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Piano History

Find out who invented the acoustic piano and when. This article also takes you through the development of the acoustic piano to the modern piano of today. You can also find out what materials are used in the making of upright and grand pianos and what the names of all the parts are called.

History of the Acoustic Piano

A piano is a large musical instrument with a keyboard. Its sound is produced by strings stretched on a rigid frame. These vibrate when struck by felt-covered hammers, which are activated by the keyboard.

The word piano is derived from the original Italian name for the instrument, gravicembalo col piano e forte. Literally harpsichord with soft and loud, this refers to the ability of the piano to produce notes at different volumes depending on how hard its keys are pressed.

As a keyboard stringed instrument, the piano is similar to the clavichord and harpsichord. The three instruments differ in the mechanism of sound production. In a harpsichord, strings are plucked by quills or similar material. In the clavichord, strings are struck by tangents which remain in contact with the string. In a piano, the strings are struck by hammers which immediately rebound, leaving the string to vibrate freely.

Early history

The piano was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori in Florence, Italy. When he built his first piano is not entirely clear, but an inventory made by Cristofori’s employers, the Medici family, indicates the existence of an early Cristofori instrument by the year 1700. Cristofori built only about twenty pianos before he died in 1731; the three that survive today date from the 1720s.

Like many other inventions, the piano was founded on earlier technological innovations. In particular, it benefited from centuries of work on the harpsichord, which had shown the most effective ways to construct the case, the soundboard, the bridge, and the keyboard. Cristofori was himself a harpsichord maker and well acquainted with this body of knowledge.

Cristofori’s great success was to solve, without any prior example, the fundamental mechanical problem of piano design: the hammers must strike the string but not continue to touch it once they have struck (which would damp the sound). Moreover, the hammers must return to their rest position without bouncing violently, and it must be possible to repeat a note rapidly. Cristofori’s piano action served as a model for the many different approaches to piano actions that were to follow.

Cristofori’s early instruments were made with thin strings and were much quieter than the modern piano. However, in comparison with the clavichord (the only previous keyboard instrument capable of dynamic nuance) they were considerably louder, with greater sustain.

Cristofori’s new instrument remained relatively unknown until an Italian writer, Scipione Maffei, wrote an enthusiastic article about it (1711), including a diagram of the mechanism. This article was widely distributed, and most of the next generation of piano builders started their work as a result of reading it.

One of these builders was Gottfried Silbermann, better known as an organ builder. Silbermann’s pianos were virtually direct copies of Cristofori’s, but with an important exception: Silbermann invented the forerunner of the modern damper pedal (also known as the sustaining pedal or loud pedal), which permits the dampers to be lifted from all the strings at once. Virtually all subsequent pianos incorporated some version of Silbermann’s idea.

Silbermann showed Bach one of his early instruments in the 1730s. Bach did not like it at that time, claiming that the higher notes were too soft to allow a full dynamic range. Though this earned him some animosity from Silbermann, the latter did apparently heed the criticism. Bach did approve of a later instrument he saw in 1747, and apparently even served as an agent to help sell Silbermann’s pianos.

Piano-making flourished during the late 18th century in the work of the Viennese school, which including Johann Andreas Stein (who worked in Augsburg, Germany) and the Viennese makers Nannette Stein (daughter of Johann Andreas) and Anton Walter. The Viennese-style pianos were built with wooden frames, two strings per note, and leather-covered hammers. It was for such instruments that Mozart composed his concertos and sonatas, and replicas of them are built today for use in authentic-instrument performance. The piano of Mozart’s day had a softer, clearer tone than today’s pianos, with less sustaining power.

The term fortepiano is nowadays often used to distinguish the 18th-century style of instrument from later pianos. For further information on the earlier part of piano history, see fortepiano.

The development of the modern piano

In the lengthy period lasting from about 1790 to 1890, the Mozart-era piano underwent tremendous changes which ultimately led to the modern form of the instrument. This evolution was in response to a consistent preference by composers and pianists for a more powerful, sustained piano sound. It was also a response to the ongoing Industrial Revolution, which made available technological resources like high-quality steel for strings (see piano wire) and precision casting for the production of iron frames.

