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If you have ever played a harpsichord or a clavichord, you know they feel different from a piano. In a piano, a
hammer is thrown at the strings when you press a key on the keyboard. The hammer quickly rebounds so
the string can vibrate for as long as you hold the key down (or even longer if you use the damper pedal).
The harpsichord is different because the strings are plucked by a plectrum (originally the pointed end of a
feather, now made of plastic or other synthetic material). Because the harpsichord plucks the string (as
opposed to a hammer striking the string), you are very conscious of the moment the plucking takes place.
The clavichord strikes the string with a metal tangent. Unlike the piano's hammer that rebounds right away,
the tangent stays in contact with the string. So the clavichord, too, has its own feel.
There was a keyboard instrument called a virginal, which was a small and simple rectangular form of the
harpsichord. The spinet was another small harpsichord-type instrument. These are some of the earliest
keyboard instruments. Even the fortepiano, the name given to the earliest piano to distinguish it from the
modern pianoforte, or piano, has its own feel - the depth of the key fall is shallow and it takes much less
weight to press the key down.
The Cristofori Pianoforte
The piano itself was invented by Bartolommeo Cristofori in Italy in the year 1709. His was a four-octave
instrument (compared to our seven-and-a-half octave modern instrument), with hammers striking the
strings just as they do on a modern piano. The instrument was invented to meet the need to control
dynamics by touch, which could not be done on the harpsichord. The early instrument went through many
changes before it emerged as the piano we know today. The Cristofori piano was wing-shaped like our
grand pianos, with a curved body and a lid that could be raised. There were also square pianos in which the
strings ran from left to right as on the clavichord. And by 1800, there were upright pianos whose strings ran
perpendicular to the keyboard.
There were many fascinating experiments that produced the giraffe piano, in which the wing-shaped body
extended towards the ceiling, or the instrument with six keyboards. A fortepiano built by Johann Andreas
Stein had a pedalboard similar to organs. These particular experiments did not lead to the improvement of
But there have been changes to Cristofori's 1709 instrument. A double-escapement was introduced by
Sebastien Erard in 1821; this allowed fast repetition to be made. Using a cast-iron frame instead of a
wooden one was important, as it permitted the use of heavier strings whose tension demanded the
strength of a metal frame. These thicker strings gave greater volume and brilliance to the piano. Introduced
by Alphaeus Babcock in 1830, cross stringing allowed the strings to fan out over a larger section of the
soundboard, again giving more resonance and relieving the crowding of the strings.
On early fortepianos, the mechanism we now know as the pedal was often manipulated by the knees. For
example, you would raise a lever with your knee in order to lift the damper from the string.
Can you imagine a piano with five pedals? These existed. Two of the pedals we still have today. The first
pedal - the right pedal - is the damper, which releases the dampers from the strings, allowing them to
vibrate. The shift, or una corda, pedal is the one on the left that helps change tonal color and play more
softly. Then there were other pedals we do not use today: the moderator, bassoon, and harpsichord or
Janissary pedals which created various effects.
The third pedal on our contemporary pianos is the sostenuto, invented in 1874. The modern piano acquired
its essential characteristics by the 1860s or 1870s.
The first piano in America was made by John Brent of Philadelphia in 1774. There have been many piano
companies in many countries through the years. The piano is an instrument found in all parts of the world.
Its large range, which practically encompasses that of a symphony orchestra, its ability to whisper the
pianissimos and thunder the fortissimos, and its magnificent literature, make it one of the most beloved,
useful and popular of instruments.