• Toy Piano - Made as a child's toy, but which has also been used in more serious musical contexts.
Piano is a common abbreviation for pianoforte,a musical instrument with a keyboard. Sound is produced by strings stretched on an iron frame. These vibrate when struck by felt-covered hammers, which are activated by the keyboard.

Inasmuch as the piano is a chordophone with an attached keyboard, it is a similar instrument to the clavichord and harpsichord. The thing which distinguished the piano is that rather than the string being plucked by quills as on a harpsichord, or being struck by tangents which then remain in contact with the string as on a clavichord, the strings are struck by hammers which immediately rebound leaving the string to vibrate freely.


When the pianoforte (today known as the piano) was invented at the turn of the 18th century, it was a turning point in the history of Europe. The piano changed the entire direction of Europe's music, and changed the musical culture of the Western Civilization. Indeed, the influence upon society that came from the piano's invention was great, as it remains to this day.

Keyboard instruments have existed since the middle ages. The organ, the oldest keyboard instrument, has been played for several centuries. It is likely that the use of keys to produce music was popularized by the organ, compelling the invention of different types of keyboard instruments. The organ, however, is a wind keyboard, and is almost entirely unrelated to the piano.

The first keyboard instrument that used strings, the clavichord, came to be in the late Middle Ages, although nobody knows exactly when it was invented. The clavichord had an action similar to that of the piano, but the tone it produced was much softer and too quiet to play in a concert. The clavichord was also much smaller and simpler than its relative, the harpsichord. For these reasons, it was a popular household instrument, and could be found in the homes of several Baroque composers, including J.S. Bach.

The clavichord had a very simple action. When pressed, the key lifted a tangent, a small copper square, which struck the string, as well as lifting a damper, which allowed the strings vibration to be sustained as long as the key was held. The clavichord had one string per key, sometimes one for two keys, while a modern grand piano contains up to three strings per key. While the small tangent and the small number of strings made the clavichord a very quiet instrument, the tangent allowed for Crescendos and Diminuendos (gradual dynamic changes), as well as some semblance of a dynamic range. Of the early stringed keyboards, the clavichord was the most similar to the piano.

The next keyboard instrument, chronologically, was the harpsichord, probably invented in the 15th century in Italy (Again, this information is not known). The harpsichord is an instrument much unlike the clavichord. Instead of striking the string with a tangent, the harpsichord uses a bird quill or a piece of hard leather (referred to as the plectrum) to pluck its strings. Also, the harpsichord's strings run parallel to the keys, like a grand piano, whereas a clavichord has strings perpendicular to the keys, like a modern upright piano. When a harpsichord is played, the key lifts a jack, which pushes the plectrum against the string, causing the string to be plucked. Like the clavichord, the harpsichord contains a damper to cut off the vibration as soon as the key is released

The harpsichord, like the clavichord, is a very quiet instrument, and is not useful for performance in large rooms. Composers used to puta lot of ornamentation in their harpsichord pieces to make up for the inability to play sustained notes. During the baroque period, it was usually used to accompany singers or other instruments. After that time, its use faded, as piano music replaced harpsichord music. However, the harpsichord is still alive today, due to a revival of harpsichord music in the 20th century.

The third type of stringed keyboard instrument is the virginal, also called the spinet. The virginal was an instrument used in the 15th, 16th and early 17th centuries, and is actually a small harpsichord, consisting of either one or two sets of keys, each with a 4-octave range. One thing true to all virginals and spinettinas (small, portable virginals) is that they were always very decorative, and the virginal was often used as a decorative furniture piece.

Around the turn of the 18th century, composers and musicians were looking for a new kind of keyboard instrument. Some were looking to recreate the effects produced by dulcimer virtuoso Panteleon Hebenstreit (1669-1750). Others sought a keyboard instrument as powerful and as expressive as the violin. Most of all, they needed a keyboard with a large dynamic range that could play very loud or very soft, and that could change the dynamics smoothly and subtly.

Their wish came true in 1709, when Bartolommeo Cristofori, curator of musical instruments for the Medici family, invented the first piano. He called his invention a gravicembalo col piano e forte-a "keyboard instrument that can be played soft and loud." This name was shortened to "pianoforte," (soft-loud) and eventually to just "piano."

The action of Cristofori's piano was very simple. It contained only the key, a felt hammer and an escapement, with no dampers or pedals. The key would push up the hammer against the string, causing a vibration unlike that of the harpsichord or the clavichord. The escapement allowed the hammer to fall after being pushed up. Without the escapement, the hammer would remain pressed against the string as long as the key was held down, which would deaden the string. Later, in the 1800s, a double escapement was invented, which allowed the hammer not to fall the whole way back down, allowing for quicker repetition of notes and faster trills.

What makes the piano a truly wonderful instrument is its resonance and its dynamic range. A wooden case, held up with a steel frame (Not invented until the 19th century; Cristofori's was just made of wood), allows the instrument to have a ringing sound, especially noticed when it is played forte (loud). The dynamic range of the piano is also quite noteworthy. The hammering action and the range in vibration of the strings allows it to be played in any dynamic, from pianissimo (very soft) to fortissimo (very loud). What sets the piano apart from other keyboards is its ability to play not only soft and loud, but to make crescendos and diminuendos and change dynamics very quickly or very gradually.

When the piano came into popularity, Europe was in the midst of the Rococo period (c. 1725-1775), the transitional period between the Baroque and Classical periods. In the classical period, the piano became very popular as both a household and concert instrument. The new concept of the sonata (a solo piece played in Sonata-Allegro form) was wonderfully demonstrated on the piano, and piano sonatas became common pieces, with hundreds of them being written by composers like Mozart and Clementi.

