The Piano: History, Construction and More
The piano is one of the most popular musical instruments in the world. In this article, we discuss its history, inventor(s), most important parts, tuning and playing techniques, as well as the differences between acoustic and digital pianos.

A Practical Instrument

Besides rich-sounding and aesthetically pleasing, the piano is a highly practical instrument that doubles as an excellent writing tool. In a way, a piano forms a band in and of itself since it can be used to play melodies, chords and bass lines at the same time. Play a forceful rhythmic bass line and you can easily catch a groove with a piano. That being said, its ‘completeness’ can be a bit of a handicap for pianists who join a band for the first time, especially after years of playing solo. If this is you and there’s a bassist in the band, you’d better get used to skipping the bass line. In any case, try to stay above the low C – so the C below the central C – and you’ll be fine. As long as you avoid playing bass lines and simply integrate the lowest note of the bass line into the chords you play, you’ll rarely get in the bassist’s way.

A String Instrument With a Rich History

The piano boasts a long, rich and interesting history that links directly with today’s digital pianos. Pianos are string instruments equipped with little hammers that land on a string when the corresponding key is pressed. The instrument is the result of various technological advancements and is not dissimilar to the hammered dulcimer (a citer fitted with strings that are hit by hammers known as mallets) which came before it. Other instruments that stem from medieval attempts to build an instrument that could be played by pressing keys include the clavichord and the harpsichord, the latter of which saw a lot of use throughout the 17th century. So it can produce sound, the clavichord comes equipped with brass or iron strings and small metal blades called tangents. Clavichords shape a relatively quiet sound, limiting it mostly to solo performances in living rooms. The strings of a harpsichord, on the other hand, aren’t struck but are plucked by a plectrum-like mechanism. While this construction leads to a higher volume level, the downside of a harpsichord is that you can’t adjust or influence the volume in any way, leaving little room for dynamic performances. On top of that, harpsichords don’t support long notes (sustain) since the sound dies off quickly.

The Piano: History, Construction and More

Bartolomeo Cristofori: The Father of the Modern Piano

Despite their ‘limitations’, the harpsichord and clavichord represented centuries of acquired knowledge and skills and paved the way for the birth of the first piano: the pianoforte. Invented by experienced Italian clavichord builder, Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655 – 1731), the pianoforte was the result of its maker’s wish to combine the strengths of the harpsichord and clavichord in one instrument. Cristofori’s solution? Little hammers covered with hard felt that hit the strings before releasing them again. This differs from the harpsichord where the tangent remains in contact with the string after striking it and dampens it. This was a groundbreaking invention, and Cristofori went even further, designing the hammer so that it would fall back into its resting position as quietly as possible, but also give you the option to play notes in quick succession. Cristofori obviously succeeded which partly explains why many musical terms originate in Italian, including piano which means soft and forte, which means loud. In the centuries that followed, the name ‘pianoforte’ evolved into ‘piano’, but it’s essentially the same thing: an instrument that can be played quietly and loudly.

Weighted Keys and Dampers

To this day, Cristofori’s hammer system has inspired piano builders to create their own mechanisms. The action of a piano key turns out to be a great way to shape dynamics – an essential ingredient for expressive music. For today’s developers of digital pianos, it can still be challenging to mimic the action as digital pianos aren’t outfitted with any hammers. Here, innovation has led to the concept of weighted keys. These keys are preferred by most key players since they support natural dynamics, which is something that lightly rebounding synthesizer keys generally do not support.

Back to Cristofori who, besides hard felt hammer heads, also used soft felt dampers to kit out his pianos. When a key is played, the soft damper is lifted off the corresponding string before the hammer head strikes the strings. The vibration of the string is then transmitted through a comb to the soundboard, causing it to resonate. When the key is released, the damper is immediately pressed back against the string, dampening the note.

The Piano: History, Construction and More

The Sustain Pedal and Other Pedals

German organ builder Gottfriend Silbermann (1683 – 1753) is known for coming up with a significant upgrade to Cristofori’s pianoforte: the original sustain pedal. When held down, this pedal simultaneously releases all of the dampers, sustaining every note that’s then played. At the same time, any low strings that are played while engaging the sustain pedal will cause the free-hanging higher strings to ‘join in’ and resonate as well, creating a classic acoustic piano sound. In fact, you’ll always hear more than just the strings that are played when you’re listening to a piano – a trademark that lends the piano its typically rich sound. Needless to say, this resonant character is an important aspect for contemporary designers of digital pianos that strive for as natural a sound as possible.

