History of the Piano

The piano is easily one of the worlds most important musical instruments ever created and even if you are not a musician you definitely know about it. But before the modern piano was created, as we know it today, this beautiful instrument had to go through several important changes.

How was the piano made? What is the history of the piano? These are the questions we will cover below.

The foundation of piano development lies on the previous technological advancements in keyboard instruments, so

An example of hammered dulcimer

let’s travel back in Antiquity and Middle Ages for a brief moment. Pipe Organs were used in the Antiquity and the development of pipe organs helped the instrument builders to learn about creating keyboard mechanisms that produce melodies.

The first string instrument with struck strings was hammered dulcimer. The strings of this instrument are stretched over a trapezoidal sounding board and they are struck by a musician using a small spoon shaped wooden mallet. This instrument became widely used during the Middle Ages in the Europe.

History of the piano – Clavichord and Harpsichord Piano Predecessors

By the time of 17th century, stringed keyboard instruments like clavichord and the harpsichord were well developed and we can say that they were the predecessors of a first piano.

Clavichord was an instrument used mostly for practice because it wasn’t loud enough for larger performances. The Clavichord creates the sound when brass or iron strings are struck with the small tangents made from metal. And the vibrations were transported through the bridges to the soundboard.

This stringed keyboard European instrument was used from late Medieval period to the Classical eras and it was developed by the instrument makers during its history.

Harpsichord is a keyboard stringed instrument and it creates the sound when a small quill plucks one or more strings inside its construction. Harpsichord represents the whole family of plucked keyboard instruments and some of them are muselar, smaller virginals and spinet.

This instrument was mostly used during the Renaissance and Baroque period and during the 18th century, it slowly disappeared from the scene as the Piano was taking its place.

So why is this important? Because the Piano was based upon the principles of these two instruments.

The first Piano – Who invented the piano?

The inventor of a first piano was Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731) of Padua, Italy. Bartolomeo Cristofori was an expert maker of the Harpsichord instrument and he had an abundance of knowledge on stringed keyboard instruments. He was a craftsman employed by the Italy’s royal court as a keeper and a repairman of the instruments.

Bartolomeo used his knowledge of Harpsichords keyboard mechanisms and actions to develop and create the first piano.

Unfortunately, we do not have an exact date when the first piano was created. The inventory kept by his Employers, the Medici family, shows us the record of a piano by the year 1700; But another record proposes the year 1698. However, we know that it happened somewhere around the 1700s.

Cristofori named the instrument un cimbalo di cipresso di piano e forte (“a keyboard of cypress with soft and loud”). The name changed over time as pianoforte, fortepiano, and later, just a piano.

How Bartolomeo Cristofori created a piano

History of the piano starts when Cristofori decided to create an instrument which was loud as a Harpsichord but offered a dynamic accent-based expressive control as did the Clavichord. This instrument was his creation, the first piano.

Clavichord creates the sound when a key is pressed and its inner end, with a tangent, produces a sound when striking a string. The keys basically work like a lever. The difference between a piano and clavichord is that the tangent does not rebound from the string but rather it stays in physical contact with the string as long as the key is pressed.

This has advantages and disadvantages but mainly the advantages are that the volume of a sound can be different when you strike the key with more or less strength thus providing the instrument with higher dynamic.

Even if clavichord has serious limitations like a very low volume, it provides the player with a high degree of expressive power because the player is able to control the attack, duration and the volume.

Concept of the first piano

Bartolomeo’s piano offered best of both of these instruments. Piano provided the player an option to play loudly and perform sharp accents which allowed the piano to project more during piano concertos with dynamic control that offered a wide range of dynamics, including soft, quiet playing.

And unlike in clavichord, the piano produced the tone with one big difference. The hammer, in a piano, would not remain in contact with the string which would damp the sound, but would rebound after striking the string and allow it to vibrate and keep producing the sound.

By Cristofori’s model the hammer would be lifted off of the string after striking it and would return to its resting position and it would do it almost instantly allowing the player to use the same note if needed repeatedly.

And that is how piano history started so let’s see how it went from there.

Early history of the piano

We can not talk about piano history without saying how Bartolomeo’s idea spread and how other instrument builders adopted his piano build.

Cristofori’s fortepiano was left undiscovered by others until an Italian writer Scipione Maffei writer wrote a great article about it where he expressed his enthusiasm for the instrument. Scipione also included the diagram of Bartolomei’s mechanism.

That article was later translated to German and it became widely spread. Pretty much every piano builder after that article based their future pianos on Bartolomei’s piano mechanism.

Gottfried Silbermann was one of these builders and he remains an important person in the history of the piano. Gottfried created the forerunner of the modern sustain pedal, which lifts all the dampers from the strings at the same time.

This innovation allowed pianists to play a loud chord with both hands in the lower register of the instrument, sustain the chord with the sustain pedal, and then, with the chord continuing to sound, relocate their hands to another register of the keyboard in preparation for a subsequent section.

Gottfried showed his improved instrument to the Johann Sebastian Bach but he did not like the instrument because he believed that the higher notes were too soft to sustain a full dynamic range.

