The piano is a musical instrument that produces music by tapping keys which in turn hit the attached strings with a felt hammer. It is a chordophone among other instruments such as, the harpsichord and the clavichord. The distinguishing difference between these three instruments is the manner in which they produce sound. The harpsichord uses quills to pluck the strings and the clavichord strikes the strings with tangents that remain attached to the string and the piano's felt hammers immediately rebound leaving the key to vibrate freely.
History Of The Piano
The technology of the piano was derived from early instruments where attempts had been made to produce string instruments with struck keys. During the Middle Ages the development of these instruments started with the earliest being the hurdy gurdy. By the 17th century the clavichord and harpsichord were invented and were the primary foundation of the piano.
The clavichord plays very similar to the piano by striking the keys with a tangent; however it produced a soft tone much too quiet for playing in large halls or concerts. Its size in comparison to its relative the harpsichord is much smaller and simpler. These three characteristics made it a popular household instrument during the Baroque period. It could be found in the homes of many composers of that time including Bach.
The clavichord played using simple actions. After the suppression of the key it lifted a tangent which in turn strikes the string and lifts a damper. To sustain a vibration you would hold down the key. It is structured with one string per key and sometimes one for two keys. The fashion in which this instrument is constructed makes the clavichord a very quiet instrument; however it is the most similar to the piano in its ability to allow for Crescendos and Diminuendos and have some semblance of a dynamic range.
After the clavichord was the birth of the harpsichord. It is believed that the harpsichord was invented in the 15th century in Italy. This instrument was structured to produce sound using a quill to pluck the strings and like the clavichord contained a damper to stop the vibration when the key was released. The strings run parallel to the keys much in the same fashion as the grand piano. When it is played the key lifts a jack which in turn pushes the plectrum (quill) against the string plucking it to create the vibration.
The harpsichord also is a quiet instrument and not suited for large rooms or concerts. This didn't stop the creativity of the composers who would make up for the inability to sustain notes by putting a lot of ornamentation in their pieces. It was a common accompaniment to singers and other instruments. As pianos became more popular the use of the harpsichord faded out of popular use, however it is still alive today.
Next in line was a stringed instrument called the spinet. It can be described as a small harpsichord consisting of one or two key sets. Each key set is tuned with a 4-octave range.
As the love for stringed key instruments grew in popularity composers began to seek a way to produce a new instrument. They wanted one that had the ability to play both soft and loud making it more efficient in concerts and large rooms. Some expressed a desire to have a stringed instrument as powerful as the violin.
The First Piano Is Born
As musical technology advanced into the early 1700's the piano was born. A gentleman by the name of Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua Italy invented the first piano. He was an experienced harpsichord maker and fully knowledgeable of the original string key instruments. The problem Cristofori aimed to solve was that the key must strike the string and not stay in contact. After successful implementation he named his first piano a gravicembalo col piano e forte (a keyboard instrument that can be played soft and loud). The name was later shortened to pianoforte (loud and soft) and finally to just piano.
The first piano contained one key, a felt hammer and an escape. Most importantly it did not have a damper or pedal. When the key was pressed it would strike the key causing a vibration very different from its younger cousins the harpsichord and clavichord. The escape played a vital role in the production of this new vibration by allowing the hammer to fall after being pushed. Without this escape the hammer would respond much like the clavichord and remain intact with the string which in turn would deaden it. As technology continued to advance a double escapement was designed preventing the hammer from falling all the way back making it possible for faster repetition.
The Growth of The Piano
The piano grew in its popularity during the end of the Baroque period and into the Classical period with its highest growth occurring during the classical era. The new concept of the Sonata was played beautifully on the piano and it became a favored instrument among composers.
Composers didn't restrict the piano to Sonatas though. It was often used in ensemble pieces such as the concerto. Composers found that the dynamics of the keyboard truly matched the violin as a solo instrument and so the piano took center stage.
The piano further proved itself a powerful instrument in the Romantic era when composers began expressing emotion with their music. A piece that had many ornaments, trills and fast beat was considered happy where a slow, minor expressed sadness. The piano was the perfect instrument in its ability to play wide ranges of music.
During the romantic era individual households began to favor the piano because of its ease to play melody and harmony together. Amateurs could produce music more readily on the piano. In addition to composing music, it was during this era that people could now make money simply by playing the instrument.
The modern instrument
Today you can find pianos in two basic types and several sizes. The two most common pianos are the upright and the grand.
Upright pianos: These are more compact with the strings placed vertically, extending both directions from the keyboard and hammers. It is harder to produce a sensitive piano action in the upright as the hammers in this style of piano have a return that is dependent on strings.
Grand pianos: These have the strings placed horizontally with the strings extending away from the keyboard. As a result the grand piano is a large instrument demanding a spacious room for display.
Two pianos that are seen less often include the square piano and the giraffe. A square piano has strings on a horizontal plane and the giraffe is similar to the grand piano with the exception that the strings run vertically up the keyboard.
The average piano consists of 88 keys across and is labeled from the far left as A to the far right being C. There are 7 octaves of repeated white notes, A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. The black notes are used to obtain sharps and flats. When you include the black keys on the keyboard your pattern becomes, A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#.