Have you ever thought about how amazing a piano is? It can play loud, it can play soft, it has a huge range from low notes to high notes, and pianos are fantastic for playing with everything from a symphony orchestra to a jazz ensemble, or even just solo! And have you taken a look inside one? All those strings and hammers and moving parts took a lot of inventors and many centuries to develop. Let’s find out how we got the pianos that we enjoy today.
Before the Piano – 1600’s
It started way back in the Renaissance, when many new things were being discovered and invented in Europe, including musical instruments. One instrument called the hammered dulcimer had strings stretched tight across a wooden box and tuned to different pitches. The person playing it would hold two soft-covered hammers and strike the strings.
Later came the harpsichord, which also used a set of strings stretched tight and tuned to different pitches. It had a keyboard similar to a modern piano. When you pressed down on a key, this would push up a rod inside the instrument. The rod had a pin on it that would pluck a string. The harpsichord became a very popular instrument, but there was one setback. No matter how hard or soft you pressed a key, the sound came out exactly the same.
The next ancestor of our modern piano was the clavichord. It worked like a harpsichord, except instead of plucking a string, pressing down on a key would hit a string with a small piece of metal. The harder and faster you pressed the key, the harder the string would be hit. This allowed musicians to play the clavichord more expressively than the harpsichord, but, unfortunately, the clavichord wasn’t loud enough to play in a large hall or with a group of other instruments.
The First Piano – 1700
About three hundred years ago, toward the end of the Renaissance, there was a harpsichord maker in Italy named Bartolomeo Cristofori. He wanted to make an instrument that could be loud like a harpsichord, but also touch-sensitive like a clavichord, so he took an idea from the hammered dulcimer and built an instrument that would fling a soft-covered hammer at a string whenever a key was pressed. The harder the key was pressed, the harder the hammer flew. After the string was struck, the hammer fell back to let the string vibrate freely. So long as the key was held down, the string would vibrate, but as soon as the key was released, a damper would quiet the string. This was a very complicated piece of machinery, so ingenious that it is still in use–with only small modifications–in our pianos today. Cristofori named his instrument “un cimbalo di cipresso di piano e forte” which is Italian for “a keyboard made of cypress wood with soft and loud.” Imagine going to your instrument store and asking for one of those!
Although Cristofori’s piano was a great technical achievement, it still took a while for pianos to catch on. An early piano maker in Germany, named Gottleib Silbermann, read about Cristofori’s piano and decided to try making his own. He improved on Cristofori’s design by adding a hand-operated lever that allowed you to take the dampers off of all the strings and let them ring even when you lifted your fingers off the keys. When Silbermann showed his new piano to Johann Sebastian Bach, at first Bach complained that the high notes were too soft compared to the low notes. Silbermann made some more improvements, and eventually gained Bach’s approval. In fact, Bach became one of the very first piano salesmen, an authorized dealer of Silbermann pianos. Bach called the instrument a “piano et forte,” (“soft and loud”) which is much shorter than Cristofori’s original name. As time went on, the instrument was known as the “pianoforte,” the “fortepiano,” and now, in modern times, we simply call this dynamic instrument a “piano.”
Early Pianos– 1700’s to early 1800’s
Early pianos had only five octaves, and were made with wooden frames so the strings could not be stretched very tight. They had a light and delicate sound compared to our pianos of today. Even so, by the time of Mozart, pianos were so popular that Mozart wrote many of his compositions just for piano. All through the classical and romantic periods, composers enjoyed creating great works for this versatile instrument. Another problem that early pianos had was that once you pressed a key you had to wait for the hammer to fall back all the way before you could play the note again. That meant you couldn’t play repeated notes very fast. A French inventor named Sebastian Erard developed a way to let the piano keys throw the hammers again right after a note is struck. This allowed composers in the romantic period, such as Liszt, to write music for the piano that included rapidly pulsing notes and chords.
Modern Pianos – 1850 to present
Eventually pianos grew larger, stronger, and louder. More octaves were added to give the instrument an even greater range. Then, as the industrial age got underway, an American piano maker named Alpheus Babcock added a metal frame to his pianos so that the strings could hold more tension. This innovation granted the piano its powerful modern sound that we enjoy today.
So here we are, three hundred years after the piano was born, and now you can find them all over the world, being played everywhere from the concert hall to your very own living room. It’s an instrument unparalleled in its ability to produce a wide range of tone, volume, color, and expression. Maybe that’s why, for hundreds of years, people have loved to gather around the piano to listen and sing together. Every piano student carries on a grand tradition of music-making. Next time you sit down to a piano keyboard, or listen to someone else play, remember and be grateful for those who gave us this amazing instrument.