THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO PIANOS
Humans have been making music throughout history. Whether it was banging on drums to accompany a tribal dance or blowing across the top of a reed (known to us as the flute), to make a whistling sound, there was an interest in creating pleasing sounds. From these musical discoveries, the piano emerged in its various forms. In this guide, we will talk about the history of pianos and tell you how it came to be one of the most ubiquitous musical instruments to date.
HISTORY OF THE PIANO
Before we talk about the birth of pianos, we need to mention earlier instruments that paved the way. Around the time of 200 BC, musician and engineer, Ctesibius of Alexandria, developed the very first pipe organ, known as the hydraulis. It played only a couple of notes and made music by using water which pushed air through pipes. This was technically the very first keyboard instrument and what would gradually morphe into what we know as the organ. These early keyboards were played by using hands, fists, knees and feet, and used diatonic scales rather than the modern 12-tone chromatic scale used today.
Essentially the piano was based on technological discoveries from the 14th and 15th centuries, most notably the clavichord and harpsichord. The origin of the harpsichord came in 1397 (invented by Herman Poll) and was a creative mechanism that had the player simply touch a key by plucking a string. Actually, the musical term "Toccata" is derived from the word "touch" in Italian and described anything played on a keyboard. The clavichord was a bit different in that it required the striking of tangents (a flat piece of wood with a shaved point).
Both of these keyboard instruments were ground-breaking and became the most popular instruments of the time. Over the next 300 years, they were revised and improved greatly, however still had significant weaknesses. The notes of harpsichord could not be controlled with respect to loudness or softness, meaning the composer could not evoke the emotion he was seeking. The clavichord ,on the other hand, was much more delicate and allowed the player to express more emotion, but it was a little too delicate. It could not be used in large venue performances because it was barely audible.
However around 1698-1700 (the date has not been officially agreed upon by historians), a man named Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua, Italy was able to solve the fundamental mechanical issues of these designs. He found a way to combine the volume of the harpsichord and the control of the clavichord. Cristofori called it the pianoforte because it produced notes at different levels by controlling the way the hammers hit the strings. It was shortened to piano in 173. And so the piano was born.
IMPORTANT THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT THE PIANO
So now that you know about the historical origins of the piano, we can now go on to learn more fun facts about this amazing musical instrument. Here are 10 things I bet you never knew about pianos.
Why are the piano keys arranged in patterns of black and white? The original materials used were ebony and ivory and were arranged in patterns so that they can be more easily identified. Did you know this is where the phrase, "tickle the ivories' came from? The keys on modern pianos are covered in plastic but the classic colors are still used. Interestingly enough at one point, the colors of the keys were reversed – the natural keys were black and the accidentals were white. A family friend named Sebastian LeBlanc suggested they be swapped. While Cristofori built many pianos, only 3 original ones exist today with the original keys.
How does a piano make music? Pianos have metal strings inside and when the player presses a key, a hammer hits the string which causes it to vibrate…thus musical delight.
What is a piano made of? More than 12,000 small parts! And they need to be painstakingly constructed and placed together to generate perfect music. There is no machine that cranks them out – they have to be intricately built by a seasoned craftsman. This fact alone makes it a very expensive instrument, meaning the price can range from one thousand to one million dollars!
Selected materials are used for durability and stability for many parts of the piano. For example, the outer rim is typically made from a hardwood such as hard maple or beech, the wooden posts found underneath are made of softwood for balance, and sturdy metal gives it its structural integrity. So you can imagine that thick metal combined with hardwood makes the piano an extremely heavy product.
Super fun fact: the largest piano on record was built by a 25-year old New Zealander piano tuner named Adrian Mann. He took 4 years to build it and this monstrous product weighs in at 1.4 tons and is 19 feet long. Now that's music to my ears!
How many key does a piano have? 88! 56 white and 32 black. Keyboards may vary between 25 and 88, with an average of 61. Interesting fact, a specialty piano from the Bösendorfer company, has 97 keys and 8 octaves!
What is an octave and how many does a piano have? An octave is a musical interval that consists of 12 semi-tones that exist between two notes. Most contemporary major pianos have a total number of 7 octaves, plus a minor third. These seven octaves span the range from A0 to C8.
Is the piano a string or percussion instrument? Both actually! Although the piano has over 200 strings, it is rarely called a stringed instrument as the hammers striking the strings produce the sounds. When we think of string instruments we are thinking more of guitars and violins because here the strings are vibrating, via plucking or bowing, causing us to hear something. However it is also considered a percussion instrument due to the fact that there is 1 item striking another, thus creating new and beautiful music.
What was the piano originally called? Gravicembalo col piano e forte – literally translating from Italian, "a harpsichord that plays soft and loud noises". As we mentioned prior in this article, it was shortened to pianoforte or fortepiano (meaning soft high sound), and then simply to the current piano.
Why do we love pianos so much? This could be a long answer as there are so many reasons, however the simple one is that it is one of the easiest instruments to learn. Basically anyone can make music by pressing a key, and the layout of the keys makes sense and makes learning the music notes easier. And the beauty is that any genre of music can be played on the piano; from classical music to rock and roll music to hip hop music.
How does one shop for new pianos? Your first stop is to get help on the internet of course, to view the various price ranges of new pianos and to shop around. However visiting an actual piano store (yes, this type of store exists) is essential. Aside from the price, you need to think about a few other things. Since essentially it is a piece of furniture, you need to consider the size. Do you have the space and what is the best place for it? Then you need to sit down and play. It is important that you enjoy the music coming out, as remarkably they do not all play the same.
Who makes pianos? There are few grand piano makers out there, however Steinway & Sons has become the best premier manufacturer in the United States. Going back to 1853 in New York, these German piano builders opened a factory in Queens which currently supplies the US, and another one in Hamburg, Germany which supplies the rest of the world. Having over 139 new patents in piano making and claiming over 80% of the high-end grand piano market, most would say that Steinway grand pianos are the best in the business.
What is the principle difference between standard acoustic pianos and digital pianos? Basically, digital pianos have no strings and are there to replicate the music of standard pianos. Price-wise, they can't be beat - the Yamaha brand being the best in this category.
KING OF MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS
Because it is one of the best instruments one can play, it is no wonder it is referred to as the King of Musical Instruments. Aside from it being massive and impressive in size, there are various other reasons it has earned this title. The piano is a complete instrument that can play accompaniment and melody simultaneously – this is quite rare – and it has the most extensive range of tones, ranging higher than the highest note of a piccolo and lower than a 16-foot pedal note on an organ. If that doesn't make you want to learn to play the piano, I don't know what will!