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Piano History

Beginning - Developements - Today - Future


People at the piano woman at piano

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Pre Piano

Long ago the invention of the stringed instrument started the journey of man vibrating strings which eventually led to the piano. Even the Bible has recorded history of musical progress where it is says at Genesis 4:21 "His brother's name was Jubal. He was the founder of all those who play the harp and the pipe". Jubal either invented these instruments or perhaps he founded the musical profession. This puts us back about 6000 years. Many ancient cultures made stringed instruments such as the oud (lute) which is said to go back as far as Abraham or 2000 BCE. The harp in it's various forms was very popular in the ancient world probably because of its pleasant tone and it was easy to carry. Most notable for the piano developement would be the ancient santur (dulcimer); a stringed instrument played by hitting the strings with a hammer. So there it is; strings hit with a hammer just like a piano. What was yet to be developed was the "key" and other mechanisms to  form the piano. Which brings us to the organ.

santur
ancient babylonian santur (1600-911 BCE)

Pre Piano Media

Harp style from pre 1000 BCE 

Santur similar to Ancient version

Oud (lute) origin possibly (c. 1350 BCE Egypt)

Beginning

In order to understand where the piano came from we must first mention the organ.The organ was invented in the 3rd century BCE in Greece and was no doubt the first musical instrument to have keys to activate sounds. The mechanical function of the organ eventually came to be air being forced through basically whistles for sound and later on in 1840 CE the reed organ was invented which forced air across reeds to vibrate them and create sound. So you have an organ; either a set of whistles at different pitches or with reeds which is basically a giant harmonica. In any case the key had been invented to enable fingers to play single notes to create chords and melody. This was critical to the later developement of the clavichord, harpsichord and piano.

Before addressing the harpsichord a mention of the clavichord is in order. The clavichord was invented in 1404 and was small and fairly quiet. It's significant because it has keys and a mechanism that "hit" strings which is what the piano does. The sound of the clavichord is similar to the violin technique of collegno where the back of the bow strikes the string but more metallic because the clavidhord uses brass to hit the string. The clavichord was mostly used as a practice instrument or in the home during the late middle ages into the Renaissance, Baroque and Classical eras. The way it works is simple, unique and very ingenius. The media section has a video with an explanation of how it works. The clavichord must have been a springboard for the harpsichord or at least a source of inspiration to continue inventing keyboard stringed instruments.

In 1500 CE eighteen hundred years after the invention of the organ and ninety six years after the invention of the clavichord the harpsichord was invented in Italy. It's use would spread throughout Europe and other countries. With the harpsichord we have keys combined with a mechanism to mechanically pluck strings similar to the pluck of the oud or harp but with very limited dynamics (soft and loud). If you listen to the videos in the media section you will notice the finesse that is obtainable with the harp, santur and oud giving very soft passages with other loud sections resulting in wonderful dynamics (soft and loud). Then, if you listen to the harpsichord videos in comparison you will notice the attack and volume of each keystrike is about the same. Despite the dynamic drawbacks of the harpsichord though, it ended up being very popular and had a firm place in professional musical composition and performance. This lack of dynamics in the harpsichord is what led to the invention of the "Pianoforte" the Italian term for "soft loud"

Credit for the invention of the piano is generally given to Bartolomeo Christifori. Wanting to produce an instrument that had more dynamics (soft and loud) Cristofori developed the fortepiano or sometimes called the pianoforte. Because the mechanism was hitting the strings instead of plucking them like the harpsichord, the player could vary the dynamics by how hard the key was struck. This was similar to the ancient santur except the hammer hitting the notes was engaged by the key and not a hand held hammer. The sound of the first fortepianos was similar to the santur and harpsichord because the hammers were rather hard, however, developement of hammers with different material changed this. The main difference between early pianoforte's and harpsichords was the availability of dynamics with the pianoforte also having a less edgy sound especially when played softly. In the Media section, the Beethoven Moonlight Sonata performance demonstrates the beautiful dynamic range that the pianoforte was capable of. To have this instrument available for the first time was certainly exciting for the composers and performers of the day. It was large so it had power and volume and yet could play a delicate quiet passasge as well. The moonlight sonata would not sound the same on a harpsichord.

