Things You Didn’t Know About The History Of The Piano

History Of The Piano

The piano is a beautiful instrument that many of us are familiar with today. If you don’t play piano yourself, you may know someone does, or have seen it played live at a concert.

If not, you will certainly have heard it in music you have listened to, regardless of if it is classical or more modern music, the piano features almost everywhere.

Some of the most famous piano players include John Lennon, Beethoven and Chopin, to name just a few.

The piano has a very interesting history, let’s have a look at that now.


Music Is A Part Of Our History

Humans are unique in many things, and one activity that is unique to our species is the making of music for pleasure.

Music speaks to us on an almost primal level, and we can trace back musical instruments, in their different forms, thousands of years.

Even the Greek god Hermes was said to be the inventor of the Lyre, a sort of stringed instrument, and musical instruments were also mentioned in the bible, so as we can see, music really is a part of the human psyche.

The middle ages seems to be where music and musical instruments really started to diversify, and we see many different types of instruments emerging during this time period.

The Hydraulis

Ancient Greece has the claim for the first keyboard instrument – the hydraulis, which was kind of the great great grandfather of the modern organ that we know today. 

The hydraulis was created somewhere around 200 BC by Ctesibius of Alexandria. By the second century the organ was used in almost all Greek festivities, and had been picked up by the Roman empire, and spread all across the world.

As you may know, hydra is a word that means water, and the hydraulis was quite literally a ‘water organ’. The hydraulis was a pipe organ, which used water pressure to drive air into the pipes to produce the sound as the keyboard was played by the musician.

More water organs with slightly different mechanisms were made from this original design, until we finally arrived at the design we know and love today, which may well change as time moves along.

You can learn more about the history of music and instruments at LVL Music Academy.

The Middle Ages

The first stringed instruments that produced sound by the strings being struck by a hammer, which is how the modern piano produces its beautiful sounds, was the hammered dulcimers. 

The hammered dulcimer is an instrument where the strings are strung across a board, and the player uses a small hammer to hit the string to produce the sound.

From here, inventors wanted to create a stringed instrument that was hit with a hammer, but with a keyboard.

After many years of invention and innovation two prominent instruments came forward. The harpsichord and the clavichord.

The harpsichord uses quills to pluck the strings when the player presses a key down, and the clavichord the keys are struck, instead of plucked.

These instruments were popular for hundreds of years, with the harpsichord taking the lead. The makers of this beautiful instrument perfected how to make it, which went a long way to laying the foundations for the modern piano.

The 18th Century

The 18th century was the birth of what we know as the modern piano today. The piano was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731) of Padua, Italy.

Cristofori was a famous harpsichord maker, who excelled at his craft. He was employed by Ferdinando de’ Medici – Grand Prince of Tuscany. 

The exact date of the first piano remains heavily debated by historians, with some saying it was 1698 whilst others insisting it was 1700. What is not in doubt, however, is that the Medici family did regular inventories, and in the records of 1700 a piano was listed in their collection.

The most notable difference with those pianos were the main keys were black whilst the accidentals were white, until they were switched around at a later date. Three of Cristofori’s pianos still exist that were made in the 1720s.

The first name for the piano was rather long. Cristofori gave his invention the impressive title of un cimbalo di cipresso di piano e forte – which literally translates to ‘a keyboard of cypress with soft and loud’, indicating that the piano had a range of volume, unlike the harpsichord which just had one – loud.

This name was a bit of a mouthful, and came, very quickly, to be shortened to pianoforte ‘soft loud’ and then shortened again to simply, piano. 

What Was The Main Difference?

There were several differences between the harpsichord and the pianoforte, although the instruments shared a lot of the same physical attributes.

The harpsichord would only play the notes the player wanted at one volume, which made for a fairly one dimensional instrument, as the musician couldn’t evoke the emotions he wanted to.

The pianoforte solved this by allowing the player to control the sound of the notes he wanted to play, and the hammer went back to its place easily, without sounding a double note.

In some ways, the piano combines the good bits of both the harpsichord and the clavichord, and makes for an impressive instrument that is not drowned out by other instruments in an orchestra, but also doesn’t overtake them, and allows the player to have very fine control over the sounds he is making with his instrument.


The Modern Piano

From Christofori’s design, the modern piano was born. The pianoforte started to become popular from the 1710s, and has remained popular ever since.

Changes have been made to the shape, with the upright piano and the grand piano being the two most common designs, and there are some very famous piano designers, the most notable being Steinway, who produce exquisite pianos.

The piano has a firm place in our hearts, and millions of people play it worldwide, and it’s all thanks to those amazing Ancient Greeks!

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