Who invented the piano?
The first modern piano was supposedly invented around 1700 in Florence, Italy by Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua who lived between 1655 and 1732. He was a craftsman, as well as an expert harpsichord maker who was employed by Ferdinando de’ Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany as instrument keeper. He also repaired harpsichords for the royal court.
He called the first piano-style instrument ‘gravicembalo col piano et forte’, which means ‘keyboard instrument with soft and loud’. Cristofori’s invention was a simple instrument that was named for the strings that produced different sound levels when they were struck by small wooden hammers covered with deerskin.
Compared to the current piano keyboard layout, the keyboard looked different with the accidentals in white and the natural keys in black. The black and white keys were later switched round at Sebastian LeBlanc’s suggestion.
Cristofori was an artful inventor who created such a sophisticated action for his pianos that, at the instrument’s inception, he solved a number of technical problems that continued to puzzle other piano designers for the next 75 years of its evolution. So in some ways it was Cristofori who invented the piano as we know it today.
Some of Cristofori’s ingenious innovations were the escapement mechanism, which enabled the hammer to instantly fall away from the string after striking to avoid dampening it. This check prevented the fast-moving hammer from bouncing back and re-hitting the string. His hammers also struck harder than the clavichord’s. His piano could silence the string when it was not in use. He also used thicker strings at higher tensions compared to existing harpsichords, and isolated the soundboard from the tension-bearing parts of the case to allow it to freely vibrate.
But his action was very expensive which meant many of its features were dropped by subsequent 18th century makers. The piano would then be reinvented gradually in the decades that followed. As it had been in the centuries before…
Was it actually Cristofori who invented the piano?
Before Cristofori, there were other similar instruments in existence. In Genesis 4:21, there is the first historical mention of instruments, ‘And his brother’s name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as the harp and organ’. The very first instrument in history to have a keyboard was the hydraulis, which was the precursor of the modern keyboard. It was created in Greece around 220BCE and was used at very important festivals during the Greek and Roman Empires by 2CE. So was it the Greeks who invented the piano?
The earliest keyboard was played with the wrists, hands, feet, fists and knees. The scales were diatonic – GABCDEF – until the 13th century. Today a twelve-tone chromatic scale is used.
The invention of the piano was based on earlier technological innovations such as different kinds of keyboard stringed instruments created in the 14th and 15th centuries. A number had hammers like the dulce melos, clavichord and checker, while others were plucked instrument such as the harpsichord, virginal and spinet.
Cristofori’s surviving pianos
There are three Cristofori pianos: one at the Museo Strumenti Musicali in Rome (built in 1722), another at the Musikinstrumenten-Museum at Leipzig University (built in 1726) and a third at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (built in 1720). The oldest surviving piano is the Metropolitan Cristofori, which is a plain wing-shaped case that resembles a harpsichord on the outside. It is a single keyboard without stops. This 1720 piano also differs from the modern piano because of its harder hammers and thinner strings.
Initially, Cristofori’s invention was slow to pick up in Italy, but after Queen Maria Barbara de Braganza of Spain purchased five they started to become more popular. Lodovico Giustini wrote and published twelve songs specifically for the piano. In 1711, Scipione Maffei, an Italian writer wrote about the piano and a number of other experimenters worked on different piano features and materials. Gottfried was one. He created a piano similar to Cristofori’s, but with the addition of a damper pedal that is one of three still used today.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the pianoforte, now known as the piano, became an important instrument throughout the West for both composers and performers. The modern piano is quite versatile and can accompany almost anything an orchestra plays. It’s good at sustaining pitches in a lyrical fashion, developing musical moods and styles, and has a volume that can be heard in most musical ensembles. The piano broadly refers to a stringed keyboard instrument which has a hammer action, unlike the jack and quill action of the harpsichord. It has the capability of soft and loud sounds, and it has become a key instrument all over the world.
The piano today
The piano has since been taken up in many cultures. Asia has a good manufacturing and performance base, with heaps of talent in many countries. And Japanese companies such as Yamaha have become leading manufacturers. Today, pianos have gone digital, with computer software used to compose and perform songs on a ‘keyboard’.
The piano has a relatively new history of just 300 years, if you go with the idea that it was Cristofori who invented the piano. But in some ways he simply refined ideas that had been around since the Bible. There are all kinds of piano from grand to uprights and from electronic to acoustic. That said it remains popular with musicians of many genres – from classical to jazz.
And you might even have seen movies about it: The Piano (1993), The Piano Teacher (2001) and The Pianist (2002)?
If you liked this short history of the ‘invention’ of the piano, feel free to share!
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