Why the Piano Was Invented
Like all great inventions, the piano was developed with a purpose in mind - to make life easier in some way. It did so magnificently, providing an instrument that appealed to people at all levels and from all walks of life, giving many of them the incentive to create some of the world's most popular music.
The piano was invented in the late 17th century to solve some serious problems with keyboard instruments.
- First, although there were lots of keyboard type instruments available, they were all slightly different from one another. Some had basic dynamic control, but when there were a bunch of instruments playing together it became difficult to hear the keyboards.
- Second, with the exception of organs most keyboards had no way of sustaining notes. This didn't matter in up-beat pieces, but it made a big difference in some of the slower, gentler movements.
- Third, manufacturers were forced to produce harpsichords with two layers of keys (or manuals), one to play the quiet passages on and another for the louder parts.
But then, everything changed.
An Italian instrument maker named Bartolomeo Cristofori solved all three problems. He came up with a revolutionary idea to produce loud and soft notes, sustain and dynamic variety, all from the same instrument. And he called this new keyboard instrument the pianoforte.
Piano Hammers Its Message Home
What Cristofori did was positively ingenious. He didn't set out to reinvent the wheel, just to apply a new concept to an old design. The body and frame of the new “piano” was modeled on that of earlier instruments, but the way the keys worked to produce a sound was the real difference, the master stroke.
Harpsichords and clavichords work by plucking or striking strings with quills or tangents respectively. In the case of clavichords, the leather tangents rest on the strings until the next note is struck, making sustain virtually impossible. Harpsichords use a plucking action, so some sustain is possible. But these generally pluck single strings with quills, so the resulting sound tends to be thin and small.
Cristofori’s idea was to strike the strings with hammers that fell back from the strings as soon as their job was done. It was brilliant! Sustain was possible, and the extra volume gained from not damping (resting on) the strings was tremendous. Not only that, but the action was so fluid that one could play many repeated notes quickly and with variety of tone.
Giving the Piano a Name
It was now much easier to play soft and loud on the same keyboard, so he decided to call his new instrument the “soft and loud”, or the pianoforte. (Piano is the Italian word for soft, and forte the Italian word for loud.) The word “piano” is simply an abbreviation of the longer word “pianoforte.”
No one knows exactly when the first piano was built, although it’s estimated to have been sometime around 1700 during the Baroque era. We know that Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the first composers to try out this new instrument, but it would be left to his sons to write music especially for it.
Much of the best classical repertoire includes many fine examples of piano music. But that’s no surprise: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms — all the great classical and romantic composers wrote for it. Naturally it was a very different instrument to the one we know today, but it provided them with an outlet for expression they couldn't get anywhere else.
Piano's on a Roll
After hundreds of years of evolution and development, the piano continues to be a major force in the world of music. People still want to learn to play it, to watch others play it, and to find new ways of using it for making music. And with the almost limitless possibilities the piano provides, this trend is likely to continue for a very long time.
A keyboard instrument, a percussion instrument, and a string instrument, the humble pianoforte is at home in more combinations than practically any other musical instrument, including solo work, accompanying, or performing with a full orchestra. Its unmistakable tone and character have helped to cement its place in the hearts and minds of all who hear it. Of all the inventions of the last few hundred years, the piano has proven its value and maintained its status as the king of instruments with force and dignity. Long may it continue.