Facts of interest

  • Cristofori built harpsichords before his pianoforte
  • The pianoforte was not very popular at it's start
  • Bach, Handel and Vivaldi were in the middle of thier career when the pianoforte was invented
  • Hayden, Mozart and Beethoven where active when both harpsichord and pianoforte were popular
  • The pianoforte only had a range of four octaves when invented
  • Beethovens last pianoforte works were six and a half octaves
  • There are pianoforte makers today

Bartolomeo Cristofori

Beethoven admired the piano and pressed its makers for inovation. He wanted different kinds of piano sounds. No doubt he would have a stack of synthesizers if he was alive today. Musicians realized the potential of the pianoforte and its popularity grew and grew until the harpsichord was relegated to the back room. These developements of the piano would lead to a modern piano with its power and abilty to be played at all dynamic levels and to be incorporated into about every form of music.

Beginning Media

An early organ with hand pumps

The clavichord explained

Harpsichord examined and explained

The oldest Crisofori piano

A Pianoforte explanation

Performance of Beethoven on piano forte

Development

If all the experiments and developements to improve the piano were written down you would have a pretty fat book. Below are some of the more notable improvemnts that over the course of about 200 years gave us the piano we know today.

  • Overstrung bass section
  • Wound bass strings to allow shorter pianos and improve tone
  • Three string unisons to increase volume
  • Repetition lever to improve-(;- "repetition"
  • Cast iron plate to accomodate increased tension
  • Increased octave range to eight
  • More robust hammers made of wool to improve tone quality
  • Thicker plain wire for volume and tone
  • Soundboard design for projection and sound quality
  • Various action improvements for playability
  • Patents too numerous to mention that offered a change or suggested improvment in so many areas

By the early 20th century development was rather exhausted and as it turns out some of the best pianos were manufactured from 1900 to 1930. Up to about 1930 there were floods of ideas and experiments that were explored by many manufacturers. It always came back to what we see as a piano today with a spruce soundboard and the standard key action on almost every piano made. Due to various circumstances and economical situations the piano was pretty much at a fully developed level by the time the great depression began at which point the piano industry took a bit of a turn. Several new ideas were attemped along the way. Although some were good, many were a complete failure. One innovation that was successful because of improved plastics technology is composite action parts which is really just quality plastic that will not deteriorate and is more stable than wood parts. Time will tell us about the longevity of these "composite" parts

Developement Media

A two part demonstration of the piano developement

Part two

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Today

In the early twentieth century there were hundreds of piano makers. Today by comparison there is a handful. There have been wonderful instruments designed and made over the years and some really bad ones too. Many more pianos are just good or OK. This is what we have in our homes as of 2023. These are the pianos of today. To many; if it has keys and makes a sound like a piano it is a piano. This is true, however, the range of quality and craftmanship is all over the place. The manufacture of many instruments today is driven by the economy and not necessarily by the desire to build a quality instrument. There are pianos very well made in Europe and Japan and a handful in the USA. New piano sales have come to a trickle. Good Piano technicians are becoming rare although there has been a slight increase as of late due to quality schools and training institutions.

As far as continued improvement there are a few interesting developements. A number of ingenious technicians and designers have made various changes in soundboard and bridge design. Many action parts are at an all time high for quality. Some of the hammers now available have a most excellent tone due to very high quality felt. Electronics have brought us the modern player piano that is controlled from your phone over Wifi. Understanding of leverage and physics has increased the quality of playabliity. There have been many improvements in lubricants, plastics, metalurgy, finish technology, computerized manufacture, handbuilding skills, glue technology, humidity control, electronic tuning technology, electric tools, mechanical design and the list could go on. Interestingly with all of this advancement the piano is still pretty much what is was in the early twentieth century. Put a new high quality piano next to a well designed and well restored 1915 piano and they are pretty much the same and not too many people would realize much differance.

