Virtual Museum: The Piano

The piano is a keyboard instrument whose introduction to the musical world was a relatively recent one. Classified as a chordophone, it combines aspects of both stringed and percussion instruments, employing a mechanical action that results in the creation of different tones through the striking of hammers against strings of different lengths. The first piano, or pianoforte, was built in the early 1700s in Florence, Italy by Bartolomeo Cristofori. Cristofori’s invention was an improvement on its predecessors, the harpsichord and clavichord, as it was capable of greater volume, sonority, and expressiveness. The superiority of the piano over previous keyboard instruments lay in its innovative mechanical action, which allowed the hammers to strike the strings directly without dampening the sound. However, it was not until the latter half of the eighteenth century that the piano was known as anything other than a musical novelty. In the 1800s, the piano soared in popularity. Piano makers designed small, light instruments that were affordable and small enough to fit in a typical European drawing room. The piano became a status symbol, and piano playing a requisite accomplishment of the well-to-do and upper middle-class. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the rapid evolution of the piano’s design, sound, and range. Pianos of the late eighteenth century had a range of only five octaves. Modern pianos have 88 keys, the equivalent of seven and a half octaves. Starting during the Industrial Revolution, the use of higher grades of steel, known as “piano wire,” resulted in greater sustaining power and range of volume. Pianos of today have a deeper, fuller tone than the early Viennese pianos on which composers such as Mozart wrote their music. 

Today, the piano reigns supreme over all other instruments, particularly in the classical genre. Because piano playing generally requires the striking of several different notes simultaneously, pianists must master complicated fingerings, which require quick reflexes and agility. Achieving virtuosity as a pianist is generally considered one of the highest and most difficult of musical attainments. The piano itself occupies a position of importance in the musical world that no other instrument approaches. Distinguished by its incredible versatility, the piano is indispensable to chamber music and jazz, and is widely used in rock, pop, soul, and folk music. In addition, the piano is the instrument of choice for composers and accompanists in both performance and rehearsal settings.   

A Timeline of the History of the Piano: This page from the website of the U.K.-based Association of Blind Piano Tuners provides a comprehensive timeline of important dates in the history and development of the piano, beginning with the development of keyboard instruments in medieval times.

A History of the Piano from 1709 to 1980: This article by David S. Grover, a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts and the Institute of Musical Instrument Technology, provides a more detailed history of the technical development of the piano from the early eighteenth century to modern times.

Technical History of the Piano: This page, from a multicultural website devoted to music and the arts, provides a clear and concise history of technical developments in piano making from the 1700s to the present day.

How a Piano Works: This page from the Piano Tuners’ Guild website provides an explanation of how pianos work with links to diagrams and detailed fact sheets.

Bartolomeo Cristofori: Bartolomeo Cristofori, designer and custodian of keyboard instruments for Prince Ferdinand de Medici from 1690 to 1731, is widely credited as the inventor of the piano. Cristofori’s new invention revolutionized keyboard instruments by introducing a mechanical action known as an escapement, by which the hammer would be released by the key shortly before striking the string. The innovation of the escapement prevented the hammer from remaining in contact with the string after hitting it and thus dampening or muffling the tone. 

The Pianofortes of Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731): Three of the pianos that Cristofori built still survive. The oldest, dating from 1720, is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and resembles a harpsichord in shape. Although it is still playable and has a tone unlike that of the modern piano, it has undergone so many modifications in the almost three-hundred years since it was produced that it is impossible to know exactly how it sounded in Cristofori’s time. The website for the Metropolitan Museum of Art offers an informative essay on Cristofori’s invention of the piano and its importance to musical history.

Viennese Pianos: With the square piano, which was the instrument of choice in England, the Viennese piano was one of the two most popular types of piano to be produced in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Organist Johann Andreas Stein is responsible for introducing the innovations that made the Viennese piano an important step forward in the instrument’s general development. Most notably, Stein simplified the mechanical action devised by Cristofori and redesigned the instrument case to better accommodate the piano’s hammer-action mechanism. Viennese pianos were extremely popular among classical composers of the time, including Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven.

The Square Piano: Its name notwithstanding, the square piano was actually rectangular in shape. The layout of its strings and soundboard was actually more similar to that of the clavichord than the modern piano, with the keyboard running along the length of the instrument and the strings running horizontally, perpendicular to the keys. The square piano was introduced in London in the mid 1700s, and, though the instrument was somewhat limited in range and performance, the instrument quickly became popular in drawing rooms and salons throughout Europe because of its small size and light, ladylike tone. Well-to-do young women of the Regency period, for whom playing piano was a requisite accomplished, generally plied their musical skills on the square piano. The first square pianos were less than four feet long with a range of five octaves. While the square piano had a more sonorous tone than its predecessor, the clavichord, its thin strings made it much softer and weaker in tone than its modern descendants, the grand and upright pianos. The earliest square pianos were “single action” without escapement, which means that the hammer did not retreat immediately after hitting the string, and it was thus difficult or even impossible to repeat the same note in rapid succession. As the decades progressed, piano makers steadily innovated upon the basic square piano, extending its octave range and developing a more sophisticated piano action. However, these improvements resulted in a larger instrument and heavier sound, thus eliminating the small size and light tone that made the square piano such an attractive piece of drawing room furniture in the first place. The manufacture of square pianos ended in England and the rest of Europe by the 1860s, although square pianos were still produced in the United States until the end of the nineteenth century. 

Grand Piano Construction: This page provides a diagram of the internal construction of a modern-day grand piano along with a brief explanation of its mechanisms.

Large Grand and Small Upright Pianos: What Makes Them Sound Different?: This article, presented at a conference of the Acoustical Society of American, explains why upright pianos are considered inferior to grand pianos and not of “professional quality.”

Upright Piano: The upright piano is a modern piano that is found mostly in homes and used more frequently for rehearsal and accompaniment than for professional performance. The advantage of the upright is that it takes up much less space than the grand or baby grand piano because the soundboard and strings run vertically, at a ninety-degree angle to the keyboard.

The Art Case Piano: Art case pianos are one-of-a-kind instruments with elaborate and uniquely fashioned cases that make their own aesthetic statements and serve as works of art in and of themselves, independent of the instrument’s musical value.

Steinway's Collection of Art Case Pianos: Steinway Piano offers photos of their art case piano collection online.

Frederick Historic Piano Collection: The Frederick Historic Piano Collection, housed at the Historical Piano Study Center in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, consists of twenty original grand pianos by important piano makers dating from 1790 to 1907. Photographs of each piano, along with information concerning the manufacturer and date of manufacture, are available on the Collection’s web page.

National Music Museum, Keyboard Instruments: This page provides an annotated list of keyboard instruments, including American-made and European-made pianos, that are held in the collection of the National Music Museum, located on the campus of the University of South Dakota at Vermillion.