The piano encompasses one of the broadest and most diverse ranges and styles of all musical instruments. As such it can bring a great many modes of music together. It is an instrument ideally suited to exhibit the virtuosic work of a soloist, yet equally serves from the more humble place of accompaniment. Its breadth renders it a desirable and frequent partner instrument in the service of harmony. The piano is a versatile keyboard instrument widely used in both western and non-western music for accompaniment, composition, solo performance, and as a rehearsal aid. It produces sound by striking metal strings with felt hammers. The vibrations are transmitted to a soundboard by a bridge. The word piano is a short form of the word "pianoforte," which is in turn derived from the original Italian name for the instrument, gravicembalo col piano e forte. Literally harpsichord with soft and loud, this refers to the ability of the piano to produce notes at different volumes depending on how hard its keys are pressed. The name "pianoforte" is considered a formal term and is seldom used.
As a keyboard stringed instrument, the piano is similar to the clavichord and harpsichord. The three instruments differ in the mechanism of sound production. In a harpsichord, strings are plucked by quills or similar material. In the clavichord, strings are struck by tangents which remain in contact with the string. In a piano, the strings are struck by hammers which immediately rebound, leaving the string to vibrate freely.
Bartolomeo Cristofori of Florence, Italy, invented the first pianoforte. He called it a gravicembelo col piano e forte. When he built this instrument is not entirely clear, but an inventory made by Cristofori's employers, the Medici family, indicates the existence of an early Cristofori instrument by the year 1700. Cristofori built only about twenty pianofortes before he died in 1731; the three that survive today date from the 1720s.
Like many other inventions, the pianoforte was founded on earlier technological innovations. In particular, it benefited from centuries of work on the harpsichord, which had shown the most effective ways to construct the case, the soundboard, the bridge, and the keyboard. Cristofori was himself a harpsichord maker and well-acquainted with this body of knowledge.
Cristofori's great success was to solve, without any prior example, the fundamental mechanical problem of piano design: the hammers must strike the string but not continue to touch it once they have struck (which would dampen the sound). Moreover, the hammers must return to their rest position without bouncing violently, and it must be possible to repeat a note rapidly. Cristofori's piano action served as a model for the many different approaches to piano actions that were to follow.
Cristofori's early instruments were made with thin strings and were much quieter than the modern piano. In comparison with the clavichord, especially the later eighteenth century unfretted instrument which was the only previous keyboard instrument capable of dynamic nuance, the strings were considerably louder, with greater sustaining qualities.
Cristofori's new instrument remained relatively unknown until an Italian writer, Scipione Maffei, wrote an enthusiastic article about it (1711), including a diagram of the mechanism. This article was widely distributed, and most of the next generation of piano builders started their work as a result of reading it. Thus, the distribution of the pianoforte spread and became popular in many countries (i.e. Austria and Germany).
One of these builders was Gottfried Silbermann, better known as an organ builder. Silbermann's pianos were virtually direct copies of Cristofori's, but with an important exception: Silbermann invented the forerunner of the modern damper pedal (also known as the sustaining pedal or loud pedal), which permits the dampers to be lifted from all the strings at once. Virtually all subsequent pianos incorporated some version of Silbermann's idea.
Silbermann showed Bach one of his early instruments in the 1730s. Bach did not like it at that time, claiming that the higher notes were too soft to allow a full dynamic range. Though this earned him some animosity from Silbermann, the latter did apparently heed the criticism. Bach did approve of a later instrument he saw in 1747, and apparently even served as an agent to help sell Silbermann's pianos.
Piano-making flourished during the late eighteenth century in the work of the Viennese school, which included Johann Andreas Stein (who worked in Augsburg, Germany) and the Viennese makers Nannette Stein (daughter of Johann Andreas) and Anton Walter. The Viennese-style pianos were built with wooden frames, two strings per note, and had leather-covered hammers. It was for such instruments that Mozart composed his concertos and sonatas, and replicas of them are built today for use in authentic-instrument performance. The piano of Mozart's day had a softer, clearer tone than today's pianos, with less sustaining power. The term fortepiano is nowadays often used to distinguish the eighteenth-century style of instrument from later pianos. For further information on the earlier part of piano history, see fortepiano.