There are some drawbacks to our modern world of piano manufacture and the one that is worth mentioning above all others is the over harvesting of our forest products. Old growth wood or wood that has been growing for decades is really not available anymore. Wood is the heart of the piano sound along with the felt which comes from Merino sheep. Without these wonderful resources our idea of the piano would not exist.

merino sheep
Prize winning merino ram 1905 Sydney

It would be wrong to not mention the brother of the grand piano and that is the upright or vertical piano; the ones that sit against a wall or you see in churches and schools and saloons. This type of piano is not at all like Cristofori's pianoforte except it has hammers, keys and a soundboard with strings. Mechanically it is radically different. Vertical pianos rely on springs quite a lot whereas the grand piano relys on gravity. That being said, There are vertial pianos that are excellent instruments and without them many a home and school or saloon would not have a piano. Also, player pianos in the early twentieth century were almost always in an upright or vertical piano.

Before leaving the piano of today section one more development should be highlighted. A few years ago there was a musician by the name of Nils Frahm who thought it would be interesting to have a piano with only one string per note instead of three which modern pianos have. His desire was an innovation that would give him a softer sound. He also wanted the ability to put microphones on it as well as different cloth-type materials inbetween the hammers and strings to change the sound. He found David Klavins an independant piano maker who was able to fulfill his request. It is called the Una Corda and has a wonderful sound (see Today Media section). This type of experimentation and innovation is very similar to what Cristofori did when he considered the drawbacks of the harpsichord and made a pianoforte. It sure would be encourageing to see more of this thinking and experimentation.

Today Media

The Wapin bridge innovation

Wessel Nickel & Gross Composite action

vertical piano action

Vertical piano action

Creating the Una Corda

Big or small

Future

The future of the piano is up in the air currently. There are still people who want pianos but the world we live in is not necessarily starving for the piano as it was in the past. During certain periods in history the piano was quite available as a form of entertainment and was popular like crazy. For a few centuries sheet music was sold everywhere and all the popular songs of the day could be played on the piano while everyone around it sang and danced. In the 1890's the player piano was invented and now you could buy your favorite rolls load them up and pump out your favorite songs. Today we have electronics; iphones and android phones, tablets, laptops and desktops, large screen TV with streaming services for every sort of entertainment, electronic keyboards, recording apps and programs with every musical sound ever made and yes every piano sound the world has ever known including the above mentioned Una Corda just invented as an app. Today you can cook up your own song in a matter of minutes upload it to the internet and share it with the world. Is there still room for the piano in the world? To some extent yes but interest is lukewarm for many.

Below is a chart of Instrument classification. Pianos are unique like the santur or dulcimer in that they are a chordophone but very like a percussion instrument in that the strings are struck with a hammer like a drum (membranophone). Technically we can call the piano a chordophone and percussion combined. The harpsichord is strickly a chordophone since it is plucked.  

classification

We still have guitars, violins, trumpets, flutes etc., etc. Most instruments are easy to transport for the most part. To move a piano you need at least one strong man and a truck. The world is more transient and small living is becoming more popular. Pianos may fall into the catagory of expensive luxury just give me a key controller and my favorite music app. Pianos are expensive to buy, expensive to repair and expensive to restore. The clavicord mentioned in the beginning section was a small keyboard instrument. Perhaps that will become popular again in an improved version. The Una Corda has a very pleasant sound but it is still big and heavy. The ancient world had instruments you could carry. Perhaps we will go back to that. People will have santur's, oud's, flute's, drums, tambourines and other easily carried music

What the future holds for the piano we shall see. It is a big beautiful and powerful instrument. Andre Segovia a guitar player once called the piano 'a monster'. It "is" verg large and heavy. I am a piano technician and I have taken pianos apart and put them back together. My conclusion is the same as Segovia's; "they are a monster", a gentle giant though. Wasn't that the goal of Cristofori? And now we have what he set out to accomplish; pianoforte (soft and loud). The piano can growl so very loud and strong yet it can also be played as quiet as a meow. He certainly improved the harpsichord didn't he? Thank you Bartolomeo Crisofori!!

Future Media

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