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The Piano: Instrument Definition, Characteristics and Usage

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  • 0:08 The Ubiquitous Piano
  • 0:58 Before the Piano
  • 1:48 Invention of the Piano
  • 3:16 The Classical-Era Piano
  • 4:00 Public vs. Domestic
  • 6:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emma Riggle

Emma has taught college Music courses and holds a master's degree in Music History and Literature.

The piano is central to so many of today's music genres, but did you know that it first became popular during music's Classical Period? In this lesson, we'll look at the history of the piano, find out how it works, and learn about the role it played in Classical-era music.

The Ubiquitous Piano

Where would music be without the piano? From high school band rooms to the stage at the Emmy Awards, pianos are ubiquitous wherever music is made. But, did you know that there was a time before the piano became the omnipresent musical workhorse it is today?

The piano came into its own during the Classical Period, an epoch of music history that lasted from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century. During the Classical Period, the piano was both the basic family home-entertainment system and the concert instrument of choice for professional musicians like Mozart. It was during the Classical Period that the piano gained the central place in music making that it still holds today.

Before the Piano

If Billy Joel had lived before the Classical Period, he might have sung, 'Sing us a song, Mr. Harpsichord Man.' The harpsichord was the most popular keyboard instrument from the 15th century up until the early Classical Period. Its sound comes from tiny quills, plucking tuned strings when a player presses its keys.

The harpsichord has a wide range of notes, and its sound is bright and sparkly. But it has a disadvantage: a harpsichord can't play a variety of dynamics, or loud or soft volumes. No matter how hard a player presses a harpsichord key, the string is plucked at only one dynamic level.

Invention of the Piano

Around 1700, an Italian harpsichord maker, named Bartolomeo Cristofori, decided to invent a harpsichord that could play many dynamic levels. He created an instrument where pressing a key activates a hammer, and the hammer strikes a tuned string. Today, we call his invention a piano, a keyboard instrument that produces sound from hammers striking tuned strings.

If a pianist presses a key forcefully, a string sounds at a loud dynamic level, which musicians call forte. If the player strikes the key with little force, the string sounds at a softer dynamic level, which musicians call piano. That's why Cristofori named his instrument a gravicembalo col piano e forte, which means harpsichord with soft and loud.

Do you hear how the music changes from loud, to soft, to loud again (please see the video at 02:52 to hear the sounds)? The instrument's name gradually shortened to pianoforte, and nowadays we're all so chummy with the instrument that we've nicknamed it piano.

The Classical-Era Piano

During the course of the 18th century, the piano steadily gained popularity. It gradually replaced the harpsichord as the most popular keyboard instrument. People still build and play harpsichords today, but they're considered a specialized instrument for performing music written before 1750.

Sometimes, musicians use the term fortepiano to specify the piano of the Classical Period. It was smaller, quieter, and warmer in tone than our modern piano. It was made mostly of wood, and it lacked the large iron frame, which allows modern pianos to hold larger strings for a more powerful sound.

Public Concert vs. Domestic Music

During the Classical Period, success in trade and manufacturing brought a new level of prosperity to Europe's middle class. The rising middle class was eager to fill their expanding free time with one of the day's biggest forms of entertainment: music.

The piano played an important role in two significant varieties of Classical-era entertainment. One was the public concert: performances funded by ticket sales, aimed at middle class listeners. The other was domestic music: music meant to be played by amateurs as home entertainment.

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