Would you know what to answer if I asked you what kind of instrument a piano is? Many piano players wouldn’t. You might be tempted to say it’s a string instrument, like a guitar or violin. You could also think it’s a percussion instrument like a xylophone. Well, it’s neither - or both. The piano is a percussion instrument where instead of hitting a hard surface, you’re hitting strings, so it’s a string instrument too. Amazing, right?
The piano actually holds many secrets in its history. Here at Greater Toronto Music School, we’re passionate about what makes musical instruments so unique and interesting. That’s why we’ve chosen to share a quick history of the piano with you today. We’ll be talking about the origins of the piano, and how it has come to be the instrument we know and low today. Let’s dive in!
The origins of the piano: predecessors
In 500 BC, the Greeks invented the first Monochord. ‘Monochord’ means one chord, and therefore the instrument was comprised of one single metal string pulled tightly across a hollow piece of wood that goes by the name of a resonator table.
The harpsichord appeared in the 14th Century, in Europe. It works by creating sound through the plucking of strings by quills attached to the keys pressed by a person playing the instrument.
The clavichord is probably the closest ancestor to the modern piano we know today. It worked by using hammers that struck the instrument’s strings, similarly to the percussive aspect of our pianos. Strings would vibrate as long as the player would press the keys, which offered many more possibilities.
However, the monochord, harpsichord, and clavichord lacked the flexibility and most importantly the ability to produce the loud sound musicians of the era so desperately craved. In 1709, Italian clavichord maker Bartolomeo Cristofori invented the pianoforte. In Italian, piano stands for soft, and forte means loud, so the newly created instrument’s name reflected its capability for dynamics. With the pianoforte, players were now able to go from playing loud to quiet notes in seconds, by pressing the keys in different ways.
The road that led to the modern piano
From 1790 to 1860, the piano changed many times and in many ways. Composers and pianists were longing for a more powerful sound. They wanted an instrument capable of producing huge, almost haunting sounds, accompanied by soft notes, creating a beautifully dynamic palette of music. But, there was a problem. Too many people wanted pianos, and they couldn’t be made fast enough.
From handmade to mass-produced
The first pianos were each individually and carefully made by hand by skilled artisans. The demand for pianos was increasing, as their use was no longer confined to the aristocracy. Now, piano music was being performed in concert halls and called for louder pianos, capable of producing sounds that thousands of people in one room could hear clearly. Pianos could no longer be made by hand to cater to the changes that were to come.
The Industrial Revolution made these changes possible, thanks to better quality strings and the wide-scale production of the framing for pianos, made of precious metals and iron. Pianos were now available in big quantities, for everyone to enjoy. The upright piano, for a more compact size and affordable cost, was invented in London around 1800 and suddenly became hugely popular. It was practical and easy.
The 19th Century’s knack for innovation had a profound impact on the piano. Its mechanics became far more sophisticated, and its keys grew more responsive. The invention of the “double hopper” allow quick repetition of notes and more dynamics in the overall play of the piano. It’s the invention of the double hopper that led to the creation of the Steinway concert grand piano in 1859, whose image we are so familiar with today.
Pianos and households around the world
It was in America that the piano which used to cost an astronomical amount now was appearing in middle-class households around the country and in houses all over Toronto. Mass-production, assembly lines and standardization of parts allowed the piano to be available at a significantly reduced price. It became a common and familiar object in any middle-class American home. It was especially popular among women, who were encouraged to learn how to play the instrument. She would then be viewed as a more elegant, classy and refined woman.
The piano, an instrument here to stay
Still today, the piano arguably remains one of the most popular instruments for beginner musicians to learn. Why? Because it’s easy to learn, thanks to its notes all laid out before one’s eyes. It is amazingly versatile and can be used to play music of virtually any genre and style. It is interesting to learn about its history and to realize the piano is actually quite a new instrument, compared to other ancient ones that have existed for centuries. There’s good reason to think it’s here to stay though! Here at Greater Toronto Music School, we teach people piano daily. Get in touch if you want to learn too!