The History of the Piano

Origins of the piano

The piano has a rich and storied history dating back centuries, but this history is founded on developments that go back millennia to instruments constructed in the time of the Roman Empire.

Origins of the piano
Source: Yamaha.com

The earliest origins of the piano lie in the monochord family of instruments, which can range greatly in complexity from rudimentary guitars all the way to the development of the Clavichord.

Clavichord

The history of keyboard style instruments started with the organ, but the Clavichord represented the first step from the organ to the modern piano. Emerging in the renaissance, the Clavichord represented a highly complex monochord instrument that bears striking aesthetic similarities to modern pianos. 

Clavichord - Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

The key distinction at work though is that Clavichord’s generate sound by striking the string with a brass rod instead of a hammer. The Clavichord was a technically impressive instrument that allowed a great degree of control over the note by making the string vibrate as long as the key was pressed, however it suffered from a delicate tone that would be drowned out by other instruments, and couldn’t adequately fill a large hall performance.

Harpsichord

The Harpsichord was developed around the 1500’s in Italy, roughly a century after the Clavichord. Instead of the brass rod method, the Harpsichord worked by plucking the string with a plectrum attached to a long stick of wood.

harpsichord | Definition, History, & Facts | Britannica
Source: Britannica.com

The design of the Harpsichord obviously heavily influenced the design of the modern piano, the internal system of strings and the overall structure bear a striking resemblance.  The Harpsichord improved on the delicacy of the Clavichord by having a rich full sound that could easily stand amongst other instruments but lacked the ability to control the dynamics of each note, reducing the technical ability achievable.

Cristofori

The modern piano is generally agreed to have been invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) sometime around 1700. He was famously unhappy with the lack of control the Harpsichord offered and sought to marry the bombastic sound of the Harpsichord with the precision and control of the Clavichord.

Who invented the piano – and why does nobody remember him? - Classic FM
Bartolomeo Cristofori (source: ClassicFM.com)

His creation of the modern piano hinged on his ingenious design of using a hammer instead of a plucking mechanism, which could then return to its resting position instantly.

This was the fundamental problem that plagued the Clavichord, the tangent remained in contact with the string which dampened the sound. By creating this system of fast resetting hammers it ensured that the notes would be able to breathe as well as being rapidly played in succession, creating the degree of power and precision that is known and enjoyed today.

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