Short History of Piano


The origins of the piano are in the ancient Greek water organ known as the hydraulis. Water power pushed air through tubes, and the tubes were activated by levers, which became the keyboard we know.

There were seven levers, which correspond to the seven white keys of the piano keyboard. Later, another lever was added, a “black key,” and as time passed other black keys were added, eventually leading to the arrangement of black and white keys we have today.

Think of the further history of the piano in four stages of development: clavichord, harpsichord, fortepiano, and then finally the modern piano.

In medieval times, the first instrument that resembles the piano was called the clavichord. The clavichord has brass strings struck with triangular metal pieces called “tangents.” In comparison to the modern piano, the clavichord’s strings were much smaller and were strung on a small wooden frame, whereas the modern piano has massive steel and copper strings and they are held by a heavy cast-iron frame.

If you have ever heard a clavichord played, you will realize the meaning of the term “lean forward and listen,” because the sound of the clavichord is tiny. It does have expressive possibilities that its successor, the harpsichord, lacked. For example, one can vibrate the string by gently pushing the string up and down with the keyboard key, producing a primitive vibrato.

One can also make a crescendo (getting louder or softer) with a clavichord by simply pressing the keys with a faster stroke.

Next came the harpsichord, in the Baroque era around the 1600s. It may have evolved as musicians simply wanted a louder sound. On the harpsichord the sound is produced by goose quills plucking a thicker brass or iron string.

Harpsichords must have sounded like electric guitars to baroque ears used to the miniscule clavichord. They made a wonderful, metallic racket. Some have double strings, and more than one keyboard so that the volume can be lowered or raised.

In addition, the harpsichord had a few novelty sounds, such as a “lute” stop, which produced a fluffy, muted pluck.

But the harpsichord had one great flaw: it could not get louder or softer without moving an elaborate set of levers, and this had to be done while playing, making such changes awkward at best.

Around 1700, an Italian named Cristofori came up with a mechanism that made sound via felt covered hammers striking heavy iron strings. This became known as the fortepiano, the name itself derived from the Italian words “forte” (loud) and “piano” (soft.)

The great Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the first owners of a fortepiano. He had a primitive model, still in a museum, that had pedal mechanisms worked by the pianist bringing their knees together.

The pedal was one of the keys to the success of the fortepiano, for it made the sound ring and resound in the room, giving a “reverb” quality to the sound.

The development of the modern style grand piano was largely a search for both volume and clarity of expressive power.

The final development was the introduction in the 1800s of the cast iron frame. The cast iron frame allowed the strings to be stretched to thousands of pounds of pressure, producing the massive sound we take for granted today as the modern piano.

The golden age of the piano was from about 1800 to 1925, when everyone had one. There were no cars, no radio, no electricity, and no telephone. There was only the piano

But by 1925, the radio became the rage, then the television, and then the computer.

Still, do you know any other machine that dates from the Renaissance, has thousands of moving parts, and may be sitting in your living room?

The piano is arguably the oldest living complex machine humans have ever made.

Copyright 2017 Walden Pond Press

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