The piano is a musical instrument which is played by means of a keyboard. Widely used in Western music for solo performances, ensemble use, chamber music, and accompaniment, the piano is also very popular as an aid to composing and rehearsal. Although not portable and often expensive, the piano's versatility and ubiquity have made it one of the world's most familiar musical instruments.
Pressing a key on the piano's keyboard causes a felt covered hammer to strike steel strings. The hammers rebound, allowing the strings to continue vibrating at their resonant frequency. These vibrations are transmitted through a bridge to a sounding board that couples the acoustic energy to the air so that it can be heard as sound. When the key is released, a damper stops the string's vibration. Pianos are sometimes classified as both percussion and stringed instruments. According to the Hornbostel-Sachs method of music classification, they are grouped with chordophones.
The word piano is a shortened form of the word pianoforte, which is derived from the original Italian name for the instrument, clavicembalo [or gravicembalo] col piano e forte (literally harpsichord with soft and loud). This refers to the instrument's responsiveness to keyboard touch, which allows the pianist to produce notes at different dynamic levels by controlling the speed with which the hammers hit the strings.
The piano is founded on earlier technological innovations. The first string instruments with struck strings were the hammered dulcimers originating from the Persian traditional musical instrument santur. During the Middle Ages, there were several attempts at creating stringed keyboard instruments with struck strings, the earliest being the hurdy gurdy which has uncertain origins. By the 17th century, the mechanisms of keyboard instruments such as the clavichord and the harpsichord were well known. In a clavichord the strings are struck by tangents, while in a harpsichord they are plucked by quills.
Centuries of work on the mechanism of the harpsichord in particular had shown the most effective ways to construct the case, soundboard, bridge, and keyboard.
The invention of the modern piano is credited to Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) of Padua, Italy, who was employed by Prince Ferdinand de Medici as the Keeper of the Instruments.
He was an expert harpsichord maker and was well acquainted with the previous body of knowledge on stringed keyboard instruments. It is not known exactly when Cristofori first built a piano. An inventory made by his employers, the Medici family, indicates the existence of a piano by the year 1700; another document of doubtful authenticity indicates a date of 1698. The three Cristofori pianos that survive today date from the 1720s.
Cristofori's great success was in solving, without any prior example, the fundamental mechanical problem of piano design: the hammer must strike the string, but not remain in contact with it (as a tangent remains in contact with a clavichord string) because this would damp the sound. Moreover, the hammer must return to its 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 followed. While Cristofori's early instruments were made with thin strings and were much quieter than the modern piano, compared to the clavichord (the only previous keyboard instrument capable of minutely controlled dynamic nuance through the keyboard) they were considerably louder and had more sustaining power.
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 because 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, with one important addition: Silbermann invented the forerunner of the modern damper pedal, which lifts all the dampers from the strings at once.
Silbermann showed Johann Sebastian Bach one of his early instruments in the 1730s, but Bach did not like it at that time, claiming that the higher notes were too soft to allow a full dynamic range. Although this earned him some animosity from Silbermann, the criticism was apparently heeded. Bach did approve of a later instrument he saw in 1747, and even served as an agent in selling Silbermann's pianos.
Piano making flourished during the late 18th century in the Viennese school, which included Johann Andreas Stein (who worked in Augsburg, Germany) and the Viennese makers Nannette Streicher (daughter of Stein) and Anton Walter. Viennese-style pianos were built with wood frames, two strings per note, and had leather-covered hammers. Some of these Viennese pianos had the opposite coloring of modern-day pianos; the natural keys were black and the accidental keys white.
It was for such instruments that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed his concertos and sonatas, and replicas of them are built today for use in authentic-instrument performance of his music. The pianos of Mozart's day had a softer, clearer tone than today's pianos or English pianos, with less sustaining power. The term fortepiano is nowadays often used to distinguish the 18th-century instrument from later pianos.
The modern piano (the pianoforte) was developed from the harpsichord around 1720, by Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua, Italy. His new instrument had a delicate pianissimo (very soft sound), a strong fortissimo (a very loud, forceful sound), and every level in between.
The first upright piano was made around 1780 by Johann Schmidt of Salzburg, Austria. Thomas Loud of London developed an upright piano whose strings ran diagonally (in 1802), saving even more space.
Development of the modern piano
In the period lasting from about 1790 to 1860, the Mozart-era piano underwent tremendous changes that led to the modern form of the instrument. This revolution was in response to a consistent preference by composers and pianists for a more powerful, sustained piano sound, and made possible by the ongoing Industrial Revolution with technological resources such as high-quality steel, called piano wire, for strings, and precision casting for the production of iron frames. Over time, the tonal range of the piano was also increased from the five octaves of Mozart's day to the 7¼ or more octaves found on modern pianos.
