Origins of the Piano
Between the periods of the 1500s and the mid-1800s, the harpsichord was one of the most popular musical instruments amongst the elite European societies. It held a close resemblance to the piano, but the sound range was nowhere near as good as modern pianos. It was loud enough to be heard across a room and could be accompanied by one singer.
It was also classified as a string instrument as the sound was produced by several rows of jacks that plucked the strings when a key was struck. Due to this mechanism, the notes sounded the same whether the keys were pressed gently or firmly. In other words, the instrument lacked dynamics.
The harpsichord evolved from another string instrument with keys called the clavichord, one of the oldest known ancestors of the piano. It appeared from the 1400s to the early 1800s in many different forms. The rectangular-shaped instruments were the size of today’s electric keyboards and got a bit bigger during the 1700s.
Sound on the clavichord was generated by brass blades called “tangents” striking the strings when a key was pressed. The tangent stayed pushed against the string until the player released the key. The sound quality of the notes was delicate and could only be accompanied by a low singing voice and heard by a small group of people surrounding the player. This instrument too lacked the dynamics that modern pianos have; the sound stayed the same regardless of the pressure applied to the keys.
What Was Different About the Piano?
It must be easy to gather the two things that make the piano different from the harpsichord and the clavichord by now⏤it is louder and can produce both soft and loud notes. This meant it had a good range of dynamics, and it was none other than Cristofori who pioneered this change.
Cristofori invented the first piano in 1700 by replacing the jacks that plucked the strings on a harpsichord with hammers. The hammers hit the strings depending on the pressure applied by the player on the keys. With this mechanism, Cristofori transformed the harpsichord into a new instrument. An instrument that was not only louder but also gave artists more control over the pitch of the notes. The instrument that could now produce soft and loud tones was literally named “clavicembalo col piano e forte,” which translates to “a harpsichord that can play soft and loud noises” in Italian.1 As time went by, the name was shortened to “piano,” as we know it today.
Powerful Highs and Graceful Lows of the Modern Piano
Early pianos were entirely made of wood, with smaller keyboards, and had no pedals to change the sound or control the effects on the piano. For a long time, the sound quality of these pianos was crunchy, lacked resonation, and sounded similar to the harpsichord. The adoption was slow, and it took close to 100 years for the piano to replace the harpsichord. As they were quite expensive and complicated to build.2
Modern pianos still use the same mechanism to produce sound, but have much better sound quality. They are classified as both stringed and percussion instruments. Modern pianos come with three pedals that add greater sound modulation and dynamics to the instrument. The frames are entirely made of iron, with 10,000 of the 12,000 parts being moving components/parts.3Here’s a mind-blowing fact about modern pianos to help you understand exactly how far the instruments have come since their humble beginnings. In an orchestra, the double bassoon has the lowest note and the piccolo the highest. The piano can play a note lower than the piccolo and several notes higher than the double bassoon. In other words, it covers the entire orchestral sound range!3 And this is why the piano is so popular with artists and learners today.
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- Origins of the Piano. The Story of the Piano’s Invention [Internet]. Yamaha. [cited 2022 Mar 31]. Available from: https://www.yamaha.com/en/musical_instrument_guide/piano/structure/
- Edwards P. Who invented the piano? And why was he forgotten? [Internet]. Vox. 2015 [cited 2022 Mar 31]. Available from: https://www.vox.com/2015/5/4/8539727/piano-invented-bartolomeo-cristofori
- Hand B. Piano Trivia and Fun Facts [Internet]. Piano Emporium. 2018 [cited 2022 Mar 31]. Available from: https://www.pianoemporium.com/piano-trivia-and-fun-facts/#:~:text=Pianos%20have%20a%20total%20of