In the lengthy period lasting from about 1790 to 1890, the Mozart-era piano underwent tremendous changes which ultimately led to the modern form of the instrument. This evolution was in response to a consistent preference by composers and pianists for a more powerful, sustained piano sound. It was also a response to the ongoing Industrial Revolution, which made available technological resources like high-quality steel for strings (see piano wire) and precision casting for the production of iron frames.
Over time, piano playing became a more strenuous and muscle-taxing activity, as the force needed to depress the keys, as well as the length of key travel, was increased. The tonal range of the piano was also increased, from the five octaves of Mozart's day to the 7 1/3 (or even more) octaves found on modern pianos.
In the first part of this era, technological progress owed much to the English firm of Broadwood, which already had a strong reputation for the splendor and powerful tone of its harpsichords. Over time, the Broadwood instruments grew progressively larger, louder, and more robustly constructed. The Broadwood firm, which sent pianos to both Joseph Haydn and Beethoven, was the first to build pianos with a range of more than five octaves: five octaves and a fifth during the 1790s, six by 1810 (in time for Beethoven to use the extra notes in his later works), and seven by 1820. The Viennese makers followed these trends. The two schools, however, used different piano actions: the Broadwood one more robust, the Viennese more sensitive.
By the 1820s, the centre of innovation had shifted to the Érard firm of Paris, which built pianos used by Chopin and Liszt. In 1821, Sébastien Érard invented the double escapement action, which permitted a note to be repeated even if the key had not yet risen to its maximum vertical position, a great benefit for rapid playing. As revised by Henri Herz in about 1840, the double escapement action ultimately became the standard action for grand pianos, used by all manufacturers.
Some other important technical innovations of this era include the following:
The modern concert grand achieved essentially its present form around the beginning of the twentieth century, and progress since then has been only incremental. For some recent developments, see Innovations in the piano.
Some early pianos had shapes and designs that are no longer in use. The once-popular square piano was an inexpensive design that had the strings and frame on a horizontal plane, but running across the length of the keyboard rather than away from it. It was similar to the upright piano in its mechanism. Square pianos were produced through the early twentieth century; the tone they produced is widely considered to be inferior. Most had a wood frame, though later designs incorporated increasing amounts of iron. The giraffe piano, by contrast, was mechanically like a grand piano, but the strings ran vertically up from the keyboard rather than horizontally away from it, making it a very tall instrument. These were uncommon.
The huge changes in the evolution of the piano have somewhat vexing consequences for musical performance. The problem is that much of the most widely admired music for piano—for example, that of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven was composed for a type of instrument that is rather different from the modern instruments on which this music is normally performed today. Even the music of the early Romantics, such as Chopin and Schumann, was written for pianos substantially different from ours.
One view that is sometimes taken is that these composers were dissatisfied with their pianos, and in fact were writing visionary "music of the future" with a more robust sound in mind. This sound demonstrates strength and endurance to enable music to unite the realms of life's sectors towards a more unified and peaceful world. This view is perhaps more plausible in the case of Beethoven, who composed at the beginning of the era of piano growth, than it is in the case of Haydn or Mozart.
Others have noted that the music itself often seems to require the clean crisp resources of the early piano in that many composers attempted to return to an earlier foundation in the renewal of basic values. For example, Beethoven sometimes wrote long passages in which he directs the player to keep the damper pedal down throughout (a famous example occurs in the last movement of the "Waldstein" sonata, Op. 53). These come out rather blurred on a modern piano if played as written but work well on (restored or replicated) pianos of Beethoven's day. Similarly, the classical composers sometimes would write passages in which a lower violin line accompanies a higher piano line in parallel; this was a reasonable thing to do at a time when piano tone was more penetrating than violin tone; today it is the reverse.
Current performance practice is a mix. A few pianists simply ignore the problem; others modify their playing style to help compensate for the difference in instruments, for example by using less pedal. Finally, participants in the authentic performance movement have constructed new copies of the old instruments and used them in performance; this has provided important new insights and interpretations of the music.
