Why the Piano Is a Giant Among Instruments
In the kingdom of the instruments (barring pipe organs) the piano reigns supreme. Not only is it one of the largest instruments you can play, but it also offers a variety of expression and playing potential unrivalled amongst its cousins. As much at home in the concert hall as in the front room, it's a keyboard, a percussion instrument, and a stringed instrument, capable of being played on its own or as a substitute for an entire orchestra.
With an average of 88 keys spread over more than seven octaves, no other acoustic instrument can lay claim to the power, depth, and versatility of a piano. From the simplest melody to the most complicated harmonies and contrapuntal textures, the piano makes musicians out of young and old, amateur and professional, from the moment that first key is pressed.
Pianos Come in All Shapes and Sizes
With the exception of the pipe organ, the piano is the largest instrument on the planet. Even the smallest upright piano needs a decent amount of space to house it appropriately, while grand pianos can weigh in at as much as 1400 pounds.
Most modern pianos come with 88 keys - 52 white and 36 black - although there are naturally exceptions. Pianos with smaller keyboards are often manufactured for use in rehearsal rooms, while some makers of grand pianos have extended the range down to bottom C. These extra notes are often accessed via a flip-up panel, giving the piano an otherwise normal appearance.
Designs differ even with the least expensive models, some uprights being just a few feet tall. And there are so many variations between grand pianos that they've had to be classified according to their length:
- Baby grand - up to 5 feet long
- Parlor (or boudoir) grand - 6 to 7 feet long
- Concert grand - up to 10 feet long
Pianos Contain More Notes
No other instrument has as many notes on offer as the piano. It plays lower notes than a double bassoon and higher notes than a piccolo. It’s the only instrument with 88 separate keys, and you can play the lowest and highest notes all at the same time, a trick that can't be achieved by many other instruments.
The range of notes that can be played on the standard piano is staggering. From the lowest note A to the highest note C, even the simplest scale passage from one to the other would take an army of other instruments to match.
Piano Solo or in Combination
Few other instruments possess the versatility of the piano. Play it on its own, or use it to accompany a singer, a flautist, a guitarist or trombonist. Dazzle audiences as you rip through a piano concerto, playing with the largest orchestra, or become the orchestra yourself as you accompany any solo instrument.
Piano, Forte, and Everything In Between
The piano can produce the softest, most delicate notes up in the higher register, or it can be used to pound out thunderous booming low notes. Its full name is pianoforte - the combination of the Italian words "piano" and "forte" - meaning soft and loud respectively. And naturally, the piano can create every subtle variation possible between those two extremes.
That’s why it’s possible for a piano to accompany a soloist on the flute, for example, without drowning them out - or perform with the biggest orchestral forces and still be heard above them.
Pianos Blend and Fit
Most people think of the piano as a keyboard instrument, similar in design and possibility to an organ or harpsichord. But the piano is much more than that.
Think of almost any other instrument - the trumpet, for instance - and you can automatically classify it. The trumpet is a brass instrument. That's the family it belongs to, and that's the only family it fits in. Not so with the piano.
That it's a keyboard instrument is undeniable, but that's only part of the story. Look below the surface and you'll find two bits of clever apparatus that allow it to participate in the families of other instruments with dignity and a sense of belonging:
- Hammers - when you press a key on the piano it throws a hammer forward to strike the strings. Pressing the key down is a percussive activity, as is the action created when the hammer gets thrust at and comes into contact with the strings.
- Strings - inside the average piano you'll find as many as 230 strings, distributed in sets of one, two, or three depending on their position. Lower notes have one string, middle notes two, and higher notes three, producing a rich variety of resonating sound.
So the piano can claim to be the only keyboard instrument that also holds membership of the string family and the percussion family. It can be used to play melodies, accompaniment, or both at the same time. It can play staccato and legato at the same time, or be used to hold down a chord with one hand while the other gets up to all sorts of musical whimsy.
Whichever way you look at it, the piano deserves its place at the top of the musical hierarchy. And how many other instruments are there that can play themselves (see video below)?