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Instrument History: The Piano

The piano is one of the most beloved instruments of all time, with its mesmerizing sound and versatility making it a cherished tool in music. Have you ever thought about how the piano came to be and who thought about the process behind the handcrafted instrument? Let’s take a journey through time to explore the fascinating and ever-evolving history of the piano!

The Beginning

Before there were pianos, the precursors included the harpsichord and clavichord. Both of these early keyboard instruments helped lay out the foundation for the piano. Many may recognize the sound of the harpsichord because of its right sound and plucked strings. Much of the music from the Renaissance and Baroque eras was using the harpsichord. The harpsichord was unable to express dynamic changes as well as having little to no sustain, giving it a staccato quality.

The clavichord, on the other hand, had hammers that struck the strings directly when the keys were pressed. Unlike the harpsichord, it did allow for my dynamic expression although it was relatively quiet and had very limited sustain. The clavichord has been described as “sweet” and “gentle”, and is mostly heard in Renaissance and Baroque music much like the harpsichord.

The Arrival of the Piano

In the 18th century, Bartolomeo Cristofori, an Italian instrument maker, invented what was originally known as the “fortepiano” or “gravicembalo col piano e forte,” which translates to “harpsichord with soft and loud.” The name was given due to the ability to

play multiple dynamic expressions, which was a breakthrough in the world of keyboard instruments.

What really defined Cristofori’s “fortepiano” was the use of the hammers to strike the strings of the piano. When a key was pressed, a string would be hit by a hammer and this allowed dynamic control based on the force of pressing the key. Expression through music was now at the fingertips of many musicians (literally).

The Evolution of the Piano

Over time, the piano has been refined and evolved into what we know today. During the 18th and 19th centuries, many European instrument makers refined the fortepiano and its performance capabilities. Some of the most notable developments included a standardized keyboard layout, the use of pedals, and the addition of a cast-iron frame to withstand the tension of the strings.

During this period, composers such as Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin composed many pieces of music specifically for the piano and made the instrument even more popular and desirable. Not only did the piano become a staple in both classical and romantic music for soloists, but also it made its way into orchestras and chamber ensembles.

The Piano Today

As time went on, the piano saw many advancements in design, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, and became the modern instrument we all know today. One of the most important refinements that happened to the piano was the overstrung scale, which allows for longer strings and improved tone. Also emerging during this time period was the grand piano, with its curved design and soundboard.

The 20th century brought forth the convenience of electronic keyboards and digital pianos, both making music more accessible and giving the musician more artistic opportunities with the capabilities of synthesized sounds and recordings.


The piano has evolved from a simple instrument to a complex, unique, and beloved instrument that is now able to showcase a vast range of dynamics and musical expressions. Whether it be an upright piano found at your school or an electronic keyboard in your bedroom, the piano is still widely used today. In fact, over 18 million Americans play piano! Are you one of the 18 million?

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