Following the popularity of Christofori's pianoforte, piano builders (i.e. Silbermann, Friederici, Zumpe, Kirkman, del Mela, Mirabel), began to experiment with the size and sound production of the instrument; however, the building of each piano was slowly hand-crafted and created few of these unique instruments. Gradually the technical and musical development became more industrialized and a greater amount of pianos could be fashioned, thus enabling more people to use and appreciate the instrument. National styles of building a piano enhanced and identified different stylized instruments which were reminiscent of the national styles of earlier harpsichord building (i.e. Spanish, Italian, French, Flemish, German, English). Later manufacturers (i.e. Bosendorfer Schimmel, Steinway Hamburg, Steinway U.S.A., Baldwin, Boston, Chickering, Mason & Hamlin, Weber, Yamaha, Kawai, Young Chang) helped to create an industry which brought the piano into schools, places of worship, and various forums for entertainment. This helped to bring a public and private understanding and appreciation of the many values present in a musical background and education.
Modern pianos come in two basic configurations and several sizes: the grand piano and the upright piano.
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 large amount of space and needs a spacious room with high ceilings for proper resonance. Several sizes of grand piano exist. Manufacturers and models vary, but as a rough guide we can distinguish the "concert grand", approx. 3 m; the "grand", approx. 1.8 m; and the smaller "baby grand", which may be a bit shorter than it is wide. All else being equal, longer pianos have better sound and lower inharmonicity of the strings (the strings can be tuned closer to equal temperament in relation to the standard pitch with less stretching), so that full-size grands are almost always used for public concerts, whereas baby grands are commonly purchased for domestic use where space and cost are crucial considerations.
Upright pianos, also called vertical pianos which are derived from upright harpsichords, are more compact because the frame and strings are placed vertically, extending in both directions from the keyboard and hammers. It appears that the placement of an instrument in an upright or vertical position became a solution to rectify spatial problems in studios and homes. It is considered harder to produce a sensitive piano action when the hammers move sideways, rather than upward against gravity; however, the very best upright pianos now approach the level of grand pianos of the same size in tone quality and responsiveness. For recent advances, see Innovations in the piano.
In 1863, Henri Fourneaux invented the player piano, a kind of piano which "plays itself" from a piano roll without the need for a pianist. Also in the nineteenth century, toy pianos began to be manufactured.
A relatively recent development is the prepared piano, which is a piano adapted in some way by placing objects inside the instrument, or changing its mechanism in some way.
Since the 1980s, digital pianos have been available, which use digital sampling technology to reproduce the sound of each piano note. Digital pianos have become quite sophisticated, with standard pedals, weighted keys, multiple voices, MIDI interfaces, and so on in the better models. However, with current technology, it remains difficult to duplicate a crucial aspect of acoustic pianos, namely that when the damper pedal (see below) is depressed, the strings not struck vibrate sympathetically with the struck strings. Since this sympathetic vibration is considered central to a beautiful piano tone, digital pianos are still not considered by most experts as competing with the best acoustic pianos in tone quality. Progress is now being made in this area by including physical models of sympathetic vibration in the synthesis software. With such development, digital pianos are used more widely since no tuning is needed, they are portable, and are usually less expensive than a piano; i.e. Clavinova (Yamaha). Digital pianos can be used with computers and loudspeakers, and composing on them is facilitated with relevant software products. Pop groups, bands, religious assemblages, and home entertainment have popularized these instruments; thus, digital pianos are becoming a serious wave of the future. Due to the sound production and technology of a digital piano, it is not constructively and technically akin to a piano; however, many modern musical productions create a need for electronic adaptations of a piano which the digital piano eminently satisfies.
Almost every modern piano has 88 keys (7 octaves and a bit, from A0 to C8). Many older pianos only have 85 (from A0 to A7), while some manufacturers extend the range further in one or both directions. The most notable example of an extended range can be found on Bösendorfer pianos, some of which extend the normal range downwards to F0, with others going as far as a bottom C0, making a full eight-octave range. On some models 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; on others, the colors of the extra keys are reversed (black instead of white and vice versa) for the same reason. The extra keys are added primarily for increased resonance; that is, they vibrate sympathetically with other strings whenever the damper pedal is depressed and thus give a fuller tone. Only a very small number of works composed for piano actually use these notes. More recently, the Stuart and Sons company has manufactured extended-range pianos. On their instruments, the range is extended up the treble for a full eight octaves. These extra keys are the same as the other keys in appearance.
