Piano: History & Facts

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  • 0:02 Forerunners of the…
  • 1:52 Cristofori's Pianoforte
  • 4:00 Further Development: 1750-1900
  • 6:58 Common Piano Designs
  • 7:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

This lesson provides a brief history of the creation, development, and key components of one of the most popular musical instruments in the Western world, the piano.

Forerunners of the Modern Piano

The piano is one of the most common types of keyboard instruments. Keyboards operate by linking individual pitches to devices called keys, which allow for several pitches to sound simultaneously with the depression of multiple keys. The first known keyboard instrument, a type of pipe organ, was invented during the 3rd century in ancient Greece. Although the piano can trace its history back to this pipe organ, the piano is a member of a different sound production family as it uses the vibration of strings, not air. String instruments are called chordophones (from the Greek words meaning string and sound). The first chordophone keyboard instrument and direct forerunner of the piano, called the clavichord, appeared in 14th-century Europe.

When a key on the clavichord is depressed, a small piece of metal strikes a string, which causes the string to vibrate. The clavichord was popular throughout Europe, but the volume of the instrument is very soft, making it most suitable for small, intimate performances.

The next development of keyboard instruments was the harpsichord, invented in 1505. This was very popular during the late Renaissance era (1550 - 1600 C.E) and throughout the Baroque era (1600 - 1750 C.E.). The harpsichord resembled the shape and design of the modern piano, with an elongated body and more keys. Harpsichord keys pluck strings instead of striking them, making the harpsichord slightly louder than the clavichord. However, the harpsichord was still a fairly quiet instrument and had fixed dynamics. In music, the term dynamics refers to the volume of a pitch. Fixed dynamics means that the amount of force used to depress a key would not change the dynamic level of the sound. Most harpsichords had two fixed settings: soft and medium soft. To change between the two, the performer switches a lever on the side of the instrument.

Cristofori's Pianoforte

The man credited with the invention of the first true piano was an Italian named Bartolomeo Cristofori. Born in 1655, Cristofori was employed by the wealthy Medici family as chief caretaker of their musical instruments, but his true passion was building keyboard instruments. After several prototypes, he created a satisfactory model in 1720, and the piano was born.

Mechanics of the Cristofori Piano

In this image, you can see the mechanism and action of Cristofori's piano. The hammer, made of paper, is engaged through depression of a key and strikes the string. In order to increase the volume, the piano's mechanism must increase the force of this action. Cristorfori used a multiple lever system to multiply the impact of the force by a factor of eight, significantly amplifying the sound while still allowing it to directly correlate to the force with which the key is depressed. Cristofori also increased the amplitude by using paired strings. He added a foot pedal, which, moves all the hammers slightly to one side so that they hit only one string, decreasing the overall amplitude. This device is called the una chorda (one string) pedal and is still a standard feature today.

Because piano hammers were light, there was a tendency for them to bounce after hitting a sting, often causing the string to be struck a second time in an echo effect. Cristofori's design adds a check to catch the hammer after the first strike, preventing bounce. The design also allowed for the rapid repetition of a pitch by ensuring that all parts of the mechanism reset quickly so as to be prepared for another immediate key depression. Cristofori's instrument also had damper devices. When a key is at rest, a small wooden slip sits on the string, momentarily lifting when the key is engaged to allow for free vibration. When the key is released, the damper falls back onto the string, stopping the vibration to prevent unwanted reverberation.

Cristofori's design was highly complex and revolutionary. While several other keyboard makers attempted to simplify this model to minimize costs and labor, none were able to successfully do so. The action of modern pianos is a slightly more evolved version of Cristofori's original model.

Further Development: 1750-1900

The full name of the piano is fortepiano. The name directly corresponds to the main reason for its creation: dynamic flexibility. The word forte means strong or forceful in Italian, while piano means soft. Over time, this became shortened to piano, giving us the modern name of the instrument. Although the piano wasn't popular for several decades after its invention, it quickly became the dominant keyboard instrument during the Classical era (1750 - 1820 C.E.). Composers such as Mozart and Beethoven began writing music specifically designed to showcase the sound and potential of the instrument, including pieces like Mozart's popular piano concertos and Beethoven's well-known piano sonatas. By this time, another foot pedal, called the damper pedal, had become a standard addition. This device causes all the dampers to lift off the strings, allowing for sustained reverberation of sound until the pedal is released.

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