Piano History


piano or pianoforte, musical instrument whose sound is produced by vibrating strings struck by felt hammers that are controlled from a keyboard.

The piano's earliest predecessor was the dulcimer. The first piano was made c.1709 by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731), a Florentine maker of harpsichords, who called his instrument gravicembalo col piano e forte. (One of the two existing Cristofori pianos is in the Metropolitan Mus. of Art., N.Y.C.) It differed from the harpsichord in that by varying the touch one could vary the volume and duration of tone. This expressive quality was shared by the clavichord, but the latter was far more delicate in tone.

During the 18th cent. changes in musical taste gradually favored the piano's greater volume and expressiveness, and the instrument had largely supplanted the harpsichord and clavichord by 1800. C. P. E. Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Clementi were the first major composers to write for the piano. The main body of its enormous literature, from the 19th cent., includes the works of Beethoven, Czerny, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Franck, Tchaikovsky, and Liszt. Debussy and Ravel used the special effects peculiar to the piano in highly original ways. In the 20th cent. some composers, notably Bartók, have emphasized the instrument's percussive qualities.

The piano was originally built in the shape of a harpsichord, and this style, the grand piano, has always been the standard form. It was greatly improved by the 19th-century innovation of an iron framework, best applied by the Steinways of New York City. The square piano, with strings parallel to the keys, was the most popular domestic piano until the early-19th-century perfection, in Philadelphia, of the upright piano. The English piano maker John Broadwood (1732–1812) was the first to develop the present heavier, more sonorous instrument. In 1810 the double-action striking mechanism, which permits rapid repetition of a tone, was perfected.

In the late 19th cent. a mechanical player piano was developed. A perforated paper roll was passed over a cylinder containing apertures connected to tubes that were in turn connected to the piano action. When a hole in the paper passed over an aperture, a current of air passed through a tube and caused the corresponding hammer to strike the string. The electric piano was developed in the 1930s. In the 1980s computer and compact-disc technology made possible the invention of a "reproducing piano," an instrument designed to recreate a pianist's playing, accurately capturing the nuances of the performance. Innovative developments of the 1990s include the disklavier, a computerized grand piano that uses optical sensors to produce sound, and the two-lid piano, which opens from the top and bottom to better project sound.


See O. Bie, History of the Pianoforte (2d ed. 1966); H. Westerby, History of Pianoforte Music (1924, repr. 1970); A. Dolge, Pianos and their Makers (1911, repr. 1972); C. Ehrlich, The Piano (1976); R. Harding, The Piano-forte (1933, repr. 1978); A. Loesser, Men, Women, and Pianos (1954, repr. 1990), J. Parakilas et al., Piano Roles (2000).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Piano: A History
Cyril Ehrlich.
Clarendon Press, 1990 (Revised edition)
The Piano: Its History, Makers, Players and Music
Albert E. Wier.
Longmans, Green, 1940
The Pianoforte in the Classical Era
Michael J. Cole.
Clarendon Press, 1998
FREE! A History of the Pianoforte and Pianoforte Players
E. E. Kellett; E. W. Naylor; Oshar Bie.
J M Dent and Company, 1899
Makers of the Piano, 1700-1820
Martha Novak Clinkscale.
Oxford University Press, 1993
Thesaurus of Orchestral Devices
Gardner Read.
Pitman Publishing Corporation, 1953
Librarian’s tip: Part V "Keyboard Instruments"
Beethoven on Beethoven: Playing his Piano Music his Way
William S. Newman.
W. W. Norton, 1988
A Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos
Arthur Hutchings.
Oxford University Press, 1948 (2nd edition)
The Interpretation of Bach's Keyboard Works
Erwin Bodky.
Harvard University Press, 1960
The History of Pianoforte Music
Herbert Westerby.
Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1924
A Guide to Piano Music by Women Composers
Pamela Youngdahl Dees.
Greenwood Press, vol.1, 2002
The Piano in America, 1890-1940
Craig H. Roell.
University of North Carolina Press, 1989
Contemporary Class Piano
Elyse Mach.
Oxford University Press, 2004
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