Modern pianos generally feature two or three pedals, where the sustain pedal (the one on the right) is most commonly used. The left pedal (called ‘una corda’) subtly softens the sound of the piano while, if included, the centre pedal serves as a study pedal that can be locked to keep volume down during practice sessions. When it comes to grand pianos, the central pedal is a ‘sostenuto’ pedal which sustains all of the corresponding strings when a key is pressed.

Bach & Mozart

Following its introduction, the pianoforte wasn’t exactly on the up-and-up right away. Legendary composer Johann Sebastian Bach found the high notes to be too soft and wasn’t overly enthusiastic until he got his prodigious hands on a later model in 1747. From that point on, the piano basically took off and gradually became the immensely popular instrument it is today. In the meantime, various technical refinements were made to improve the original design. In Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s day (1756 – 1791), the pianoforte sounded softer and more ethereal than today’s piano, which is mostly the result of extensive modifications that were carried out in the first half of the 18th century. The Industrial Revolution that was going on at the time definitely played a part here as various parts of the piano could suddenly be manufactured using machinery that guaranteed higher as well as more consistent quality.

The first electric and electronic pianos popped up in the second half of the 20th century. Not to be confused with today’s digital pianos, these slabs of keys were designed to be more portable and transportable than actual acoustic uprights. Nonetheless, some models were awkwardly bulky. It’s also safe to say that the first generation of electric and electro-mechanic pianos never succeeded at properly mimicking the sound of their acoustic counterparts. On the other hand, those instruments turned out to be in a league of their own and have bestowed us with now-vintage electric pianos like the Wurlitzer, the Fender Rhodes, the Yamaha CP Series and the Hohner Pianet, all of which you can read more about in our article on Vintage Keyboards.

The Piano: History, Construction and More

The Digital Piano

The 1980s saw the release of the first digital pianos and polyphonic synthesizers, which got fairly close to natural piano sound. Most digital pianos generate sound through samples – so high-quality recordings of the world’s finest pianos. As well as portability, digital pianos boast several other perks compared to acoustic pianos: they’re generally less expensive; often support MIDI, feature a headphone output for silent playing sessions; have built-in transpose options; and can be simply amplified via a dedicated line output. Nevertheless, some musicians will always go for an acoustic piano because of the sound and the rush you get when pressing real piano keys. If you only ever play the piano at home and want the best of both worlds, be sure to take a look at what’s known as a silent piano. This special acoustic piano can basically be dropped into digital mode in which the hammers are dampened by a felt strip while sensors register movement, allowing you to hone your skills in private as a built-in module churns out digital sound that can be heard through a pair of plugged-in headphones. If you are a gigging musician, however, you’ll generally want to opt for a stage piano: a slim, speakerless digital piano that can be set up on a stand and connected to the PA system. Learn more about the differences between acoustic and digital pianos in our article: Acoustic or Digital Piano? Which One Should You Go For?

Physical Modelling

As mentioned earlier, most digital pianos generate sound based on samples – a technology that offers satisfying sound for many pianists. Yet classically-trained pianists might say they’re missing something here. The downside of samples is that they’re essentially sonic snapshots, meaning that unlike a note played on an acoustic piano, the sound isn’t partly decided by any other notes you’re playing. As such, to get even closer to that real acoustic sound and feel, digital piano manufacturers have come up with a more advanced technology that even extends to virtual pianos: physical modelling. Built into models like the Roland V-Piano, physical modelling is a true-to-life way of synthesizing sound. Instead of simply copying a sound, this latest technology simulates the interaction between various parts of an instrument based on mathematical models.

From acoustic uprights to digital models loaded with physical modelling tech, pianos are captivating instruments. From classical to pop, every pianist has their own unique bond with the instrument, which could be anything from an eye-wateringly expensive, world-class grand to a trusty stage piano that cost no more than several hundred quid. What’s your weapon of choice?

Worth Knowing

Using Piano Pedals in a Band

If you play the keys as part of a band, you basically only ever need to be concerned with the sustain pedal, and whenever the band’s playing all-out, you generally won’t even need the sustain pedal at all. But when there’s more headroom or whenever you’re performing solo, the sustain pedal can do a lot for your sound, and may even be crucial at times since sustain can easily make your piano sound much richer. Still, using the sustain pedal isn’t as easy as you might think as it’s not just a matter of simply holding it down. Releasing the pedal at exactly the right moments requires good timing.

Grands and Uprights

Acoustic pianos can be divided into grand pianos and upright pianos. Grands are kitted out with horizontally-installed strings that are hit by the hammers from below, while uprights come with strings that run vertically and get hit by the hammers from the side.

