A Brief History of the Piano

Pianoforte or fortepiano is the official name of the commonly spoken piano and it means “soft-loud.” It was called so after the mechanism upon the first piano was based. Its purpose was to produce both a soft and a loud tone. The piano is a stringed keyboard instrument. Before any keyed instruments existed there were string instruments (harp, psaltery). Eventually a keyboard was affixed to the strings and the piano was invented in the form we know it today.

The first stringed keyboard instruments, the ancestors of piano, were the clavichord and the harpsichord. The clavichord was invented early in the 14th century and it was used until the 18th century. It looks like a small rectangular piano in which the strings are struck by small pieces of metal. Its mechanism is the closest of the early keyboards to that of piano, but the difference is that clavichord has a much softer sound. That's why it was mostly a domestic instrument as it couldn't be used in concerts.

The harpsichord, invented after the clavichord, is another stringed keyboard instrument believed to have been invented in the 15th century and it was the favorite domestic keyboard instrument from the 16th century to the end of the 18th. In the baroque period it was used to accompany other instruments or singers. It is as big as a grand piano. Its mechanism is much different than that of the clavichord. In the harpsichord the strings are not struck but instead are plucked by a bird quill or a piece of hard leather producing a quiet sound. Unfortunately, the volume of the sound doesn't permit any modifications in tone-force no matter how much pressure is put on the keys. Both the clavichord and the harpsichord were gradually displaced by the piano late in the 18th century.

The invention of the pianoforte was brought about because of the need to combine the advantages of the clavichord and the harpsichord into one instrument. The clavichord allowed expression in music execution because of the ability for accentuation and the singing style, however its tone was faint. On the other hand, the harpsichord offered a loud and brilliant tone but without any changes in dynamics. What would make the new keyboard instrument special was the expressive tone, the resonance and the large range in tone-force. Piano came to combine the characteristics of these two keyed instruments around 1709.

The Italian harpsichord maker, Bartolomeo de Francesco Cristofori from Padua, Italy is the person to be accredited with the invention of the piano as we know it today. What Cristofori actually did was an improvement in the harpsichord's mechanism. He substituted the quills of the harpsichord with hammers and also added dampers. He called this instrument “gravicembalo col piano e forte” which means a “harpsichord with soft and loud.” In the new instrument, unlike the harpsichord and the clavichord, by pressing a key with a finger the hammer would hit the string and then allow it to vibrate. The vibration would come to an end as soon as the key was released because of the mechanism of dampers. So, with the piano a musician could play very soft or very loud, quick or gradual, and also express emotions by dynamics. Two specimens of Cristofori's pianos that survived until today can be found in Leipzig and in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

In the same period Other experimental instruments had been manufactured in France and Germany trying to reach the aim the musicians looked for. But none of these keyboards were as good as Cristofori's invention so they didn't catch on. After Cristofori's invention the principle of the mechanism of piano was established and ever since different European countries contributed to the development of the instrument.

Some important manufactures which developed the piano are:

  • The German organ maker Gottfried Silbermann; his student Johannes Zumpe who became famous all over Enlgand and France and in 1760 he made a square-oblong piano.
  • In Vienna the makers Stein and Streicher manufactured pianos with lighter touch and less sonorous tone.
  • In France in 1777 Sebastian Edward contributed much to the todays grand piano by creating a mechanism for easy and quick repetition of music.
  • In 1770 Broadwood made the first piano with five and a half octaves and in 1794 one with six octaves.
  • In 1800 necessary adjustments in mechanism were made by Isaac Hawkins of Philadelphia and the English Robert Wornum of London and an upright piano was made.
  • Many improvements continued from 1825 to 1851.

A notable contribution was due to an American invention which uses iron for the manufacturing of the frame. In 1837 Jonas Chickering used a full iron frame but the real development came by Steinways in 1855 and since then they became one of the landmarks in the history of the art of piano making. Another advance invented by Steinways was the method called over stringing. The strings were crossed diagonally close in the center of the soundboard. This creates better distribution of stress on the frame and a better sound.

Music specifically written for piano started in 1732 and then piano began to be considered an instrument for concerts and ensembles, in addition to being looked at as just a household instrument. Piano changed the western musical culture dramatically and its influences to classical music can be seen up to date. Today, there are approximately 15 piano manufacturers in the United States, but Japan is the world's largest producer of pianos.

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