Over time, piano playing became a more strenuous and muscle-taxing activity, as the force needed to depress the keys, as well as the length of key travel, was increased. The tonal range of the piano was also increased, from the five octaves of Mozart’s day to the 7 1/3 (or even more) octaves found on modern pianos.

In the first part of this era, technological progress owed much to the English firm of Broadwood, which already had a strong reputation for the splendour and powerful tone of its harpsichords. Over time, the Broadwood instruments grew progressively larger, louder, and more robustly constructed. The Broadwood firm, which sent pianos to both Haydn and Beethoven, was the first to build pianos with range of more than five octaves: five octaves and a fifth during the 1790s, six by 1810 (in time for Beethoven to use the extra notes in his later works), and seven by 1820. The Viennese makers followed these trends. The two schools, however, used different piano actions: the Broadwood one more robust, the Viennese more sensitive.

By the 1820s, the centre of innovation had shifted to the Érard firm of Paris, which built pianos used by Chopin and Liszt. In 1821, Sébastien Érard invented the double escapement action, which permitted a note to be repeated even if the key had not yet risen to its maximum vertical position, a great benefit for rapid playing. As revised by Henri Herz about 1840, the double escapement action ultimately became the standard action for grand pianos, used by all manufacturers.

Some other important technical innovations of this era include the following:

  • use of three strings rather than two for all but the lower notes
  • the iron frame. The iron frame, also called the “plate”, sits atop the soundboard, and serves as the primary bulwark against the force of string tension. The iron frame was the ultimate solution to the problem of structural integrity as the strings were gradually made thicker, tenser, and more numerous (in a modern grand the total string tension can approach 20 tons). The iron frame was invented in 1825 in Boston by Alpheus Babcock, culminating an earlier trend to use ever more iron parts to reinforce the piano. Babcock later worked for the Chickering firm, where the first iron frame in grand pianos (1840) was developed.
  • felt hammers. The harder, tauter steel strings required a softer hammer type to maintain good tone quality. Hammers covered with compressed felt were introduced by the Parisian maker Jean-Henri Pape in 1826, and are now universally used.
  • the sostenuto pedal (see below), invented in 1844 by Jean Louis Boisselot and improved by the Steinway firm in 1874.
  • the overstrung scale, also called “cross-stringing”. This is a special arrangement of strings within the case: the strings are placed in a vertically overlapping slanted arrangement, with two bridges on the soundboard instead of just one. The purpose of the overstrung scale was to permit longer strings to fit within the case of the piano. Overstringing was invented by Jean-Henri Pape during the 1820s, and first applied to the grand by Henry Steinway Jr. in 1859.
  • duplex scaling, invented by Theodore Steinway in 1872, permits the parts of the string near its ends, which otherwise would be damped with cloth, to vibrate freely, thus increasing resonance and adding to the richness of the sound. Aliquot stringing, which serves a similar purpose in Blüthner pianos, was invented by Julius Blüthner in 1873.

The modern concert grand achieved essentially its present form around the beginning of the 20th century, and progress since then has been only incremental. For some recent developments, see Innovations in the piano.

Some early pianos had shapes and designs that are no longer in use. The once-popular square piano had the strings and frame on a horizontal plane, but running across the length of the keyboard rather than away from it. It was similar to the upright piano in its mechanism. Square pianos were produced through the early 20th century; the tone they produced is widely considered to be inferior. Most had a wood frame, though later designs incorporated increasing amounts of iron. The giraffe piano, by contrast, was mechanically like a grand piano, but the strings ran vertically up from the keyboard rather than horizontally away from it, making it a very tall instrument. These were uncommon.

Piano history and musical performance

The huge changes in the evolution of the piano have somewhat vexing consequences for musical performance. The problem is that much of the most widely admired music for piano—for example, that of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven was composed for a type of instrument that is rather different from the modern instruments on which this music is normally performed today. Even the music of the early Romantics, such as Chopin and Schumann, was written for pianos substantially different from ours.

