A World of Music at Your Fingertips
“THE greatest of all musical instruments”—that is how some view the piano. Versatile and expressive, it is equally at home in the worlds of classical, jazz, and popular music. It dominates the concert stage as a majestic soloist yet provides discreet support to even a shy singer. It functions as a “one-man orchestra” but readily blends in with virtually every instrument. Described as “the musical equivalent of the artists’ palette,” it has inspired some of the most beautiful music ever written. Who invented the piano, and why is it still popular today?
The Piano’s Ancestors
The harp and the lyre were among the earliest hand-plucked stringed instruments. Later came the dulcimer, whose player hit the strings with small hammers. In Europe during the Middle Ages, instruments were developed with a keyboard for plucking or striking the strings, the most popular being the clavichord and the harpsichord. The clavichord was shaped like a rectangular box with a lid, and its strings were struck from below by little metal strips called tangents. It played expressively, but its tiny voice was easily drowned out by other instruments and by singers. The bigger harpsichord, looking rather like the modern grand piano, had long strings that were plucked by quills or plectra. It produced a strong, resonant tone but without any variation of volume.
By 1700, with new dramatic, expressive music being composed, musicians wanted a keyboard instrument that played sensitively, as the clavichord did, but with the power of the harpsichord.
The Piano Arrives
The Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori combined the basic design of the harpsichord with the hammer action of the clavichord, using small leather-topped wooden hammers to strike the strings. He called his invention the gravicembalo col piano e forte (harpsichord with soft and loud), shortened to the pianoforte, or piano. Here was a keyboard instrument that had a fuller, richer tone and could be played softer or louder.
Sadly, Cristofori did not live to see the success of his new instrument. Because few people showed interest in it, he went back to making harpsichords. Almost 30 years after Cristofori’s first piano, German organ builder Gottfried Silbermann took another look at the design and started making his own pianos. Craftsmen in Germany and Austria continued to experiment, concentrating on building a smaller, lighter model called a square piano.
In England another group of piano makers were at work. They had emigrated from Germany in the late 1750’s. One of them, Johannes Zumpe, developed a version of the square piano that sold well. Sébastien Érard of France and other makers in Europe and America added further improvements. Astute Scottish cabinetmaker John Broadwood perceived that the piano would be ideal for the young ladies of the newly affluent middle class. Soon his company was busy turning out large numbers of both square and grand pianos.
The next challenge was to design a compact piano with the superior sound of a grand. So pianos were built upward and not outward, becoming ever larger. The vertical strings of one Broadwood model rose nine feet [2.7 m] above the keyboard; but being distinctly top-heavy, it proved too dangerous to play! Another upright called the giraffe model was really a grand piano set on end with its tail in the air. John Isaac Hawkins, an Englishman, designed the first successful upright in 1800 by placing the lower end of the strings near floor level. This eventually led to the phasing out of the square piano.
Composers Discover the Piano
In the meantime, composers began to discover the piano. When young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited Johann Stein’s Bavarian workshop in 1777 to try the new instrument, he was impressed. Soon he was writing music for it, composing no less than 15 piano concerti in just four years! However, it was Ludwig van Beethoven a few years later who did much to open up the possibilities of this new instrument. He made the piano live, almost sing. Here was the instrument the musical world had been waiting for, and a new wave of romantic, passionate music burst onto the scene. Frédéric François Chopin, “the poet of the piano,” found it the perfect medium for expressing thoughts and feelings. Franz Liszt wrote exciting original music that made the piano sound like an orchestra. He also electrified audiences with his virtuosity.
Unfortunately, the piano’s all-wood frame and thin strings were ill-equipped to survive the loud, passionate music of a vigorous concert. Makers, therefore, began adding iron bracing until they perfected a single-cast iron frame. Now they could use thicker strings and heavier hammers to produce greater volume. The resulting rather harsh sound was remedied by felt-covered hammers. Longer strings stretched diagonally over shorter ones further improved the tone and saved space. The modern piano had arrived and with it scores of great pianists who packed concert halls with enthusiastic audiences anxious to hear their increasing repertoire of piano music. Meanwhile, piano makers in Europe and America mass-produced instruments as fast as they could to meet the phenomenal demand.
Everywhere a Piano
At the beginning of the 20th century, every home there had to have the new status symbol, whether anyone in the household could play it or not. Pianists were in demand to entertain customers and travelers, provide background music for the new silent movies, and teach a growing number of aspiring amateurs. Family get-togethers centered around the piano. Amateurs staged their own musical productions. New piano music came out regularly. Distinctively different playing styles developed too—the catchy, syncopated ragtime, the slow rhythm of the blues, the persistent beat of the boogie-woogie.
The downturn came after the first world war. From a peak production of 600,000 worldwide in 1910, piano sales gradually dropped. The phonograph, radio, record player, and eventually television took over home entertainment. But the world had not seen the last of the piano. New technical advances after World War II brought a revival. By 1980, production had climbed back to over 800,000. Today’s lighter pianos are made of plastic and alloys, and their white keys are covered by synthetic material instead of ivory. Japan has become one of the world’s largest manufacturers, and China has embraced what it refers to as “the queen of instruments.”
Would You Like to Play the Piano?
On some instruments it would take much practice for you to produce even a sound, but press a few piano keys in the right order and you are already making music! A few people are gifted with the ability to play by ear. However, most find that simple, do-it-yourself manuals soon teach them to play a melody with their right hand while the left provides the accompaniment. Imagine your sense of achievement when you can play a favorite melody for yourself with the help of sheet music! Will you choose a stirring march, a gentle waltz, or perhaps a favorite ballad? Maybe you will play the rhythms of Latin America or perhaps some jazz. What fun it is to play a duet with a friend! Think, too, of the pleasure you could give by accompanying a group of friends as they sing or play other instruments around you. Are you inspired to try this world of music for yourself?
The Player Piano
For people with little keyboard experience, the player piano was the answer. A combination of music box and piano, its keys moved up and down by themselves, activated by perforations on a moving paper roll. In the early models of the 1890’s, a mechanism in front of the piano pressed the keys with wooden fingers while the operator pumped the foot treadles. Later models had the device built into the piano. The more advanced “reproducing piano” recreated the actual performances of great pianists, and their recorded piano rolls were reproduced for sale, as modern-day discs or tapes are. By 1925, more player pianos were being made in the United States than conventional instruments. However, as a result of the advent of the radio and the gramophone, by the 1930’s the player piano had virtually disappeared.
How a Grand Piano Works
Over 200 parallel steel-wire strings at high tension produce 88 notes. Short, thin strings that vibrate quickly produce high notes, while long, thick strings, often wound with copper, produce bass notes. All except the lowest bass notes are produced by two or three strings tuned in unison.
When a player presses a piano key, levers propel a padded hammer to hit the one or more strings of that key’s note and instantly jump away. Keeping a finger on the key makes the string continue to vibrate and the sound die away slowly. When the player takes his finger off the key, a damper presses against the string to silence it. If the right-hand pedal at the foot of the piano is pressed, it holds all the dampers away and lets succeeding notes enrich one another.
The strings pass over strips of wood called bridges, attached to the wooden soundboard, which vibrates in tune and greatly intensifies the strings’ power and resonance. The surrounding wooden case acts like a sound box to increase the volume.
The strings are joined to a cast-iron frame by steel pins. The frame of a grand piano needs to be strong enough to withstand a combined string pull of up to 30 tons.
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