The History Of The Piano

I really wish I could tell you that the history of the piano involved the workshop of some brilliant musical instrument inventor, months of trial and error, hundreds of prototypes, sleepless nights, and a final flash of inspiration. Yes, that would be a pretty cool story, but it wouldn’t be true.

In reality, the organ, clavichord, and harpsichord were around for quite a while before the piano was invented – about 300-400 years. In fact, the piano wasn’t that big of a stretch from the harpsichord and clavichord, but something about the richness and sustainability of its sound helped it stand on its own almost immediately.

The organ, also a keyboard instrument, makes sound when air is blown across pipes of different sizes, just like the sound you get when you blow across a soda bottle – notice how the sound changes with the size of the bottle and the amount of liquid in it.

The harpsichord and clavichord are both string instruments, like the piano. In a harpsichord, a little “plectrum” plucks different strings to sound different notes. In a clavichord, the string is struck by a small metal “tangent” (kind of like a flat-head screwdriver) that not only creates the sound, but controls its pitch, based on where the tangent hits the string.

So How Is The Piano Different?

In 1700, Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco had the idea of striking the strings with a hammer, which produced a much more pronounced and sustained sound. This was the birth of the piano as we know it. Click here to learn about the man who invented the piano.

Soon after Cristofori’s invention, the piano “action” was developed, which not only kept the strings damped when not being played, but also kept the hammers from remaining on the strings after striking them.

The Journey To The Modern Piano

Since we promised this would be a brief history of the piano, let's take a quick stroll through the next 300 years...

In the early 1700's, Gottfried Silbermann invented the precursor to the modern damper pedal, which lifts the dampers from all the strings at once. Viennese pianos of the 18th century - often referred to as fortepianos - incorporated wood frames, two strings per note, and used leather-covered hammers. This gave them a softer, clearer sound than today's pianos, but with less sustain.

From the late 1700's to the late 1800's, iron frames came into use (allowing up to 3 strings per note), as did steel piano wire "strings." Felt hammers began to replace the earlier leather-covered versions in 1826, damper and sostenuto pedals were perfected, and the keyboard grew from 5 octaves to the modern 7 1/2 octaves (or more).

There really weren’t a lot of major changes in the piano over the last 200+ years, which goes to show you that the piano may have been one of those instruments that was just destined to be created! Aren’t you glad it was?

Check out Wikipedia for everything you ever/never wanted to know about the history of the piano.

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