The Evolution of an Instrument: The Piano

The pipe organ is called the “king of instruments”. The drum is probably the oldest and most widely spread instrument. In the world of popular music, guitars are ubiquitous. But when it comes down to it, nothing approaches the piano in versatility, popularity, or utility.

The piano is so well-known, it would be pointless to spend time describing what it is or what it sounds like. Categorizing it is a bit trickier. If you judge it from what vibrates to make the sound, it’s a string instrument. If you judge it by how the sound is initiated, it’s percussion. If you judge it by the type of musician who plays it, it’s considered a keyboard instrument. Whatever group of instruments you put it with, it dominates. It’s used in everything from light classical music to boogie-woogie. It can act as a solo instrument in front of a full orchestra, or as an accompaniment for a solo from the quietest of instruments. It can be loud and brash, or calm and serene. It is played by some of the greatest virtuoso performers of all time, and by young children barely out of diapers.

Where did it come from? The piano (full name “pianoforte”, which is Italian for soft/strong) has something of a split ancestry. If you go all the way back, you have the psaltery, which was an early version of a harp. It had a few strings stretched in a frame which could be plucked or strummed to produce music. Eventually this was mounted on a box that would amplify the sound, and the strings were hit with small hand-held hammers, creating the instrument known today as the hammered dulcimer.

Probably at some point in the middle ages, Italians began producing the first harpsichords. Basically these were keyboard instruments that were machines that played harps. The strings were contained in a box over a sounding board, and a series of keys would cause a mechanism to pluck the strings. This produced a much larger sound, and permitted much more elaborate playing than was possible on harps and psalteries. The problem with the harpsichord, however was that the mechanism always plucked the strings with the same amount of force, so there was very little a performer could do to change how loud he was playing.

Not long after that, there arose a new keyboard instrument: the clavichord. This instrument took its cue from the hammered dulcimer, using small metal blades to strike the strings instead of plucking them. The striking mechanism solved the problem of varying the loudness, since the mechanism could vary how hard the strings were hit based on how hard the keys were pressed. However, since the blades would stay in contact with the strings after hitting them, the instrument was never very loud at all, and the clavichord was used mainly for practice or as a tool by composers.

Around 1700 instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori devised a mechanism that was the best of both of these earlier instruments and created the fortepiano. Using leather covered hammers, it produced sounds by striking the strings, which gave the performer control over loudness. However, Cristofori’s new mechanism allowed the hammer to fall away from the string allowing it to vibrate freely, which made for a louder instrument. This immediate ancestor to the piano was created with only a four octave range (a little more than half of a contemporary piano), and had problems with tone quality. J.S. Bach rejected an early version, disliking the sound of the upper notes. However, over time improvements were made to the construction offering better tone and a wider range. This is the instrument for which most of the Classical era piano pieces were written.

Around 1790, big changes came to the instrument. Composers and performers wanted a better tone quality, and the industrial revolution in the next century helped them along the way. The improvement in producing steel provided better strings. Cast iron frames (aka “plates”) allowed for higher string tension, which meant larger strings could be used. And finally, manufacturing processes improved to the point that many quality instruments could be made. The range was gradually extended to 7½ octaves, and multiple strings for each note made for a stronger, richer sound. Innovation in the cases and the orientation of the striking mechanisms brought pianos in a wide variety of configurations, from full length grand pianos to small, upright parlor pianos. In this way, the instrument became the most popular instrument in the world, and anyone proficient at one of these instruments could sit down at any other and play just as successfully.

There have been, over time, many smaller improvements on the instrument. There are the pedals, for instance. The one pedal practically all pianos have now is the sustain pedal. In normal operation, when you release a key, a felt damper comes down to stop the string from vibrating. The sustain pedal keeps all the dampers up, which allows a string to continue vibrating after the key is released. This also affects the tone, because other strings will vibrate sympathetically with the sound which makes it richer. If there are two pedals, the second one is usually a soft pedal. This shifts the mechanism so it doesn’t play all the strings of each note, so it is quieter. Higher end pianos will often have a third pedal, which is called a sostenuto pedal. This one will keep dampers raised on any note currently being played, while letting them work normally on notes played afterwards. Some piano makers have included other unusual pedals, but they’ve failed to catch on. Really the piano is basically unchanged for well over a century now, except for the introduction of electronic pianos.

In many ways, the piano is the basic instrument for musicians. Composers and arrangers are almost required to be adept at it, no matter what instrument or ensemble they write for; music educators, whether private or classroom, need to be at least moderately proficient at it. Almost any secondary music school will have more instructors for this single instrument than any other. Except for a handful of churches that pride themselves on being non-instrumental, nearly every church will have at least one piano. If you go to a school with practice rooms, usually each room will have a piano, as well as one in each professor’s studio. It is truly difficult to over-state how much the piano is used; and even more difficult to over-state how important it is.

Here’s some required listening:

Scarlatti: Sonata in D minor, K 517  A performance by Elaine Caparone on harpsichord.

C.P.E Bach: Rondo in A, Wq 58/1, from “Kenner und Liebhaber” A performance by Ryan Layne on clavichord

W.A. Mozart: Fantasie in D minor, KWV 545  Kristian Bezuidenhout on fortepiano, predecessor of the modern piano

Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor, S 178  Yundi Li performing this complex Romantic era composition.

Joplin: Solace  Scott Kirby performing a classic slow-paced ragtime piece

Desmond: Take Five  Classic cool jazz from pianist Dave Brubeck and his quartet

Joel: Piano Man  Perhaps the definitive rock piano piece.