A Complete Piano History
Piano history isn’t common knowledge, even though it’s the most popular instrument among musicians.
Few know of the countless lives lost during the first and second Dulcimer Wars. Yet, even those events pale compared to the Harpsichord Revolution, which forever changed the instrument’s fate.
Seriously though, the modern piano we all know and love is hardly the first manifestation of this instrument. Creating the sophisticated instrument that we’re all familiar with took generations of tweaking and modifying.
Inventions rarely come into existence in their final form. Just like their creators, piano designs evolve with the times. With each new form, the instrument adapts to the needs of musicians in that era.
The developments that produced the modern piano took place over centuries, passing through the hands of many musicians and inventors who lived and died in entirely different civilizations.
So sit down, grab a drink and let us acquaint you with the history of the piano.
Piano history timeline.
While the history of the piano does not contain any wars or revolutions (at least none on record), the way the grand piano came to be is quite interesting.
Understanding piano history means learning about its lineage. What better place to begin than with the piano’s oldest and simplest ancestor?
The ancestry of the piano began around 500 BC when the Greeks invented the first monochord.
The monochord is a single string that stretches over a hollow, resonating body. The musician moves a bridge (a wooden triangle) to manipulate the sound. By doing so, you divide the distance between each end of the body and create different pitches.
Using this instrument, Pythagoras discovered the consonant musical intervals. Eventually, the monochord would help him put together a theory of the world’s inner workings–the universe could be understood through harmony and mathematical ratios.
In the 11th century, Guido of Arezzo used the monochord to teach choirs to sing and chant. The tool was also useful for detecting incorrect pitches and tuning other instruments.
After the monochord, we see the emergence of:
The polychord–you guessed it–comes with two or more strings. However, the polychord does not refer to a single instrument.
The piano family tree is split into two categories, a polychord with a bridge and without a bridge. We see a variety of instruments emerge between the polychord and the piano, but perhaps the most notable is the Dulcimer, the Harpsichord, and the Clavichord.
With this ancestor, we begin to see similarities with the modern piano.
Pianos fall into the categories of both string and percussion instruments. Most stringed instruments are plucked; however, the Hammered Dulcimer introduces the concept of striking the strings.
Originating in the Middle East, the dulcimer eventually found its way to Europe around the 11th century. It’s built with strings and a hollow resonating box. Musicians use spoon-shaped mallets to strike the strings, creating beautiful sounds.
Appearing on the scene in the 14th century, the clavichord is also part of the keyboard family. Its origins lie with the organ, which uses pipes and bursts of air to create sound.
With this ancestor, the striking mechanism goes through a refining process. Rather than using mallets, by pushing down on keys, the musician triggers brass rods (also known as tangents) to strike a string, thereby emitting sound.
However, there are some drawbacks inherent in the clavichord. For instance, it only had a range of four to five octaves, some of the keys struck the exact string (which made it impossible to play them in unison), and it was relatively quiet.
A descendent of the polychord–on the side without bridges–the invention of the harpsichord is when things start to shape up, literally. Many harpsichords have the shape of a grand piano.
While they look similar, the mechanism is different. Rather than striking the strings with hammers, they are plucked with quills.
For a time, the harpsichord and clavichords reigned supreme, although they were not without their issues.
The clavichord was a dynamic instrument that offered the musician more control over the sounds it made. Yet it could not produce loud reverberations, which was not ideal for performing.
As for the harpsichord, it was much larger and could make loud sounds, however, the plucking mechanism was restrictive in terms of sound control.
The stringed instruments were due for another adaptation.
Gravicembalo col piano, e forte.
In the year 1700, the “Gravicembalo col piano, e forte,” which translates roughly to “harpsichord with soft and loud”, would make its first appearance thanks to Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua.
In 1688, Grand Prince Ferdinando de Medici employed the Italian instrument-maker to maintain, tune and repair his collection of musical instruments.
During his time working for the prince, Cristofori would design an intricate mechanical system that enabled the player to control the intensity of the sound. Depending on the musician’s touch, they could create a soft or loud note and even hold a note for a longer period. However, the most noteworthy innovation was the escapement which enabled the hammers to return to their original position post-strike.
Cristofori essentially merged the best qualities of the clavichord and harpsichord. The Pianoforte enabled the musician to create music with greater complexity, and the sound was powerful enough to reach a crowd.
This convergence point in design marks a significant moment in piano history–the foundation for future versions of the pianos is set. With the blueprint laid out, the instrument goes through an optimization phase.
While the piano is dramatically improved, the mechanism remains the same.
With better technology and an industrialized society, we see an explosion of innovation. As a result, modern pianos are far more accessible and affordable. The instrument is offered in an array of shapes and sizes.
Even though some modern pianos look similar to the pianoforte, the structure is not the same. The materials that we have to produce modern pianos are far more vast, and the technologies available ensure that they’re constructed with superior precision and, therefore, quality.
Some of the material changes for the traditional piano include the use of felt-tipped hammers instead of leather, the strings on a modern piano are wound tighter, and keys are made with plastic rather than ivory.
And thanks to electrical power, many pianos have gone digital.
Digital Pianos, keyboards, and synthesizers.
In 1965, Harold Rhodes invented the electric piano, ushering in this era’s version of the instrument.
Since the electric piano made its debut, all kinds of makes and models have emerged. The digital piano emulates the sounds of a grand piano, keyboards offer diverse sound options, and synthesizers enable people to create their own sounds or manipulate others.
The digital piano’s portability and versatility expand the possible environments and settings that we can play in. Artists can partake in the creative process in ways they previously couldn’t, performing has never been easier, and we use pianos in various music genres.
We continue to innovate and play.
What once was a tool has become an instrument that embeds deeply within our musical history. The piano is a fabulous instrument that enables us to immerse ourselves in the creation of music.
If you play the piano and are looking to sharpen your skills and familiarize yourself with the musical world of piano, try out the Simply Piano app.