The piano is such a well-known instrument, it's hard to imagine a time before its invention. But yes, before about 1700 the world had not yet heard the piano's familiar, beautiful sound. The history of the piano is integrally tied to the history of music, even up until today, as new technological advances make the piano ever more versatile.
Musicians and composers throughout history have pushed existing instruments to their limits to try to produce innovative sounds. This is how the piano came to be. It was invented to try to overcome the limitations of previous stringed instruments. And like many innovations, it did not catch on immediately. In fact, Johann Sebastian Bach, though he later composed many pieces for the piano and became a dealer, selling later versions of the piano, reportedly destroyed the first one he played because he did not like the sound.
The History of the Piano: How Did It Come to Be?
Stringed instruments produce sounds by creating a vibration on a string. There is a long history of making music by strumming, plucking, or striking taut strings. You probably innovated an instrument like this in your childhood with rubber bands stretched over a cigar box or even stretched between your fingers.
Musicians play some stringed instruments by vibrating the strings with a bow, like a violin. They play others by plucking the strings as on a harp. The piano's ancestor, the harpsichord, used the plucking method to produce sounds.
A piano, however, produces musical sounds, not by plucking or strumming, but by a hammer striking the stretched string or set of strings. Before the piano, the dulcimer was the most common stringed instrument that used hammers rather than plucking. With the dulcimer, the player holds the hammers in his or her hands. In the piano, the hammers are activated by pressing a key on the keyboard.
The hammers are covered, usually, with a dense felt. Sometimes, in more upscale piano models, the hammers are covered with leather.
Making music with a keyboard has a history longer than the history of the piano. A keyboard is a set of levers that activate a mechanism that produces sound. The most ancient and common keyboard instrument is the pipe organ. The keys of the pipe organ operate a mechanism that allows air to be pressed through pipes of different sizes which produces the sound.
The keys of a piano operate a lever that strikes the string with the head of the hammer. Interestingly, in the history of the piano, the piano keyboard that we are most familiar with is the opposite of the original style of the keyboard. On modern pianos, the white keys play the main notes of the C Major scale and the shorter, black keys are used to play accidental notes or those sharps and flats that fall between the main notes. Original pianos had the colors reversed. The darker keys were the larger, major note keys, and the accidental keys were raised and colored white.
There are 88 keys in total, 52 white and 36 black. The piano can produce notes from deep bass to the highest treble tones. Each key has one to three strings tuned to the appropriate note.
Before the Piano
Before the piano was invented, craftsmen made several attempts to create stringed instruments that could be played with a keyboard. One of these was the clavichord, which was used mostly in the late Middle Ages. Like the piano, the clavichord mechanism strikes the strings, in this case with metal blades.
But, the clavichord was not meant to be a performance instrument. It was used mostly as a composing aid or a practice instrument because the sounds it produced were not loud enough for performances.
The most successful keyboard instrument prior to the piano was the harpsichord. The keys of the harpsichord activate a lever system that plucks the strings with a quill to create the musical notes. Much of the Renaissance and Baroque music that we love was composed for the harpsichord.
As the piano rose in popularity, the harpsichord gradually fell out of favor. It almost disappeared from the music scene until the late 20th Century when it saw a new rise in popularity as musicians explored playing historically accurate renditions of music that had been created for it.
Who Invented the First Piano?
The Early Years
The harpsichord can produce enough volume of sound to be useful in a larger performance, but it has other limitations. Musicians want to be able to express varying degrees of emotion in their music. They do this through variation in volume and in sustain—meaning how long they allow a note or chord to linger. A harpsichord does not allow this type of expressive control.
The hammer mechanism of the dulcimer does allow the artist this variety of expression, but it cannot produce the volume required for performances. The problem was how to combine the keyboard mechanism of the harpsichord with the hammer action of the dulcimer. The mechanism must allow the hammer to strike the string but immediately retreat off of it so as not to dampen the sound.
It took a master harpsichord maker to solve this musical problem. The Keeper of the Instruments for the Medici family of Padua, Italy, Bartolomeo Cristofori, knew as much as anyone in his day about keyboard mechanisms and sound production. He developed the first piano right around 1700.
He named his invention un cimbalo de cipresso de piano e forte. In Italian musical language, piano means “soft” and forte means “loud.” So Cristofori's new invention was called “a keyboard of cypress with soft and loud.” The name eventually become shortened, first to fortepiano, later to pianoforte and ultimately to simply piano.
In 1711, a writer named Scipione Maffei published an article and diagram of the keyboard and hammer mechanism, and instrument makers began to take notice. But, it still took many decades for this new instrument to gain any popularity.
An organ builder, Gottfried Silbermann began producing pianos and added an important innovation. Both the harpsichord and the piano mechanisms include a damper which touches the string after plucking or hammering in order to stop the vibration of the string and produce distinct notes. Silberman created an early version of what we know today as the sustain pedal, which moves the dampers away from the strings. This allows the artist to sustain notes even as their fingers move off the keys.
More Modern Times
Pianos have continued to evolve. The 18th Century saw many improvements including the use of cast iron to make the frame on which the strings are stretched. This stronger material made it possible to hold much greater tensions in the strings, improving the volume and richness of the sound.
In the 19th Century, pianos became very popular in homes. Ordinary people shared music as a form of home and social entertainment before radio or television. Music publishers expanded and furnished families with sheet music of both classical and popular pieces.
Until recently, this would have been all one could say about the history of the piano. But, technology has made further advancements for us. We now have digital pianos, keyboards that play music—not by hammers striking strings, but by electronics sounding tones.
Some of what these digital keyboards can do would completely astound the original piano builders. Some can play by themselves from memory devices. Some can repeat back or even record the notes the player just played. Others can interface with computers to assist with composing. Still, others help teach a less experienced musician by highlighting the notes to be played in learning new pieces.
Digital pianos and the software that is being developed for them can help musicians and composers track the changes they make in their playing. They can add orchestration and layers of sound so that a musician can create a fully produced recording right at home.
There is even software that can convert the notes played directly into sheet music and digital instruments that can function as home karaoke machines.
What Are the Different Types of Pianos?
Most of us are familiar with the two main types of pianos: the grand piano and the upright. We see the grand piano on stages in concert halls. It is designed to create large sounds for performances. The frame of strings lays horizontally in the grand piano. A smaller cousin, the baby grand was designed to fit in smaller chambers in large homes.
The upright piano is the most familiar home version of the instrument. In the upright, the frame is installed vertically. The upright takes up less floor space but produces a smaller sound.
You may also have heard of a player piano. The player piano plays by itself. It uses a mechanical wheel, traditionally covered with punched paper to activate the hammers to play tunes.
Almost from the very beginning of the history of the piano, it has been a popular instrument. While traditional, acoustic pianos are large and heavy and not portable, modern digital versions can easily go on the road so a musician can create and play music anywhere. With modern technology, anyone can learn to play and even compose piano music. The piano has come a long way from its first iteration, but it still produces a clear, beautiful sound.