The piano is one of the world’s most popular musical instruments. Have you ever wondered who invented the piano? It was Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) of Padua, Italy, who invented the first piano with modern hammer action.
Cristofori had been appointed in 1688 to the Florentine court of Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici to care for its harpsichords and, eventually, for its entire collection of musical instruments.
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The First Piano
Cristofori was discontented with the harpsichord even though by the 18th century, the harpsichord was quite sophisticated. However, the low string tension in the harpsichord did not provide musicians with adequate control over the volume level.
He replaced the plucking mechanism in the harpsichord with a muffled wooden hammer striking the strings, thus the birth of the modern version of the piano. Interestingly, the piano actually used the percussion idea.
The first piano generally resembled a harpsichord, and Cristofori called it “gravicembalo col piano e forte” (it literally meant a harpsichord with soft and loud). This instrument offered the player’s ability to achieve changes in loudness solely by changing the force applied to the keys.
There are three pianos that survived Cristofori. These extant pianos are at three different prestigious museums.
- One dated 1720 is at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York;
- The one at the Museo Strumenti Musicali in Rome, Italy, was dated 1722;
- The Musikinstrumenten-Museum of Leipzig University, Germany, has one dated 1726
The Evolution of Piano
Modern-day pianos use highly complex hammer action, which is still very similar to the basic concept of Cristofori’s pianoforte, and it produces sound with hammers and steel strings.
Prior to Cristofori’s pianoforte, the piano ancestry line came from clavichord, spinet and harpsichard. With the introduction of the pianoforte, many instrument makers continued to improve and iterate their designs.
The Upright Piano
During the 1700s, some creative inventors began experimenting with an upright piano, an idea that defied the law of physics. Instead of having strings laying horizontally, like its predecessors, the upright pianos have strings vertically.
The first recorded upright piano was by Johann Schmidt from Salzburg, Austria, in 1780. Since then, the upright piano has gotten ever more popular in Europe and America. The enhanced designs produced a more robust sound. The improvements included a diagonal string layout and multiple strings for each note.
For more than a century, the upright pianos continued to be the practical choice for many pianists with tight budgets and spaces.
The Grand Piano
Obviously, the original pianoforte design more naturally supports the horizontal wing form, and it produces better sound quality. Over the last two centuries, the continued development and iterations gradually evolved the pianoforte into the modern grand piano.
During the late 1700s and early 1800s period, several improvements were worth noting:
- The piano key actions combined a forceful and direct strike with a slight wisp across the sting that enhanced the tonal.
- The invention of the capotasto for piano increases the rigidity of the strings and provides a counter pressure to the hammer, hence improving the tone.
- The full iron frame has fan-shaped strings and an overstrung scale.
- Improvements in case-making enhanced sound quality and acoustic properties.
At present, almost all grand pianos still leverage some of the fundamental design elements. Of course, the advancement in technology warrants even better sounds in many first-class concert grand pianos.
The Digital Piano
Although the electric keyboard was born in the 1950s, the digital piano came out in the 1980s. The digital pianos provide the sound and feel that truly match an acoustic piano.
Essentially, digital pianos are electronic instruments that produce sound from recorded samplings. Due to the mass production capability of digital pianos, they are more affordable than traditional pianos.
With the easy maintenance of digital pianos, economical prices, and compact designs, digital pianos are getting ever more popular these days.
Furthermore, millions can bring the first-class concert piano sound home, which was unthinkable prior to the digital piano age.
For instance, the Kawai KDP-120, an upright-style digital piano, features the world-renowned Shigeru Kawai SK-EX concert grand piano sound. Another example is the Yamaha YDP-184 digital piano, which is furnished with the Yamaha flagship CF 9-foot concert grand piano sound.
In this post, we covered a brief piano history from Bartolomeo Cristofori, who invented the piano, to upright pianos, grand pianos, and digital pianos.
If the invention of the upright piano made the piano a very popular instrument, the digital piano with many innovative functionalities and portability, increased the instrument’s popularity exponentially.