Early technological progress owed much to the firm of Broadwood. John Broadwood joined with another Scot, Robert Stodart, and a Dutchman, Americus Backers, to design a piano in the harpsichord case – the origin of the "grand". They achieved this in about 1777. They quickly gained a reputation for the splendour and powerful tone of their instruments, with Broadwood constructing ones that were progressively larger, louder, and more robustly constructed. They sent pianos to both Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven, and were the first firm to build pianos with a range of more than five octaves: five octaves and a fifth during the 1790s, six octaves by 1810 (Beethoven used the extra notes in his later works), and seven octaves by 1820. The Viennese makers similarly followed these trends, however the two schools used different piano actions: Broadwoods were more robust, Viennese instruments were more sensitive.
By the 1820s, the center of innovation had shifted to Paris, where the Pleyel firm manufactured pianos used by Frédéric Chopin and the Érard firm manufactured those used by Franz 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. This facilitated rapid playing of repeated notes, and this musical device was pioneered by Liszt. When the invention became public, as revised by Henri Herz, the double escapement action gradually became standard in grand pianos, and is still incorporated into all grand pianos currently produced.
One of the major technical innovations that helped to create the sound of the modern piano was the use of a strong iron frame. Also called the "plate", the iron frame sits atop the soundboard, and serves as the primary bulwark against the force of string tension.
The increased structural integrity of the iron frame allowed the use of thicker, tenser, and more numerous strings. In a modern grand the total string tension can exceed 20 tons. The single piece cast iron frame was patented in 1825 in Boston by Alpheus Babcock, combining the metal hitch pin plate (1821, claimed by Broadwood on behalf of Samuel Hervé) and resisting bars (Thom and Allen, 1820, but also claimed by Broadwood and Érard). Babcock later worked for the Chickering & Mackays firm who patented the first full iron frame for grand pianos in 1843. Composite forged metal frames were preferred by many European makers until the American system was fully adopted by the early 20th century.
Other innovations for the mechanism included the use of felt hammer coverings instead of layered leather hammers. Felt hammers, which were first introduced by Henri Pape in 1826, were a more consistent material, permitting wider dynamic ranges as hammer weights and string tension increased. The sostenuto pedal (see below), invented in 1844 by Jean Louis Boisselot and improved by the Steinway firm in 1874, allowed a wider range of effects.Other important technical innovations of this era included changes to the way the piano was strung, such as the use of a "choir" of three strings rather than two for all but the lower notes, and the use of different stringing methods. With the over strung scale, also called "cross-stringing", the strings are placed in a vertically overlapping slanted arrangement, with two heights of bridges on the soundboard instead of just one. This permits larger, but not necessarily longer, strings to fit within the case of the piano. Over stringing was invented by Jean-Henri Pape during the 1820s, and first patented for use in grand pianos in the United StatesHenry Steinway Jr. in 1859.
With duplexes or aliquot scales, which was patented in 1872 by Theodore Steinway, the different components of string vibrations are controlled by tuning their secondary parts in octave relationships with the sounding lengths. Similar systems developed by Blüthner (1872), as well as Taskin (1788), and Collard (1821) used more distinctly ringing undamped vibrations to modify tone.
Some early pianos had shapes and designs that are no longer in use. The square piano had horizontal strings arranged diagonally across the rectangular case above the hammers and with the keyboard set in the long side. This design is attributed to Gottfried Silbermann or Christian Ernst Friderici on the continent, and Johannes Zumpe or Harman Vietor in England and it was improved by changes first introduced by Guillaume-Lebrecht Petzold in France and Alpheus Babcock in the United States.
Square pianos were built in great numbers through the 1840s in Europe and the 1890s in America, and saw the most visible changes of any type of piano: the celebrated iron framed over strung squares manufactured by Steinway & Sons were more than two and a half times the size of Zumpe's wood framed instruments from a century before. Their overwhelming popularity was due to inexpensive construction and price, although their performance and tone were often limited by simple actions and closely spaced strings.
The tall, vertically strung upright grand was arranged like a grand set on end, with the soundboard and bridges above the keys, and tuning pins below them. The term was later revived by many manufacturers for advertising purposes. Giraffe, pyramid and lyre pianos were arranged in a somewhat similar fashion in evocatively shaped cases.
The very tall cabinet piano was introduced about 1805 and was built through the 1840s. It had strings arranged vertically on a continuous frame with bridges extended nearly to the floor, behind the keyboard and very large sticker action. The short cottage upright or pianino with vertical stringing, made popular by Robert Wornum around 1815, was built into the 20th century.
They are informally called birdcage pianos because of their prominent damper mechanism. Pianinos were distinguished from the oblique, or diagonally strung upright made popular in France by Roller & Blanchet during the late 1820s. The tiny spinet upright was manufactured from the mid-1930s until recent times. The low position of the hammers required the use of a "drop action" to preserve a reasonable keyboard height.
Modern upright and grand pianos attained their present forms by the end of the 19th century. Improvements have been made in manufacturing processes, and many individual details of the instrument continue to receive attention.
We will continue with some history =)