One view that is sometimes taken is that these composers were dissatisfied with their pianos, and in fact were writing visionary “music of the future” with a more robust sound in mind. This view is perhaps more plausible in the case of Beethoven, who composed at the beginning of the era of piano growth, than it is in the case of Haydn or Mozart.

Others have noted that the music itself often seems to require the resources of the early piano. For example, Beethoven sometimes wrote long passages in which he directs the player to keep the damper pedal down throughout (a famous example occurs in the last movement of the “Waldstein” sonata, Op. 53). These come out rather blurred on a modern piano if played as written but work well on (restored or replicated) pianos of Beethoven’s day. Similarly, the classical composers sometimes would write passages in which a lower violin line accompanies a higher piano line in parallel; this was a reasonable thing to do at a time when piano tone was more penetrating than violin tone; today it is the reverse.

Current performance practice is a mix. A few pianists simply ignore the problem; others modify their playing style to help compensate for the difference in instruments, for example by using less pedal. Finally, participants in the authentic performance movement have constructed new copies of the old instruments and used them in performance; this has provided important new insights and interpretations of the music.

The modern piano

Types of piano

Modern pianos come in two basic configurations and several sizes: the grand piano and the upright piano.

Grand pianos have the frame and strings placed horizontally, with the strings extending away from the keyboard. This avoids the problems inherent in an upright piano, but takes up a large amount of space and needs a spacious room with high ceilings for proper resonance. Several sizes of grand piano exist. Manufacturers and models vary, but as a rough guide we can distinguish the “concert grand”, approximately. 3 m; the “grand”, approximately. 1.8 m; and the smaller “baby grand”, which may be a bit shorter than it is wide. All else being equal, longer pianos have better sound and lower inharmonicity of the strings (so that the strings can be tuned closer to equal temperament in relation to the standard pitch with less stretching), so that full-size grands are almost always used for public concerts, whereas baby grands are only for domestic use where space and cost are crucial considerations.

Upright pianos, also called vertical pianos, are more compact because the frame and strings are placed vertically, extending in both directions from the keyboard and hammers. It is considered harder to produce a sensitive piano action when the hammers move sideways, rather than upward against gravity; however, the very best upright pianos now approach the level of grand pianos of the same size in tone quality and responsiveness. For recent advances, see Innovations in the piano.

In 1863, Henri Fourneaux invented the player piano, a kind of piano which “plays itself” from a piano roll without the need for a pianist. Also in the 19th century, toy pianos began to be manufactured.

A relatively recent development is the prepared piano, which is a piano adapted in some way by placing objects inside the instrument, or changing its mechanism in some way.

Since the 1980s, digital pianos have been available, which use digital sampling technology to reproduce the sound of each piano note. Digital pianos have become quite sophisticated, with standard pedals, weighted keys, multiple voices, MIDI interfaces, and so on in the better models. However, with current technology, it remains difficult to duplicate a crucial aspect of acoustic pianos, namely that when the damper pedal (see below) is depressed, the strings not struck vibrate sympathetically with the struck strings. Since this sympathetic vibration is considered central to a beautiful piano tone, digital pianos are still not considered by most experts as competing with the best acoustic pianos in tone quality. Progress is now being made in this area by including physical models of sympathetic vibration in the synthesis software.

Keyboard

Almost every modern piano has 88 keys (seven octaves and a bit, from A0 to C8). Many older pianos only have 85 (from A0 to A7), while some manufacturers extend the range further in one or both directions. The most notable example of an extended range can be found on Bösendorfer pianos, some of which extend the normal range downwards to F0, with others going as far as a bottom C0, making a full eight octave range. On some models these extra keys are hidden under a small hinged lid, which can be flipped down to cover the keys and avoid visual disorientation in a pianist unfamiliar with the extended keyboard; on others, the colours of the extra keys are reversed (black instead of white and vice versa) for the same reason. The extra keys are added primarily for increased resonance; that is, they vibrate sympathetically with other strings whenever the damper pedal is depressed and thus give a fuller tone. Only a very small number of works composed for piano actually use these notes. More recently, the Stuart and Sons company has also manufactured extended-range pianos. On their instruments, the range is extended up the treble for a full eight octaves. The extra keys are the same as the other keys in appearance.

