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A Short History of the Piano

Nov 3, 2007
If you're thinking of taking piano lessons -- or if you already take them -- it's a good idea to learn something about the long musical tradition in which you will be participating. After all, nobody's choice to play piano is made in a vacuum. No, we decide to learn the instrument because of its special musical qualities and its unique history.

Unlike piano-playing children, whose lessons are often strongly urged upon them by parents, adult piano players like to have as much knowledge about our instrument as possible. Such knowledge not only enhances the experience of playing, but it also motivates us to play with care and respect for our piano masters. This is true for both those who read music and those who play by ear.

Most piano players are aware that the instrument's modern name is actually a shortened version of its original name, "pianoforte," which is a compound of the Italian words for "soft" and "loud." This name was given to the new instrument in order to differentiate it from its forbear instrument, the harpsichord, whose volume range is far less flexible than that of the piano.

While earlier instruments such as the harpsichord generate sound by plucking strings, the piano was the first instrument to successfully generate sound by striking strings. Invented around 1700 by the Paduan instrument-maker Bartolomeo Cristofori, the revolutionary mechanism of the piano, with hammers that return to the rest position immediately after striking, made possible a far greater degree of control and nuance than previous instruments.

With good reason, second-generation pianos -- which came soon after Cristofori's and his followers' groundbreaking developments -- are commonly referred to as "Mozart-era" pianos. Mozart, whose work was both the pinnacle and the embodiment of music during the second half of the 18th century, was an immensely popular figure even in his time. His decision to play, compose for, and perform on the piano did more to popularize the instrument than any other single person has done. Because so many of his works, great and small, popular and obscure, were composed and published for piano, Mozart's music has always been a major selling point for the instrument.

By the time Mozart passed away in 1791, the Industrial Revolution had begun to take hold of Europe, dramatically transforming all aspects of life, including music and the arts. In the early 1800s, technological progress allowed the piano to evolve almost wholly into the modern instrument we play today.

Advancements in technology related to the piano's steel strings and iron frame came just in time for use in Beethoven's later works. Some musical historians have even suggested that the amazing musical and acoustic genius of Beethoven's final works simply would not have been possible earlier in the composer's life. This is thanks to changes made to the piano, the instrument that Beethoven loved above all others.

By the end of the 1800s, the piano had all but fully developed into the instrument we have now. This is why piano works by Romantic and Modernist composers such as Chopin, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and Stravinsky sound as if they could have been written today. Also, thanks to the instrument's unprecedented power and range, as well as groundbreaking piano works by Beethoven and others, these composers were able to expand the instrument far beyond its early, harpsichord-influenced repertoire. In short, the vast range of 20th century music -- from traditional compositions, to experimental orchestral music, to jazz, blues, and rock music -- would not have been possible without the piano.

And here we are today, proudly carrying the piano tradition into the 21st century. As you already know, the piano is now commonplace in middle-class American households. Many children grow up listening to their parents play, and many become pianists themselves at a very early age. Plus, as scientific studies continue to show the health benefits of playing music throughout life, recent years have seen a surge in adult music. Because of its beauty, simplicity, versatility, and its long and storied history, the piano is the top choice for budding adult musicians.
About the Author
Duane Shinn is the author of the popular course on playing piano using chords along with the ear titled
"How To Play Piano By Ear!"
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