But later, in the 1747 Bach approved of the instrument and even helped Silbermann as an agent in selling his pianos. “Instrument: piano et forte genandt”–a reference to the instrument’s ability to play both soft and loud–was an expression that Bach used to promote the instrument when he was helping as Silbermann’s agent in 1749.

Viennese school

History of the piano remembers the Viennese school in the late 18th century when piano making exploded.

Viennese school pianos were built with wooden frames, two strings per note and hammers covered with leather. It is well worth noting that there were these pianos with the opposite coloring of the keys than as we know them today. The natural keys were made black while the accidental keys were of white color.

These pianos with inverted colors were used in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozarts concertos and sonatas. Today we have replicas of those pianos which are used when his music is to be performed with utmost authenticity.

History of the Modern piano

The Mozart-era piano went through various changes between 1790 and 1860 ultimately leading to the modern piano build.

The need for a more powerful and sustained piano sound was followed with the advancement of the ongoing Industrial Revolution. This resulted in the creation of the high-quality piano wire for strings, and precision casting for the creation of massive iron frames that could withstand the enormous tension of the strings.

The tonal range was also increased from the five octaves (Mozart-era piano) to the seven or more octaves on the modern day pianos.

Collection of the National Music Museum, Vermillion, SD, USA. Earliest French grand piano left

Early advancements of the modern piano were during the late 1700s thanks to the firm of Broadwood. The firm was made by John Broadwood with another Scot, Robert Stodart, and a Dutchman, Americus Backers and their plan was to create a piano in a harpsichord case. This was the first step toward the creation of the grand piano. They had success with their plan and created their first instruments about 1777.

Their instruments were splendor and with powerful tone. Broadwood was constructing these pianos to be larger, louder and more robust. They were also the first piano firm to build pianos with more than just five octaves.

The Viennese school followed and stayed on top of these trends but they had two different approaches to the piano build.  Broadwoods used a more robust action, while Viennese pianos were more sensitive.

Piano history after the 1820s

It was about 1820s when the center of the piano innovations relocated to Paris, where the firm Pleyel was making pianos used by Frédéric Chopin and the Érard firm which manufactured them for Franz Liszt.

Sébastien Érard invented the double escapement action in 1821, which incorporated a repetition lever (also called the balancier) that allowed repeating a note even if the key had not yet risen to its maximum vertical position. This facilitated the rapid playing of repeated notes. This invention became a norm in grand pianos and it is still in use today in the modern grand pianos.

Another important improvement we can see from the history of the piano is the change in the hammers. The layered leather hammers were replaced by the better and more firm felt hammer covering, providing even wider dynamic ranges.

The sostenuto pedal was invented in 1844 by Jean-Louis Boisselot and copied by the Steinway firm in 1874. This pedal permitted a wider range of effects, such as playing a 10 note chord in the bass range, sustaining it with the pedal, and then moving both hands over to the treble range to play a two-hand melody or sequence of arpeggios.

Related: Check our selection of the best digital pianos today

History of the piano – Frame and Wires

It is the use of the massive and strong cast iron frame that allowed the powerful sound of the modern piano. This frame, also called “the plate”, rests on top of the soundboard and is used as the primary bulwark against the force of string tension. Fun fact: This string tension can go over 20 tons (180 kilonewtons) in a modern grand piano.

Iron frame from a single piece was patented in 1825 in Boston by Alpheus Babcock. This patent combined the metal hitch pin plate and resisting bars.

European piano makers preferred composite forged metal frames and they did so until the American system was adopted by the early 20th century. The improved structural integrity of the iron frame permitted the use of thicker, tenser, and more numerous strings.

The first form of a piano wire made from cast steel was created in 1834 by the Webster & Horsfal firm from Birmingham. Claimed by Dolge it was “so superior to the iron wire that the English firm soon had a monopoly.” But just six years later an even better steel wire was created in 1840 by the Viennese firm of Martin Miller.

And that is how an insane drive of competitive spirit was unleashed which lead to a lot of innovations by the rival brands. All of these innovations, trials and errors lead to the modern form of a piano wire.

Some other advancements in the history of the piano that followed include changes in the way the piano was strung. For an example the use of a “choir” of three strings rather than two for all but the lowest notes, and the implementation of an over-strung scale, in which the strings are placed in two separate planes, each with its own bridge height. The result was a much narrower cabinet at the “nose” end of the piano.

This method of over-stringing was invented in the 1820s by Pape but it was first patented for use in grand pianos in 1859 by the Henry Steinway Jr. in the United States.

Further followed the development of schemes which enchased the tone of each note.

Aliquot stringing was invented by Julius Blüthner in 1873. Aliquot stringing works by using additional unstruck strings in the piano and their sole purpose is enriching the sound. These strings are slightly higher than the other three strings so that they are not struck by the hammer and these additional strings are added to each note of the top three piano octaves.

This broadens the vibrational energy throughout the instrument, and creates an unusually complex and colorful tone.

The first mechanical structure of the upright piano was created in London in 1826 by Robert Wornum. Since upright pianos took less space than a grand piano they quickly became the most popular models and they became a better option for use in homes, schools and etc. However grand pianos still to this day hold the standard for the best sound produced but are also more bulkier and expensive.

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