For the arrangement of the keys on a piano keyboard, see Musical keyboard. This arrangement was inherited from the harpsichord without change, with the trivial exception of the color scheme (white for naturals and black for sharps) which became standard for pianos in the late eighteenth century.
Pianos have had pedals, or some close equivalent, since the earliest days. (In the eighteenth century, some pianos used levers pressed upward by the player's knee instead of pedals.) The three pedals that have become more or less standard on the modern piano are the following:
Piano music starting with Chopin tends to be heavily pedaled, as a means of achieving a singing tone. In contrast, the damper pedal was used only sparingly by the composers of the eighteenth century, including Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; in that era, pedaling was considered primarily as a special coloristic effect.
The soft pedal was invented by Cristofori and thus appeared on the very earliest pianos. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the soft pedal was more effective than today, since it was possible at that time to use it to strike three, two, or even just one string per note—this is the origin of the name una corda, Italian for "one string". In modern pianos, the strings are spaced too closely to permit a true una corda effect—if shifted far enough to strike just one string on one note, the hammers would also strike the string of the next note over.
On upright pianos, the soft pedal is replaced by a mechanism for moving the hammers' resting position closer to the strings. This reduces volume, but does not change tone quality as a true una corda pedal does.
Digital pianos often use this pedal to alter the sound of other instruments like organs, guitars, and harmonicas. Pitch bends, leslie speaker on/off, vibrato modulation, and so on, increase the already-great versatility of such instruments.
Over the years, the middle pedal has served many different functions. Some upright pianos have a practice pedal in place of the sostenuto. This pedal, which can usually be locked in place by depressing it and pushing it to one side, drops a strip of felt between the hammers and the keys so that all the notes are greatly muted—a handy feature for those who wish to practice at odd hours without disturbing others in the house. The practice pedal is rarely used in performance. Other uprights have a bass sustain as a middle pedal. It works the same as the damper pedal except it only lifts the dampers for the low end notes.
Irving Berlin's famed Transposing Piano used the middle pedal as a clutch to shift the keyboard with a lever. The entire action of the piano would shift to allow the operator to play in any key.
Many parts of a piano are made of materials selected for extreme sturdiness. In quality pianos, the outer rim of the piano is made of a hardwood, normally maple or beech. According to Harold A. Conklin, the purpose of a sturdy rim is so that "the vibrational energy will stay as much as possible in the soundboard instead of dissipating uselessly in the case parts, which are inefficient radiators of sound." The rim is normally made by laminating flexible strips of hardwood to the desired shape, a system that was developed by Theodore Steinway in 1880.
The thick wooden braces at the bottom (grands) or back (uprights) of the piano are not as acoustically important as the rim, and are often made of a softwood, even in top-quality pianos, in order to save weight.
The pinblock, which holds the tuning pins in place, is another area of the piano where toughness is important. It is made of hardwood, and generally is laminated (built of multiple layers) for additional strength and gripping power.
Piano strings (also called piano wire), which must endure years of extreme tension and hard blows, are made of high quality steel. They are manufactured to vary as little as possible in diameter, since all deviations from uniformity introduce tonal distortion. The bass strings of a piano are made of a steel core wrapped with copper wire, to increase their flexibility. For the acoustic reasons behind this, see Piano acoustics.
The plate, or metal frame, of a piano is usually made of cast iron. It is advantageous for the plate to be quite massive, since the strings are attached to the plate at one end, any vibrations transmitted to the plate will result in loss of energy to the desired (efficient) channel of sound transmission, namely the bridge and the soundboard. Some manufacturers now use cast steel in their plates, for greater strength. The casting of the plate is a delicate art, since the dimensions are crucial and the iron shrinks by about 1 percent during cooling. The inclusion in a piano of an extremely large piece of metal is potentially an aesthetic handicap. Piano makers overcome this handicap by polishing, painting, and decorating the plate; often plates include the manufacturer's ornamental medallion and can be strikingly attractive.
