Pianoforte: Definition & History

Instructor: Philip Moody

Dr. Moody has taught music in the collegiate and high school levels and has a Doctorate of Musical Arts

During this lesson, we will look at the musical instrument known as the pianoforte. We will see the evolution of the pianoforte, from its predecessors, the harpsichord and clavichord, to the modern piano that we use today.

Definition of the Pianoforte

The pianoforte is a keyboard instrument first created in the early 1700s and used as a primary keyboard instrument through the mid-1800s by many classical composers, including Joseph Haydn and Ludwig Beethoven. The instrument had 48 keys and expanded to up to 64 keys. The pianoforte is believed to have first been conceived and constructed by Bartolomeo Cristofori by combining features of both the harpsichord and the clavichord. It is the immediate predecessor to the modern piano that we see today. To understand the pianoforte, let's first look at the instruments' predecessors.

The Origins of the Pianoforte

In the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the harpsichord and clavichord were the two keyboard instruments that required vibrating strings to produce sound. The other main keyboard instrument, the organ, instead used lengths of pipe with air blown through to produce the sound waves. Although the harpsichord and clavichord used some of the same principles, one major difference existed: the harpsichord plucked the string, producing rich tone but no nuance, whereas the clavichord hit the string, offering more nuance from the performer but with less overall tone. These two varied styles were then combined by a man in Italy known as Bartolomeo Cristofori.

Harpsichord Mechanism
Harpsichord Mechanism

With a harpsichord such as the one pictured above, the musician would press the keylever, moving the jacks upward to pluck the string. The jack would then be moved back down only when the keylever was not depressed.

The Design of the Pianoforte

Cristofori was a harpsichord builder who began to experiment with a keyboard mechanism that would strike the strings with a hammer, allowing the hammer to drop back down even if the key was still depressed, thus allowing the string to vibrate for a longer length of time. This change in the basic mechanism of the keyboard instrument created a new musical instrument known as the pianoforte. The single change was a remarkable achievement by Cristofori and is what made it possible for the modern piano to be created.

Pianoforte Mechanism
Pianoforte Mechanism

Notice that the mechanism with the pianoforte allows the hammer to be independent of the keylever. The hammer is propelled upward when the key is depressed, hits the string, and then drops back down.

Not only was the mechanism to produce the sound new, but the construction of the instrument was also different. The number of strings used for each note was at least two and the hammer was designed to hit all strings for the corresponding note. With a harpsichord, there were normally more than one set of keylevers that could be used. These allowed for a different number of strings to be plucked for each note. With the pianoforte, Cristofori also created a 'soft pedal' that physically moved the keyboard to the right in order to have the hammer hit a fewer number of strings, allowing for a quieter sound. This addition of the 'soft pedal' eliminated the need for multiple rows of keylevers. The other new aspect of the pianoforte was the ability of the player to make decisions on the amount of sound by the force with which the key was depressed. Pressing the key with more force would move the hammer at a faster rate, hitting the string harder and making a louder sound.

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