We all immediately recognize the sophisticated row of black and white keys — whether you’re a long-time musician, or you’ve never even picked up an instrument before, the piano is one of the most well-known and identifiable musical instruments.
Starring in everything from classical compositions, to jazz pieces and pop music, it often seems there’s nothing the piano can’t do. How did such a versatile musical instrument come to be?
This popular instrument has a long history dating back to the early 18th century. What started as a simple idea eventually diverted down numerous paths, giving us many variations of this beautiful instrument, and several technologies to improve and modify its sound.
Early Inspiration for the Piano
The piano, while perhaps the most recognizable, was not the first instrument to use a row of keys to make music. Well before the invention of the piano, musicians were already working with keyboard instruments, such as the pipe organ — which gave inventors insight and experience into creating certain pitches through the design of the keys. By the 17th century, inventors had created keyboard instruments like the harpsichord and the clavichord, and instrument builders continued developing the build of keyboard to produce specific sounds.
A piano is more than just a keyboard — its inner workings include strings that are struck with hammers, and it wasn’t the first to use this concept. Since the Middle Ages, people in Europe had been playing the hammered dulcimers, which are percussion and stringed instruments where the player hits the strings with a mallet hammer. With these instruments already refined, the technology and inspiration (from keyboard, string, and percussion developments) existed to set the stage for the invention of the piano.
Invention of the Piano: 18th Century
Bartolomeo Cristofori is credited with inventing the piano. Cristofori worked as the Keeper of the Instruments for Ferdinando de’ Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany. He became an expert harpsichord maker, so he was well acquainted with the technology of stringed keyboard instruments.
It was through this knowledge of the harpsichord’s keyboard mechanisms that he was able to create the first piano — this new type of instrument allowed musicians to play dynamically in large venues, combining the best aspects of the harpsichord and clavichord.
Though no one knows exactly when Cristofori invented his very first piano, but it’s believed to be around the early 18th century. Three of his pianos still survive, and they date back to the 1720s.
The Evolution of the Piano
The piano was an instant success. By the end of the 19th century, most middle-class households in North America and Europe had a piano in the home. With its popularity also came many inventors who contributed to its evolution, and talented pianists who took compositions to a whole new level.
Thanks to the industrial revolution, piano makers began using higher quality materials for the frames and wire. Piano builders also expanded the keyboard to reach about seven and a half octaves, compared to the original five. Notable contributions to the evolution of the piano include:
- Early 1700s: A man named Gottfried Silbermann created a device to lift the damper off the strings, which was the basis for the modern sustain pedal.
- 1739: Domenico del Mela built the first upright piano.
- 1853: The birth of Steinway and Sons brand, whose innovations in the placement of strings within the piano continued to evolve the instrument.
- 1863: Henri Fourneaux invented a piano that used roll mechanisms to “play itself.”
- 1980s: The digital piano was introduced, a unique invention that produced the sound of a piano’s note using digital sampling, instead of the traditional inner piano structure.
What we have today is a beautiful, versatile instrument that can play a wide range of notes, in a variety of intensities, and for a robust assortment of genres. The piano is one of the most common instruments for beginning musicians, because of the opportunities it provides to develop a solid understanding of music theory and sight reading skills. The black and white instrument continues to broaden its horizons — we now have numerous types of pianos suitable for various styles and learning levels, including the grand, upright, specialized, electric, and digital pianos. Within those black and white keys, fundamentals from the percussion, string, and keyboard families all come together to create the masterful melody-maker we know and love.