Learn The History Of The Piano

Many musicians consider the piano a classical instrument, which is just a way of saying it’s been around for a long time. However, it hasn’t been around forever. If you’re new to the world of the piano as a beginning student, you might not know much about the history of the piano, if anything at all. Correct that now by reading into the following paragraphs to learn some of that.

Instruments are usually divided into three different categories that are based on the sounds they produce. The first category is a string instrument, the second is wind instruments, and the third is percussion instruments. The ancestry of the piano is primarily string-based, as it can be traced back through instruments such as the dulcimer, harpsichord, and clavichord, and even eventually back to the monochord.

Instruments have been around for a long time. The King James Version of the Bible mentions a harp and organ in just the fourth chapter of Genesis. The first known keyboard instrument was the Hydraulis. Ancient Greeks built this in the third century B.C., and it was a precursor to the modern organ. It was only several centuries later that organs were used for important festivities and celebrations throughout Greece, and then spread throughout the Roman Empire, as the Romans adopted and spread Greek culture.

Early keyboards were played using everything from hands, wrists, and fists to feet and knees. Scales were diatonic, like GABCDEF, up until the 1200s, instead of the 12-tone chromatic scale currently in use. Many different stringed keyboard instruments showed up in the 1300s and 1400s. Hammered instruments included the chekker, clavichord, and dulce melos, while plucked instruments included the harpsichord, spinet, and virginal.

All this paved the way to Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua, who lived from 1655 to 1731 and created the modern piano. He was an expert in making harpsichords and created the first piano somewhere between 1697 and 1701. That keyboard certainly didn’t look like modern pianos though, as the natural keys were of black color with white accidentals. It was actually Sebastian LeBlanc who had the idea of switching the colors around. Only three Cristofori pianos are known to have survived until today, and they all date to the 1720s.

When Cristofori invented the piano, the clavichord and the harpsichord were the most popular of all keyboard instruments. They also looked much like modern pianos. The primary difference between them and modern pianos is how they produced their sounds. Clavichord strings get struck by tangents, whereas harpsichord strings get plucked by quills.

The harpsichord had a primary drawback of how it was impossible to control the dynamics of every note. Composers couldn’t convey emotion through music because the softness or loudness wasn’t under the player’s control. An attempt at improving this happened with the clavichord, where strings could keep vibrating as long as their corresponding key was still depressed. Artists could be more expressive, but tones were still too delicate and got drowned out in hall performances.

Cristofori created the piano to blend the dynamics of the clavichord with the volume of the harpsichord. To do this, he set it up so that the hammer would strike the key but not stay in contact with it. Also, he set it up so that the hammer would return to a rest position without violent bouncing, meaning that the instrument could repeat the same note quickly.

Interestingly, the first pianos weren’t even called pianos. The original name in Italian was either ‘cavicembalo col piano e forte’ or ‘gravicembalo col piano e forte’. This was literally translated as a harpsichord that was capable of playing normal levels but with more strength.

The piano was still known as a harpsichord for many years, but by 1732, someone finally shortened the pianoforte name to just piano. The piano hadn’t even been known by many until 1711 when the Italian writer known as Cipione Maffei wrote about it.

Maffei’s writing caught the attention of organ builder Gottfried Silbermann, who started building pianos but with a predecessor to modern damper pedals. He eventually showed one piano to Johann Sebastian Bach in 1736. Legend has it that Bach hated it to the point of destroying it with an ax. However, a later version in 1747 met Bach’s approval. His use of it in performances for royalty of several nations led to the explosion of its popularity across Europe and then also North American colonies. Eventually, it became a living room staple of many a high-class or cultured home.

Hopefully, you didn’t skim through this at rocket speed, but even if you did, you likely picked up more about the history of the piano then you knew previously. Use this newfound knowledge to show your piano teacher that you truly appreciate this magnificent instrument and are taking your lessons seriously.