Talking about the evolution of the piano is like trying to describe the evolution of a species. One genus of piano inevitably leads us back to a prior incarnation, and so on and so forth, until the true originating point of the instrument itself is lost beyond the scope of history.
What we do know is that the piano has been given a central place in the history of music and continues to play a focal role within the wide spectrum of all world musical instruments. With its visually linear representation of over seven octaves of notes, ease of action and polyphonic capabilities, the piano still remains the predominant compositional tool in the western musical world.
The history of the piano, if we consider the overall history of the lyre and lute, stretches back over four millennia into the times of early Mesopotamian civilization. Fretless stringed instruments, anchored to a sounding board, and plucked or hammered to achieve sonority, have roots stretching back to the elemental construction of the bow and arrow, likely reappropriated for strictly musical use in Sumerian times. As there is a wide debate concerning the geographical origin and playing style of such instruments, it is safe to say the “hammering” quality of stringed instruments, whether by “hammering-on” notes with one’s fingers, or using an external tool to apply pressure to a string, has been around as long as the oud, the lute, and the biblically mentioned zither and psaltery. Adding to the ambiguity of such instruments, scholars have found reference to the Chinese zither, the “guqin” or “qin,” predating the influx of western culture via the silk road.
As the strings of these instruments were made with increasingly stronger materials, they became better suited to withstand the pressure of various kinds of hammers. Perhaps beginning with the santur, an ancient Babylonian hammered-dulcimer, more vivid incarnations of the latter-day piano began to spread into Europe and east Asia.
Getting Louder and Heavier
Around the 14th century, craftsmen in Europe saw fit to house the mechanics of the hammered dulcimer into an enclosed sound-board, thus creating the clavichord. Keys on the outside of the device could be depressed, activating metal blades called “tangents” which would strike different strings to produce sound. Unlike the mechanically plucked harpsichord, the evolution of hammered instruments would stretch far beyond the embryonic stages of the clavichord.
Because the musician could strike each key with varying pressure, the clavichord offered much more expressive range than the relatively fixed volume of the harpsichord. However, relative to the harpsichord, the clavichord was fairly quiet and was not the optimal choice for performance and concerts.
Although the clavichord was fairly popular from the 16th to the 18th century, it eventually fell out of favor as inventors found ways to improve the mechanics of the clavichord into something entirely louder, more durable and more expressive.
The Pianos of Mozart and Beethoven
Around the year 1700, combining the loudness of the harpsichord with the expressive control of the clavichord, Bartolomeo Cristofori created the first piano using a new hammer design which would completely revolutionize the world of music. What Cristofori realized was, if the hammer released after striking the string and then returned to dampen the string, it would create much greater resonance than either the clavichord or harpsichord, while still giving the player complete control over the sustain of each note.
Though initially limited to approximately five octaves and quieter than modern-day pianos, these fortepianos, distinguished from latter day 7½ octave pianos, served as the main instruments of composers like Wolfgang Mozart and Ludwig Van Beethoven.
Modern Day Pianos
This essential design from Cristofori, complimented by supplemental innovations like the sustain pedal and iron-framing used to house the strings, would effectively serve as the basic rubric for all pianos created in the next 300 years.
Although the shape and size may vary, from the upright to the grand piano, the instrument today still functions with the same hammering action invented by Cristofori at the end of the 17th century.
Overall, the piano is a clear example of technology influencing music, and music, in return, creating new demands on technology.
Today, we not only have all shapes and sizes of acoustic pianos, but also a wide array of electronic pianos which expand the basic interface of the piano to a wide range of different sounds and effects. From the earliest beginnings of ancient lutes and hammered dulcimers, to the advent of synthesizers and midi keyboards, human invention continues to overturn and create new twists on ancient designs.
Ralph Pepperdine writes frequently on music, musical innovation & technology, musical gadgetry and other like subjects. Those with an interest in the keyboard may want to take a look at the kensington ipad keyboard accessories from kensington.com.