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The History Of The Piano Essay, Research Paper

The History of the Piano

The piano has seen many sights and has been a part of countless

important events in the past and present, and is said to have

dominated music for the past 200 years (Welton). Throughout

history, inventions come along that “take art away from princes

and give it the people” (Swan 41). Not unlike the printing

press, the piano made what was once intangible possible: the

poorest of peasants could enjoy the same music that their beloved

rulers did. The piano can be played by “the rankest of amateurs,

and the greatest of virtuosos” (Swan 41); so even if a person is

not very intelligent, a simple tune can easily be learned. In

addition to being a key factor in almost all western music

styles, the piano has had a rich and eventful history.

The piano can be directly linked to two instruments of

centuries past. The first is the clavichord, a box-like

structure in which strings are stretched, and struck by metal

blades to produce notes and pitches. The clavichord could be

manipulated to produce different chords, but even at it’s best,

could barely be heard by anyone other than the player (Swan 42).

Intent upon creating a superior to the clavichord, musical

engineers created the harpsichord. The harpsichord used a frame

similar to modern grand-pianos, but utilized a wooden bar and a

quill to pluck strings (the jack), which amplified the sound of a

clavichord greatly. Harpsichords were more expensive

clavichords and became a fad in sixteenth and seventeenth century

England (Rice 185).

The harpsichord was a particularly important development

leading to the invention of the piano. “Its ability to project

sound more loudly than its predecessors, and refinements in the

action of striking the keys inspired many more musicians to

compose for the keyboard and thus, to perform keyboard works”

(Grover 128). However, the harpsichord was limited to one,

unvarying volume. Its softness and loudness remained the same

while playing. Therefore, performing artists could not achieve

the degree of musical expression of most other instruments. The

artistic desire for more controlled expression led directly to

the invention of the piano, on which the artist could alter the

loudness and tone with the force of his/her fingers (129).

The first piano appeared in Italy sometime around 1693,

originally named the gravicembolo col piano e forte (“the

harpsichord with loud and soft”). An Italian harpsichord-maker

named Bartolomeo Cristofori “replaced harpsichord’s jacks with

leather covered hammers, activated by a remarkable mechanical

system” (Hollis 51). Where the harpsichord could only make a

string produce one sound, the new piano could be played loud or

soft, make dynamic accents, and could produce gradations of

sounds (52). Even though this new invention attracted little

attention at the time (because of the existing popularity of the

harpsichord), the piano would captivate the world in the years to


Cristofori made only two pianos before he died in 1731, but

an article was written about the new invention, and the article

made it’s way to Germany. There, an organ-builder named

Gottfried Silbermann read the article and became fascinated with

the idea of a modified harpsichord (Hollis 54). Additionally,

Silbermann had recently seen a performance dedicated to Louis XIV

which included a piece of music played on a huge dulcimer, which

is played by striking strings with a mallet. One end of the

mallet was hard, while the other was covered with soft leather.

Fascinated and inspired, Silbermann set out to create a piano of

his own, using leather covered hammers (54).

When Silbermann’s first piano was finished in 1736, the

great composer Johannes Sebastian Bach evaluated it. “Bach

admired the tone, but complained that the action was heavy and

the upper register weak” (Hollis 55). Though slightly

discouraged, Silbermann introduced his piano to King Frederick

the Great, who was thrilled with this new instrument. It has

been rumored that the king acquired 15 of Silbermann’s pianos,

but if this is true, only three have made it into the twentieth

century. The acceptance of the piano by King Frederick began what

is known as the Twilight Era, a time of transition between the

rejection of the harpsichord and the acceptance of the piano


In the late seventeenth century, the piano had begun to shed

the reputation of an improved harpsichord, and was starting to be

recognized as an entirely new instrument. The piano’s popularity

steadily increased partially due to the standard of living at

that time. Helen Rice Hollis exemplified this by writing:

…economic and social factors influenced the increased

use of the piano. Clavichords were inexpensive but their

uses were limited. Harpsichords cost more than early pianos

and, requiring frequent requilling, were more difficult to

maintain. The material resources of the rising middle class

encouraged musical amateurs and created a climate favorable

to the new keyboard instrument.(57)

Even Wolfgang Mozart, future virtuoso, who was a primary advocate

of the harpsichord, had taken to the piano and practically

discarded his old instrument. The piano’s popularity spread

through Europe at a surprising rate. Piano makers experimented

and made improvements on current pianos; the piano industry was

becoming rivalrous with everyone trying to outdo each other (57).

Eventually, this competitive nature spread to England.

Still using the harpsichord as the chief string instrument,

England was the destination for twelve German piano-makers with a

mindset similar to those of trendsetters. Johannes Zumpe, one of

the twelve Germans who came to England, was a student of

Gottfried Silbermann and was employed in his workshop. “Zumpe

developed the first piano to mechanically resemble modern pianos”

(Welton). Zumpe created a piano that omitted the use of the

mechanism that Cristofori and Silbermann had made famous, thus

giving rise to a square piano that gained widespread acceptance

throughout Europe (Hollis 58). The clamor initiated when:

Johann Christian Bach…the youngest son of Johann

Sebastian, came to prefer the piano over the harpsichord

and, in 1768, gave the first ever solo piano performance

in an English concert using a Zumpe square. (Hollis 58)

The new mechanism created by Zumpe came to be known as (the

patented) ‘English Single Action.’ The little square piano

became so popular that pianos could be traced to the Middle East,

where the legs were shortened to accommodate the player, who

would sit on cushions on the floor (58). An improved version of

Zumpe’s piano added an escapement like Silbermann’s. John Gieb

created the ‘English Double Action,’ and pianos made with this

mechanism accounted for the successful piano that is even more

similar to modern pianos (59).

Though Germany and England received most of the glory for

pianos of the eighteenth century, piano makers in France

contributed to improved modifications of English and German

versions. A piano maker named Sebastian Erard (and his brother)

took elements of the English Grand Action (by Gieb) and the

Viennese (by Silbermann) and “put them all together with one

glorified gesture” (Welton). The result of Erard’s new piano was

that as long as the key is held down, the hammer remains close to

the string rather than return to it’s original position” (Hollis

62). The advantage of this is that if a key is struck

repeatedly, the hammer doesn’t have to travel as far as it would

with an unmodified piano. Therefore, “repeated notes can be

struck with greater speed and ease, and dynamic shadings can be

more easily controlled” (62). Performers found this advantageous

because they could now express their music more creatively and

beautifully, thus creating a new love for music.

In the nineteenth century, piano-makers were struggling to

meet the growing demand for pianos. This demand was partially

caused by musicians like Frederic Chopin. Chopin’s expressive

style, which was “distinguished by extraordinary delicacy and

subtlety of nuance” (Hollis 62). Chopin used French pianos

because of their ability to prolong and converge notes, which

drove Chopin to create more and more beautiful music to please

himself and his audiences. Chopin became one of the most famous

pianists/composers of his time. His concerts were all sold out,

and the people loved him. There were, however, other greatly

loved concert pianists in Chopin’s time.

Franz Liszt was a crowd-pleasing artist who single-handedly

positively affected the status of a performing pianist, and drove

piano-makers to make higher quality pianos. Liszt was a

romantic; he lived for music and it showed through his

performances. Liszt would literally pound his pianos and it was

frequent that a tuning would have to be done mid-concert. Oscar

Bie best describes Lizst’s concerts like this:

Using the full weight of his shoulders, arms and wrists he

made the instrument speak with power, drama, and even

violence that had never been done before… Pianos

suffered at his hands and it was not at all unusual for

one or two strings to break and for the piano to require

retuning in the midst of one of his concerts… a spare

piano stood ready on the stage, and reports of his

concerts suggest that the audience felt cheated if a piano

survived intact. (63)

Lizst’s works were all passionate and beautiful, and since his

passion was sometimes violent, pianos needed to be built stronger

and more durable to sustain the blows dealt by passionate

players. Piano-makers had to keep up with the changing times,

and with Beethoven contributing to the piano’s hype, change was

eminent (Bie 126).