The sound of a grand piano is also fuller, especially in the lowest octaves since the strings are typically longer and thinner than the strings of an upright piano. Grands come in various lengths and can span over three meters. In general, the longer a grand piano is, the better (and louder) the sound is. The internal mechanics of a grand piano are slightly different too. As a result, you can repeatedly play the same key a little faster on a grand piano. For a piano recital or concert, soloists almost always play on a grand piano.

The Piano: History, Construction and More

Why The Piano?

Bert Van Den Brink is one of The Netherlands’ most famous jazz pianists, and while he also plays the church organ, the Hammond and the accordion, the piano is the instrument that stole his heart. “There are various reasons why I love the piano so much, number one being the possibility to create harmonies. The piano is like an infinite palette of colours I get to use and blend. I’ll place my fingers on the keys and begin searching for satisfying harmonies. Playing piano is seeking, straying and sometimes stumbling-upon.”

Bert’s music-making adventures and piano-based quests revolve around an important motorical notion. “There are many different ways to bring the hammers to the strings which, mechanically speaking, is always a big challenge and one that comes with every key you play. There’s risk involved too, even for seasoned pianists. Play too softly and the hammer might not make it all the way to the string, giving you nothing but silence. I think that’s fascinating. You could avoid all risk by playing it safe, but that isn’t me. Also, every instrument comes with risk: you can play a violin and play out of tune, fail to hit a certain note when playing a wind instrument, and you could even strike a triangle the wrong way. Risk is an intrinsic part of making music, which will always be an adventure for every musician.”

Describing another remarkable aspect of the piano, Bert says: “Everything you do while playing the piano, you do for the sound. In other words: playing the piano is an experience that’s packed with anticipation. The second the sound is generated, you can no longer alter it. This is completely different compared to playing a bowed string instrument or a wind instrument.”

Bert is an outspoken advocate for what he calls ‘going deep’. “I’m generally not a fan of touching the keys in a quick or shallow manner, except in those moments when you’re deliberately going for a certain effect. This is also what I tell my students. Stay with the key as you push it all the way down. This way, you’ll have the biggest possible control over the sound, and you’re still ‘there’ when the sound of any key you play eventually dies out. Bert believes that pressing the keys with a certain degree of engagement is the main way in which pianists can put their own stamp on a performance. “You can add warmth by allowing the notes to slightly overlap. And how one does this strongly determines their performance. Sadly, this is an underappreciated part of playing the piano in music classes, so I can only encourage you to go ahead and give it a try. Feel free to put excessive emphasis on those overlaps at first and make sure to record yourself so you can listen back and feel it. Immerse yourself in the notes like you’re sitting back in your lazy chair. If you’ve already been feeling like there’s something missing in your piano parts, then trust me, doing this will prove to be a great way to take your performances to the next level.”

Equal Temperament

Acoustic pianos require frequent tune-ups: twice a year for pianos that never leave the living room, and more often when it comes to models that are used for concerts. Tuning a piano is a specialised skill and a job that should be left to professional piano tuners. After all, the tuning involves a 12-note division of a single octave that even made Greek philosopher Pythagoras scratch his head. That’s because the just intervals of octaves (½), perfect fifths (⅔) and fourths (¾) simply can’t be mathematically reconciled – an imperfection that initially led to many different tunings. Dive into the history of music and you’ll come across countless examples as well as experts and scientists dedicated to tuning systems. A term worth knowing for now is equal temperament. Introduced at the end of the 16th century, equal temperament has become the most commonly used tuning system in the Western world.

Equal temperament divides an octave into twelve equal intervals, which sounds straightforward but is more complicated than you might think. Also, apart from the octave, the intervals are never exactly equal to the perfect (so not-out-of tune) sounding ratios they should come with. Despite this, what’s great about equal temperament is that its ‘shortcoming’ carries over when changing to another key. In a way, you could say that equal temperament tuning is the compromise we’ve come up with to sound equally out-of-tune across all twelve keys, which is exactly why it works.

See Also

» Digital Pianos
» Stage Pianos
» Software Pianos
» All Keyboard Instruments & Accessories

» How To Sing And Play At The Same Time
» How to Play Great Solos Over Chord Progressions
» Classical Piano Music for Beginners: 6 Well-Known Compositions
» Acoustic or Digital Piano? Which One Should You Go For?
» Playing the Piano: Correct Posture & Hand Position
» The Three Piano Pedals: What Are They For?
» How to Record a Piano
» What is Velocity Sensitivity?
» How to play basic piano chords
» What’s the difference between a keyboard and a digital piano?
» The Magic of the Minimoog
» The Hammond Organ: A Classic
» Vintage Keyboards: Here to Stay
» The Accordion: It’s More Popular Than You Think!

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