However, the piano made a big step in ensemble pieces as well. The concerto (like the sonata, but played by an ensemble with a solo instrument over it) was another piece growing in popularity in the Classical era. For many years, the Harpsichord had accompanied other instruments, but only as a continuo instrument (an accompaniment), and rarely, if ever, as a soloist. However, the piano's dynamics proved that a keyboard really could match the violin or trumpet as a solo instrument, and the piano took center stage at the concert halls of Europe's cities.

Now that the piano had brought keyboard music out of the châteaux of the upper class and into popularity, the class of people interested in music began to grow, and more people began to pay to hear music for just one instrument (earlier composers had to write for several, always). This allowed for many composers to make careers writing piano music, far more simple to write than ensemble music, and as the "musical class" grew, so grew the number of composers, many of whom owed their fame and fortune to the piano.

In the romantic era, composers like Beethoven and Schumann used dynamics to express emotion. A powerful awareness of emotions in music characterizes this period, hence the name Romanticism. The piano's expressive tone comes into play again here. Composers used the piano's wide range, dynamics and expressive tone to write emotional pieces. For instance, a major, fast piece with a lot of trills and ornaments would be a happy piece, while a slow, minor piece would be a sad one. About the piano, composers adhered to the words of Chopin: "Everything must be made to sing." In the case of Franz Liszt, he got so emotional with his pianos that he is known to have broken several of them. Four-hand pieces for one or two pianos also became popular in the Romantic period, for the availability of up to 20 notes being played at any time allowed for many possibilities in the new fad of expression.

In the Romantic period, the piano was a popular household instrument as well. Amateurs preferred the piano because they could play melody and harmony together. The rise in popularity brought about the rise of many piano virtuosos. Now, along with composing piano pieces, playing them could also make a living for a musician.

It is necessary to mention that while the piano became the norm for keyboards soon after its invention, the harpsichord, despite its waning popularity, has not died. Beethoven's first eight sonatas bore the label "to be played on harpsichord or piano," as the instrument had not totally faded out. In the twentieth century, even, people are still composing for the harpsichord, and harpsichords are being produced by the hundreds.

So we see that the invention of the piano, such a seemingly small event, was really a turning point in history. The piano changed the face of Europe's music, around which much of its culture has revolved. Over the past 300 years, few great composers, if any, did not write for the piano, and many of them have made great careers as piano composers and virtuosos. Even today, a good piano is found in the home of almost every musician and composer. Despite its youth, the piano has made a greater mark on society than any other instrument, and it has a long way to go before its impact fades.

The modern instrument

Pianos come in two basic types and several sizes:

Upright pianos are more compact due to the frame and strings being placed vertically, extending in both directions from the keyboard and hammers. The sound quality is adversely affected by several factors: firstly (the shortened distance the hammers travel -- need to check). Secondly, because the hammers are travelling horizontally, a more complicated mechanism and more time is required to return them to their rest position, so an upright piano is not capable of playing repeated notes as rapidly.

To fit in the full length of the bass strings, these are sharply angled diagonally across the body of the piano. This also affects sound quality as the hammers do not strike parallel to the string, and causes problems in tuning due to the stresses on the frame at the transition point between string groups. Furthermore, the left-hand pedal's una corda function -- which on grand pianos moves the entire action, thereby making the hammers strike one string instead of three -- isn't possible, because the differences in string angle would not allow a consistent reduction in tone quality across the range of notes. The workaround, moving the hammers' resting position close to the strings is reasonably effective in reducing volume, but the tone obtained is weak rather than expressive.

Grand pianos have the frame and strings placed horizontally, with the strings extending away from the keyboard. This avoids the problems inherent in an upright piano, but takes up a great deal more space. Several sizes of grand piano exist. Manufacturers may vary, but in general they are: "concert grand": approx. 3m; "grand": approx 1.8m; and "baby grand". The baby grand is designed for domestic use, although its much shortened strings mean the sound quality is poorer than an upright. It is hardly ever used in any serious context, but is a handy instrument for people who want to have a grand piano but cannot afford the cost, either in terms of money or floor space, of a larger instrument.

There are two other lesser seen kinds of piano: the square piano has the strings and frame on a horizontal plane, but running across the length of the keyboard rather than away from it. It is similar to the upright piano in its mechanism. The giraffe piano, by contrast, is mechanically like a grand piano, but the strings run vertically up from the keyboard rather than horizontally away from it. This makes it a very tall instrument.

The average piano has 88 keys (7 octaves and a bit, A to C). Many older pianos only have 85 (from A to A), while some manufacturers extend the range further in one or both directions. The most notable example of an extended range can be found on Bosendorfer pianos, some of which extend the normal range downwards to F, with others going as far as a bottom C making a full eight octave range. These extra keys are hidden under a small hinged lid, which can be flipped down to cover the keys and avoid visual disorientation in a pianist unfamiliar with the extended keyboard.

The keys for a piano are white and black. The keys are ordered so the notes ascend in pitch, from left to right.

Typically piano music is written with a treble clef and a bass clef. Each group of 12 semitones is an octave (so called, because there are eight whole notes, or white keys per octave). There are five black notes for the half-steps within an octave.

The pattern for black and white keys is White-Black-White-Black-White-White-Black-White-Black-White-Black-White. (ie: C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B )

Much great music has been written for the piano, with it being an instrument central to the classical music repertoire.

In 1863, Henri Fourneaux invented the player piano, a kind of piano which "plays itself" without the need for a pianist. Also in the 19th century, toy pianos began to be manufactured.

A relatively recent development is the invention of the prepared piano, which is a piano adapted in some way by placing objects inside the instrument, or changing its mechanism in some way. John Cage is famous for his use of this instrument.

A person who plays a piano is known as a pianist.

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