The numerous grand parts and upright parts of a piano action are generally hardwood (e.g. maple, beech, hornbeam). World War II brought about plastics which were originally incorporated into some pianos in the 1940s and 1950s, but were clearly disastrous, crystallizing and losing their strength after only a few decades of use. The Steinway firm once incorporated Teflon, a synthetic material developed by DuPont, for some grand action parts in place of cloth, but ultimately abandoned the experiment due to an inherent "clicking" which invariably developed over time. More recently, the Kawai firm has built pianos with action parts made of more modern and effective plastics such as nylon; these parts have held up better and have generally received the respect of piano technicians.
The part of the piano where materials probably matter more than anywhere else is the soundboard. In quality pianos this is made of solid spruce (that is, spruce boards glued together at their edges). Spruce is chosen for its high ratio of strength to weight. The best piano makers use close-grained, quarter-sawn, defect-free spruce, and make sure that it has been carefully dried over a long period of time before making it into soundboards. In cheap pianos, the soundboard is often laminated; i.e. made of plywood.
Piano keys are generally made of spruce or basswood, for lightness. Spruce is normally used in high-quality pianos. Traditionally, the sharps (black keys) were made from ebony and the flats (white keys) were covered with strips of ivory, but since ivory-yielding species are now endangered and protected by treaty, plastics are now almost exclusively used. Legal ivory can still be obtained in limited quantities. At one time the Yamaha firm innovated a plastic called "Ivorine" or "Ivorite," since imitated by other makers, that mimics the feel and/or look of ivory on the player's fingers.
The requirement of structural strength, fulfilled with stout hardwood and thick metal, makes pianos heavy. Even a small upright can weigh 136 kg (300 lb.), and the Steinway concert grand (Model D) weighs 480 kg (990 lb.). The largest piano built, the Fazioli F308, weighs 691 kg (1520 lb.).
Pianos are regularly tuned to keep them up to pitch and produce a pleasing sound; they are, ideally, tuned to the internationally recognized standard concert pitch of A = 440 Hz. The hammers of pianos are voiced to compensate for gradual hardening. Top-quality but aged pianos can be restored, replacing a great number of their parts to produce an instrument closely similar to a new one.
The piano is a crucial instrument in Western and non-Western classical music, jazz, film, television, and electronic game music, and most other complex musical genres. A large number of composers are pianists, and they frequently use the piano as a tool for composition.
Within classical music, performer personalities emerged, and composer performers (i.e. Chopin, Liszt, Schumann) became cult figures. These keyboard performers created a need for concert halls which have been built since the late eighteenth century for the pleasure of the listening audience. These venues contributed greatly to the popularity of the piano. Soon, solo piano performances involved an orchestra and early piano concertos became popular by many composer/performers (i.e. Mozart, Bach). Other composers (i.e. Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Grieg, Rachmaninoff) followed with concertos using larger orchestras and larger grand pianos.
Yet, the beauty of the solo piano was not ignored and solo forms such as the sonata (i.e. Mozart, Bach, Haydn, Clement) and later freer forms such as preludes, intermezzos, nocturnes, fantasias, dances, and marches (i.e. Debussy, Liszt, Chopin, Satie) demonstrated the range and virtuosity of the piano, composer, and performer. Aside from the piano being the main instrument, variations in its diversity led towards the piano being an excellent accompanying instrument for a solo singer in an art song or lied. Many composers (i.e. Schubert, Mahler) excelled in this medium. The accompanying development also diverged towards forms such as the piano quartet and quintet, thus pairing the piano with other orchestral instruments.
The piano gave rise to different types of music to fit the moods of the listeners. Serious piano music (i.e. Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Grieg, Brahms, Chopin) was featured in pieces which were virtuosic and intellectual. Semi-serious music (i.e. Liszt) brought together the complexity of a composition, yet the intention was for light entertainment for the audience. Popular piano music (i.e. Lefebure-Wely) was written and performed purely for entertainment and reflected the taste for musical forays such as the operetta, which became so popular during the later eighteenth century.
Pianos were and are extremely popular instruments for private household ownership, especially among the middle and upper classes. As such, pianos have gained a place in the popular consciousness, and are sometimes referred to by nicknames, including: "the eighty-eight," "the ivories," and "the black(s) and white(s)."
With the exception of the toy piano, these instruments are called "piano" by virtue of being keyboard instruments but are electric or electronic in nature, not acoustic.
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