The piano is one of the most common instruments we have, and it might feel like it has been around forever. But you might be surprised to find out that it actually isn’t more than about 320 years old.
Let’s take a closer look at the invention that revolutionized music and has shaped the music world of today.
The Piano’s Ancestor
The piano was not the first instrument using a keyboard. During the baroque period (1600-1750), the harpsichord was the most common keyboard instrument.
Just like the piano, it had strings, but instead of little hammers that strike the strings when you press a key, it plucked the strings, which made it sound more metallic and robotic.
Even though the sound of a harpsichord is charming, and does suit baroque music well, there was one disadvantage to it. You could not do much to alter the volume of the tone when you pressed a key, the string was plucked in the same way, no matter which emotion you were trying to achieve.
The Father of the Piano
One day, an Italian man called Bartolomeo Cristofori had had enough. He was an expert harpsichord maker and was employed by the Prince of Tuscany to look after the royal musical instruments.
He knew exactly how the mechanics in a harpsichord worked and using that knowledge, he built the very first piano.
It was a huge challenge because he needed to come up with hammers that would strike the key and then go back instantly. If the hammers would have stayed on the strings, it would have dampened the sound, and it was also necessary for them to go back directly so that you can play a key again.
We don’t know for certain when Bartolomeo built the first piano, but it seems to have been around 1700. There are only three pianos built by him left, and they are all from the 1720’s.
A Keyboard of Cypress with Soft and Loud
The great thing about the piano was that it, unlike the harpsichord, allowed the player to play loudly or softly, and Bartolomeo felt like this aspect should be part of the name. He called the instrument ‘Un cimbalo di cipresso di piano e forte’, which is Italian for ‘A keyboard of cypress with soft and loud’.
This name was way too long to say, and people started calling it pianoforte. But even this was apparently too long, which is why we today simply call it by the name you recognize the most; the piano.
The piano was not completely finished straight away but was perfected over time. The industrial revolution made better materials and strings available, and the fact that it became so popular during the 1800’s was also something that contributed to its further development.
So next time you practice the piano, focus a little extra on the fact that you can produce a soft or loud tone, and be grateful that Bartolomeo invented the piano so that we no longer have to play the harpsichord!