History Of The Piano

Over the course history of the piano, there have been some bright spots, some high points of popularity for the boxy instrument with its checkerboard keys.

Pianos haven't had it all that easy. Their first debut on the music scene three hundred years ago received only lukewarm interest from patrons. Today many pianos sit stoically in the corner of living rooms collecting dust, their sole purpose now nothing more than entertainment for children who bang indiscriminately over its keys during their infrequent visits to grandma's house. But over the course of the piano's history there have been some bright spots, some high points of popularity for the boxy instrument with its checkerboard keys.

The invention of the piano is credited to the Italian Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731). Cristofori was a keyboard instrument designer for the prince Ferdinand d' Medici of Florence at the turn of the 18th century. At this time, the most popular keyboard instruments were the harpsichord and the clavichord. Both of these instruments resembled the modern day piano, but their sound was produced by plucking the strings. When the keys of the harpsichord were depressed, a small metal hook would pluck the appropriate wire string to produce a particular tone. A major drawback of the harpsichord, however, was the inability to control the loudness of each note, and composers for this instrument were unable to evoke emotion through its design. The clavichord aimed to improve on this situation. Technically more advanced, the clavichord still plucked at wire strings, but allowed the strings to continue vibrating as long as the key was depressed. This innovation allowed artists more control over the volume of their instrument. The clavichord became quite popular inspiring Johann Sebastian Bach to write many popular works in his Anna Magadelena Notebook. Although today the Notebook is used exclusively for the piano, it was originally written for the clavichord. The clavichord was far from perfect, however, and although it permitted expressiveness from its players, it was too delicate in tone. The clavichord was not suited for performances in large halls, and was frequently drowned out by other instruments.

Keyboard enthusiasts during Cristofori's time sought an instrument with the power of the harpsichord but the volume control mechanism of the clavichord. Eventually Cristofori came up with the brilliant idea of replacing the wire hooks of the two instruments with leather padded hammers. The result was an instrument that played both piano (soft) and forte (loud). The new keyboard became known as the pianoforte, which over the years has shortened to piano. But Cristofori's new invention received little applause from the Italians or his patron the prince d' Medici. According to Roy E. Howard's Piano History, Johann Sebastian Bach found the keys too heavy to the touch, and many harpsichord players dismissed the new feel of the piano as too difficult to master.

Luckily Cristofori's design was not lost due to lack of popular demand. During the rest of the eighteenth century, European inventors tinkered with the instrument's design. Austrians and Germans in particular took to perfecting the piano, but due to the expense of the final product, only a few were made for royalty and noblemen who could afford them. By the late 1770's, Johann Christian Bach of the same famous family played a newly redesigned pianoforte in public, and the piano's popularity began to soar. Bi-colored keys, more sturdy frames, and more precise stringing techniques also added to the piano's newfound fame. Its fame extended to the British colonies in America where high-ranking nobility considered a piano in the home to be the height of fashion.

The piano's popularity rose sharply by the mid-18th century, as Romanticism in the arts became all the rage. Romanticism encouraged the expression of emotions through art, and the very expressive piano became the instrument of choice for musicians. Composers began to compose more music for the piano, and solo piano performances were held in sold out concert halls. Franz Liszt is perhaps best known for his extraordinary piano performances in front of hundreds of adoring females, embodying what would come to be known in the 20th century as the musical superstar.

The Americans were responsible for bringing the piano to the homes of middle-class families. Jonas Chickering started his successful piano-manufacturing firm in the Unites States in 1823, and was soon followed by Heinrich Steinweg of Steinway and Sons fame. The new assembly-line techniques and standardized piano parts significantly reduced the cost of pianos, and by the end of the 19th century pianos were considered a must-have for every household. The functional upright design made for easy home storage. Pre-made piano parts made for easy assembly, and mail-order catalogs with generous installment plans left few excuses for not buying a piano. Feminine advice guides of this era encouraged women to learn the piano. Musical ability with the piano was the mark of a refined woman, and along with her cooking and needlepoint skills would catch her a husband in no time. The piano also permitted women to respectably earn money for the first time through piano lessons.

The piano was also a hallmark for working class communities during the 1920s. The Smithsonian's Piano 300 Exhibition in Washington DC notes that African-Americans had been using the piano in their gospel worship services since after the Civil War. But they began to experiment with the instrument towards the beginning of the 20th century. New composers such as Scott Joplin created new musical styles such as ragtime and jazz, both of which became the basis for American popular music in the latter half of the century.

But the piano's popularity was threatened by the invention of the radio and phonograph. These easier forms of entertainment began to replace the piano, as did the advent of the movie industry. The Depression of the 1930s did not help piano sales and in order to compete in this new world, piano manufactures introduced player pianos. Music sheets resembling giant punch cards were fed through the piano, and mechanically depressed the correct key. Popular music of the day was transferred to these musical rolls and fed through the new piano. Roy E. Howard's Piano History mentions that other techniques used by manufacturers to stimulate interest among consumers included focusing on economy and appearance rather than quality and performance. By the 1940s, "˜baby grands' and "˜spinets' were the two most popular piano models and are the pianos of choice for modern day consumers.

Modern day entertainment from video games to CD players makes it harder for the piano to compete for the affection of consumers. Many children learn to play the instrument only because a family member encouraged them into lessons. The piano is not even an instrument children are invited to learn during elementary music class, as its bulk excludes it as a popular band instrument. The piano is no stranger to disinterest, however. Consumers are fickle by nature and the piano is bound to recapture the attention of the masses once again. Because along with producing melodic tunes in seven octaves, the piano also generates a good amount of loyalty from those who learn to play it. Although the grandchildren might not be reproducing Mozart across its keys, grandma still can't part with the old upright. And even after grandma has passed on, her own children might not be able to bring themselves to part with this family heirloom, and will adopt it into their own home encouraging their own little ones to carry on the tradition.

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