Ludwig van Beethoven was the king of pianists in his time.

Beethoven wanted the piano to sound like a whole orchestra

instead of just one instrument. Beethoven was accustomed to

standard five-octave pianos, but in 1818, he received a

six-octave grand piano from the Broadwood Piano Company (Bie

139). Excited with this new style and extra octave, Beethoven

wrote his last three sonatas for the six-octave. Beethoven,

however, was deaf by 1818, loved his Broadwood because he could

more feel the music than hear it. Since Beethoven favored

Broadwood, so did the rest of the musical community. The

Broadwood Grand continued to be a very popular model through the

1850’s (140).

By 1853, the United States had become part of the piano

scene, producing pianos such as the upright and the Chickering,

but perhaps the most important piano-makers in America in the

nineteenth century are Steinway and Sons. As German natives,

these men came to America to flee the German government, and

found their calling in the piano-making business (Welton). Using

the same frames as older pianos, the Steinways’ piano models

remained in style for a time, but the showstopper came out in

1855, when the Steinways introduced their own homemade iron

frame. This frame was “that of the grand piano, which became the

primary concert piano in America by 1900” (Grover 98).

In the early 1900s, pianos began to be “the primary vocal

accompanying instrument” (Barrie 3). With the Big Band Era and

the Swing Era between the 1920s and 1940s, the piano continued to

be a major part of all music. The mellow sounds of 1950s love

songs gave listeners soothing chords, while 50’s rock and roll

produced amazing sounds and playful piano pieces (5). As disco

began to sweep over America, musical engineers created new

electrical instruments, including pianos. These new pianos could

be programmed to play not only as a piano, but also as a flute, a

clarinet, an organ, or even a dog. An added bonus of the new

digital piano was that no tuning would ever be needed (5-6).

From the 1960s to present day, the digital piano has been a

vital part of almost all musical recording studios (Barrie 7).

Being easily transported and virtually perfectly pitched, digital

pianos are the preference of recording artists (7). This

transformation exemplifies the piano’s evolution, in relationship

to human music growth and change. Concert pianists, however, use

only true grand pianos, perhaps to preserve the tradition set by

early Europeans (8-9).

Worldwide, the piano has lived a full and momentous life.

Since the Steinway’s success, pianos have been used for

recreation, employment, entertainment, and education. Though the

piano has had many different faces, the general intent of all

players was (and is) to bring joy to someone’s day. The piano is

not only a musical instrument, but an instrument of internal

harmony. From it’s origination as a little tiny clavichord, to

the unblemished beautiful grand pianos of today, the piano has

and always will be one of the centerpieces of all kinds of music.


Bie, Oscar. A History of the Pianoforte and Pianoforte Players. trans. by E. E. Kellett

and E. W. Naylor. NewYork: Da Capo, 1966.

Grover, David S. THE PIANO– It’s story from Zither to Grand. New York: Charles

Scribner’s Sons, 1978.

Heaton, Barrie. “A History of the Piano from 1706 to1990”

http://www.uk-piano.org/history/history_1.html (26 Oct. 1996)

Hollis, Helen Rice. The Piano–A Pictoral Account of It’s Ancestry and

Development. New York: Hippocrene, 1975.

Swan, Annalyn. Enlightenment’s Gift to the Age of Romance–How the Piano

Came to Be. in The Lives of the PIANO. ed. James R. Gaines. New

York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982.

Welton, Naomi. Personal Interview. 24 November 1998.

***the citings NOT entirely accurate!!!

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