A Brief History of Pianos (& Why We Love Them)

The piano is one of the world’s most popular instruments and across nearly all cultures too. You’ll find them in the living room, in hotels, on stages, and so much more. 

So, we thought we’d take a walk down history’s memory lane and find out how this instrument came to be and why it became so popular? And this is what we found. 


The Build Up To The Piano

It’s fair to say that the piano is, relatively speaking, a recent invention but the history of music shows plenty of instruments that led up to the development of the piano.


The Monochord (The Simplest Stringed Instrument)

The Monochord

The monochord, whose name literally means “one chord”, is probably the simplest stringed instrument in history. 

You can make your own monochord as it simply consists of a single metal string that is stretched out over a body of wood (that has been hollowed out to enable it to resonate). 

The string is then divided into sections that correspond to different notes which can then be played over a range of several octaves. 

It was the first instrument that we know of, that laid out chords in a way that they could be learned visually. 


The Polychord (Adding Complexity)

Clavichord

Poly means “many” and the Polychord is a more complex version of a monochord. There are two well known forms of the Polychord – the Harpsichord and the Clavichord and as anyone can see by looking at them, there’s a strong resemblance between these instruments and the piano.


The Harpsichord (Plucking At Strings)

The Harpsichord was invented at some point in the 14th century. Unlike a modern piano, the strings were plucked (it used a series of quills connected to the keys) rather like in a guitar.

It wasn’t the easiest instrument to tune or maintain and that led to the development of the Clavichord. 


The Clavichord (Hammering The Strings)

Just like a modern piano, when the Clavichord came along in the 15th century, it used a system of hammers to strike the strings to create the notes. 

This also meant that a key could be held down to create a sustained note, something that was impossible using the harpsichord design.

The clavichord quickly became the “in demand” instrument of its day. 


The First Pianoforte – Bartolomeo Cristofori

There was one problem with the clavichord. It wasn’t very loud. In fact, if you wanted to appreciate its music, you had to remain fairly silent to do so.

In the 18th century, Bartolomeo Cristifoiri, an Italian, invented the very first piano, though he called it the “pianoforte”. 

His design thoroughly modernized the clavichord and the pianoforte used heavier hammers and a mechanism to free the hammer following the compression of a key, this stops any “damping” action on the string and allows it to vibrate freely (and thus, more loudly). 

He also used thicker, heavier strings than in previous instrumentation. 

The only real difference between today’s grand piano and Cristofori’s pianoforte are the addition of more keys, even thicker strings and more solid hammers. 


The Popularization Of The Piano

When the pianoforte arrived on the scene it still had one drawback. It cost a small fortune and was beyond the reach of the budget of the average musician.

It was thus a status symbol, and those that played such instruments tended to be noble women seeking a marriage of significant status. 

However, professional concert pianists were the exception to this rule and composers such as Beethoven, Mozart and Hayden brought their sounds to the masses through the work of male pianists. 

The piano wouldn’t become popular, however, as an instrument for the masses until the industrial revolution had further progressed and brought the cost of the instrument within reach of a middle class family. 

It was the upright piano that allowed for easy mass production and the adoption of the piano in millions of homes. 


The Piano In Recent Years

By the end of the 19th century, the piano was certainly a “mature” instrument which didn’t need further improvements.

However, the nature of man is to continue to tinker with things and the 20th century saw the emergence of new variants of the piano. 


The Pianola/Player Piano

The Player Piano or Pianola was, in fact, invented in 1896 at the closing of the 19th century and it became hugely popular in the early years of the 20th century.

That’s because the player piano plays itself! You don’t need any kind of musical skill to use a pianola, and by the time that electrification was common, you could find a player piano pretty much everywhere. 


Keyboards/Synthesizers/Digital Pianos

In the midst of the turmoil of World War II, Harold Rhodes, the American pianist, managed to invent the electric keyboard which offered a piano-like sound and would soon be very popular on the jazz and pop music scenes.

Then in 1955, the synthesizer arrived, which had a similar sound to the electric keyboard but a host of new buttons and dials to enable the instrument to recreate sounds in addition to that of a piano

And in the 1970s, musicians realized they could combine the traditional piano with an electric keyboard and the digital piano was born! 


Final Thoughts On The History Of Pianos

The piano is an extraordinary instrument which lends itself to a very wide range of musical styles and from humble beginnings it has captured the hearts of billions around the world. 

As you can see from this history of the piano, musical instrument makers rarely rest on their laurels, and there may be future exciting developments too for the piano.

We hope that you’ve enjoyed our brief history of pianos and if you’re interested in musical history, you might also enjoy our articles on the history of the guitar capo, the history of the walkman and the history of headphones. 

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