For the arrangement of the keys on a piano keyboard, see Musical keyboard. This arrangement was inherited from the harpsichord without change, with the trivial exception of the colour scheme (white for naturals and black for sharps) which became standard for pianos in the late 18th century.

Pedals

Pianos have had pedals, or some close equivalent, since the earliest days. (In the 18th century, some pianos used levers pressed upward by the player’s knee instead of pedals.) The three pedals that have become more or less standard on the modern piano are the following.

The damper pedal (also called the sustaining pedal or loud pedal) is often simply called “the pedal,” since it is the most frequently used. It is placed as the rightmost pedal in the group. Every note on the piano, except the top two octaves, is equipped with a damper, which is a padded device that prevents the strings from vibrating. The damper is raised off the strings of its note whenever the key for that note is pressed. When the damper pedal is pressed, all the dampers on the piano are lifted at once, so that every string can vibrate. This serves two purposes. First, it permits notes to be connected (i.e., played legato) when there is no fingering that would make this possible. More important, raising the damper pedal causes all the strings to vibrate sympathetically with whatever notes are being played, which greatly enriches the tone.

Piano music starting with Chopin tends to be heavily pedalled, as a means of achieving a singing tone. In contrast, the damper pedal was used only sparingly by the composers of the 18th century, including Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; in that era, pedalling was considered primarily as a special coloristic effect.

The soft pedal or “una corda” pedal is placed leftmost in the row of pedals. On a grand piano, this pedal shifts the action to one side slightly, so that hammers that normally strike all three of the strings for a note strike only two of them. This softens the note and also modifies its tone quality. For notation of the soft pedal in printed music, see Italian musical terms.

The soft pedal was invented by Cristofori and thus appeared on the very earliest pianos. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the soft pedal was more effective than today, since it was possible at that time to use it to strike three, two or even just one string per note—this is the origin of the name “una corda”, Italian for “one string”. In modern pianos, the strings are spaced too closely to permit a true “una corda” effect—if shifted far enough to strike just one string on one note, the hammers would also strike the string of the next note over.

On upright pianos, the soft pedal is replaced by a mechanism for moving the hammers’ resting position closer to the strings. This reduces volume, but does not change tone quality as a true “una corda” pedal does.

Digital pianos often use this pedal to alter the sound of other instruments like organs, guitars, and harmonicas. Pitch bends, leslie speaker on/off, vibrato modulation, etc. increase the already-great versatility of such instruments.

The sostenuto pedal or “middle pedal” maintains in the raised position any damper that was raised at the moment the pedal was depressed. It makes it possible to sustain some notes (depress the sostenuto pedal before releasing the notes to be sustained) while the player’s hands have moved on to play other notes, which can be useful for musical passages with pedal points and other tricky situations. The sostenuto pedal was the last of the three pedals to be added to the standard piano, and to this day many cheap pianos—and even a few good ones— do not have a sostenuto pedal. (Almost all modern grand pianos have a sostenuto; most upright pianos do not.) A number of twentieth-century works call for the use of this pedal.

Over the years, the middle pedal has served many different functions. Some upright pianos have a practice pedal in place of the sostenuto. This pedal, which can usually be locked in place by depressing it and pushing it to one side, drops a strip of felt between the hammers and the keys so that all the notes are greatly muted— a handy feature for those who wish to practice at odd hours without disturbing others in the house. The practice pedal is rarely used in performance. Other uprights have a bass sustain as a middle pedal. It works the same as the damper pedal except it only lifts the dampers for the low end notes.

Irving Berlin’s famed Transposing Piano used the middle pedal as a clutch to shift the keyboard with a lever. The entire action of the piano would shift to allow the operator to play in any key.

More Resources

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Related Piano history
Clavichord History
Harpsichord History
Keyboard History
Organ History

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