In its 3 centuries of existence, the piano has become one of the world’s most influential musical instruments. The roots of the piano can be traced back to the hammered dulcimer, an instrument thought to have originated from the Middle East as early as 900 C.E. and introduced to Europe in the 12th century by the Spanish Moors. The development of keyboard mechanisms to play the strings lead to two of the piano’s ancestors, the clavichord and the harpsichord.
The Clavichord is the earliest stringed keyboard instrument. It appeared in Europe during the 14th century and remained a popular instrument until 1800. The Clavichord is a rectangular box with sets of double strings that are struck by tangents. The tangent strikes the string and remains in contact with it, acting as a fret and adjusting the length of the string. This means a few notes could be played on the same string, for example, F, #F, and G could all be played on the same string. This lowers the amount of strings needed to play the instrument. At the same time, this also means these notes cannot be played at the same time.
The clavichord differs from the modern piano in a number of ways. The clavichord was a private instrument. Its sound is very quiet, in the mezzo-piano range. It was an instrument that would be found in a person’s bedroom rather than a public performance setting. The strings of the clavichord were also stretched across the instrument perpendicular to the player. This aspect of the design shows its similarity to hammered dulcimers, which also had strings arranged in this fashion.
The harpsichord was a popular instrument in Europe from the 15th to 18th centuries. The term “harpsichord” also refers to a family of plucked keyboard instruments that vary primarily in size and shape. The virginal, spinet, and clavicytherium are common variations in the harpsichord family.
The design of the harpsichord is more similar to the modern piano. The shape of the harpsichord resembles a small, angular grand piano. The size is larger than that of a clavichord and therefore the louder volume makes it more appropriate for public settings, such as churches. When a key is pressed, a jack underneath the strings is raised and the strings are plucked by a plectrum. The problem was that the string would be plucked at the same volume every time a key was pressed, regardless how soft or hard the player would strike the keys.. This means the player could not control the dynamics of the music he or she was playing.
This limitation in design lead luthiers to experiment with different mechanisms to satisfy the need for greater dynamics and musical expression. It was Bartolomeo Cristofori, harpsichord maker and keeper of instruments at the Royal Medici Court in Florence, Italy, who found a solution. In approximately the year 1700, Cristofori created “gravicembalo col piano e forte,” a harpsichord with soft and loud, later shortened to pianoforte and then simply piano. Although his new invention was found on the inventory of instruments belonging to the Florentine Court in 1700, it was speculated that he completed the first pianoforte in 1698-99. The original pianoforte had 54 keys and a range of 4 octaves.
The pianoforte differed from previous stringed keyboards due to a few key innovations. Cristofori’s ingenious hammer mechanism allowed the player to control the dynamics of the music. Keys on the piano could be played with varying pressure to control the volume. He also included an “escapement” mechanism that caused the hammer to fall away from the string after striking it. Using this mechanism, the string could freely vibrate and be struck much louder than a clavichord. Cristofori also used a “check” to keep the moving hammer from bouncing back to re-hit the string and a dampening system that kept strings silent when not being played.
In the 1750s, socio-political problems in Europe caused many instrument makers to move to England. By 1780, two distinct styles of piano making existed, the Viennese, and the English. The Viennese piano was a lighter, with simpler action mechanisms and a wooden frame. The English piano was hefty, often including iron bars added to the wooden framework to support heavier strings and to produce louder volume.
In 1821, Sebastian Erard patented a “double escapement” mechanism which enabled the hammer to re-hit a string before returning to its initial position. This allowed players to rapidly repeat notes, a technique that was not possible on earlier pianos.
In 1859, Steinway & Sons invented their overstrung grand piano. The “overstringing” design placed bass strings over the treble strings resulting in greater quality of sound. Further improvements were made eventually resulting in the Steinway Model D grand piano, which is the most popular choice for professional concert pianists.
Today, the modern piano has 88 keys and a range of 7 octaves. It is a highly sophisticated instrument capable of playing nearly any style and expressing a diversity of moods. It can be played solo or with a variety of ensembles. This power of musical expression has made it a favourite instrument among major composers and the central instrument in the western classical tradition.