We all know it, we all love it, but where did it come from?
Today we’re exploring the history of the piano, it’s (loose) origins and how it became the household instrument we all know and love today. Come take a trip through time with us!
When most people think of a grand piano, a particular shape and style comes to mind, the large soundboard, the long bass strings and of course the hammers. This design is credited to Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) who came up with the design in around 1700. Cristofori had an interesting job title and was employed by Ferdinando de' Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany, as ‘the Keeper of the Instruments’.
Cristofori was actually a master craftsman and expert creator of Harpsichords, which is where our story begins. Harpsichords are unique instruments which were firstly invented towards the end of the Middle Ages. At first glance the harpsichord may give the impression of a piano because of the way its key action functions, unlike pianos, harpsichords use a ‘plucking’ mechanism to create their sound. Because of this mechanism, the user is unable to produce any differences in the dynamics (loudness) of the sound whilst playing - meaning if the player wanted to play quieter or louder, there was no way to do so.
Cristofori grew frustrated with this idea as it prevented the harpsichord to be used effectively in larger groups or with other players as it would be simply drowned out by the other instruments. In order to change this, he completely reconfigured the way in which the instrument interacts with the strings. He opted for hammers, as this would allow the user more control when pressing the keys with various levels of force, producing different levels of sound and dynamics. Thus the modern piano is born!
The instrument was actually first named "clavicembalo col piano e forte" (literally, a harpsichord that can play soft and loud noises). This was shortened to the now common name, "piano."
Why is the piano so unique?
Unlike most instruments, the piano could actually be placed into two of the main three categories of instruments (there are more now with the rise of electronic instruments), however the original three were: String instruments, wind instruments, and percussion instruments. However because pianos use both strings and percussion via the hammers, they are a strange hybrid of the two, this unique interaction between percussion and string makes the instrument entirely unique and helps give it an enormous musical range of what is possible.
Early Examples of The Piano
After Cristofori created the instrument, it remained relatively unknown until around 1711 when Italian writer, Scipione Maffei, wrote an enthusiastic article about it in 1711, including a diagram of the mechanism, that was translated into German and widely distributed.
The article was so well received that it sparked an entirely new wave of piano makers across europe. One of these builders was Gottfried Silbermann, who also introduced the idea of the sustain pedal into the piano. Silbermann showed Johann Sebastian Bach one of his early instruments in the 1730s, but Bach did not like the instrument at that time, saying that the higher notes were too soft to allow a full dynamic range.
From here, the love and passion for the piano continued to flourish. Viennese-style pianos were built with wood frames, two strings per note, and leather-covered hammers and set the basis for the modern pianos we know today. The term fortepiano now distinguishes these early instruments (and modern re-creations) from later pianos due to their softer touch.
By 1777 the foundations of the grand piano was created with full 7 octaves by 1820 (most pianos previously held just 5 octaves) - They quickly gained a reputation for the splendour and powerful tone of their instruments continued to become progressively larger, louder, and more robustly constructed.
The Industrial Revolution also played a large part in the production of pianos, between 1790 to 1860, modern technology meant that resources such as high-quality piano wire for strings, and precision casting for the production of massive iron frames that could withstand the tremendous tension of the strings.
Several important advances also occurred in the way the piano was strung. The use of a "choir" of three strings, rather than two for all but the lowest notes, enhanced the richness and complexity of the treble, giving an even more holistic sound. The use of a Capo d’Astro bar instead of agraffes in the uppermost treble allowed the hammers to strike the strings in their optimal position, greatly increasing that area's power. The implementation of over-stringing in which the strings are placed in two separate planes allowed greater length to the bass strings for a deeper richer sound,
Variations in shape and design
Some early pianos had shapes and designs that are no longer in use. The 'square piano' for example was cross strung at an extremely acute angle above the hammers, with the keyboard set along the long side. Square pianos were built in great numbers through the 1840s in Europe. Their overwhelming popularity was due to inexpensive construction and price, although their tone and performance were limited by narrow soundboards, simple actions and string spacing that made proper hammer alignment difficult.
Following on from this was the creation of the upright piano, a real novelty of engineering. Instead of using the same grand piano action, the action was flipped vertically, and arranged like a grand set on end, with the soundboard and bridges above the keys, and tuning pins below them. Overtime this action has been dramatically improved and the size of uprights reduced to make them more compact.
Modern upright and grand pianos remained relatively unchanged since their present form that was established by the end of the 19th century. While improvements have been made in manufacturing processes, and many individual details of the instrument continue to receive attention, and a small number of acoustic pianos in the 2010s are produced with MIDI recording and digital sound module-triggering capabilities, the 19th century was the era of the most dramatic innovations and modifications of the instrument.
Read More: Upright piano buyers guide - Everything you need to know before buying your first upright piano.
So there you have it, a fully comprehensive history of this incredible instrument! Do you have an old piano you’re looking to shift? Or love the idea of owning a pre-loved historical instrument? Take a look at our second hand piano page here or read our guide to buying second hand pianos here.
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