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The piano (or pianoforte to give it its proper name) is a musical instrument with a keyboard. A normal piano has 88 keys. Pianos use the keys to move hammers that hit strings inside, making a sound. Pianos come in two basic shapes: grand pianos and upright pianos. The piano has been an extremely popular instrument in Western classical music since the late 18th century. A person who plays the piano is called a pianist.
The piano was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua, Italy. He made his first piano in 1709. It developed from the clavichord which looks like a piano but the strings of a clavichord are hit by a small blade of metal called a “tangent”. In the piano the strings are hit by a hammer. The early keyboarded instruments, such as the clavichords, harpsichords and organs that were used at that time, had a much shorter keyboard than they do today. Gradually the keyboard became longer until it had the 88 notes (7 octaves plus three notes) of the modern piano.
At first the instrument was called the “fortepiano”. This means “loud-soft” in Italian. It was given this name because it could be played either loudly or softly, depending on how hard the note was hit (the harpsichord could not do this, and the clavichord could only make a tiny difference between louder and softer). Later this name changed to “pianoforte”. This is normally shortened to “piano”. The word “fortepiano” is sometimes used to describe the pianos of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In some languages, such as Russian, “fortepiano” is the normal word for a piano.
Although the piano was invented at the beginning of the 18th century, it was not until 50 years later that it started to become popular. The first time the piano was played in a public concert in London was in 1768 when it was played by Johann Christian Bach. The upright piano was invented in 1800 by John Isaac Hawkings. Seven years later T. Southwell invented “overstringing”. This means that the strings for the low notes go diagonally across the soundboard so that they can be longer and make a much bigger sound.
The early pianos had strings that were fastened to a frame made of wood. They were not very heavy, but they were not very strong or loud, so they could not be heard very well in a big concert hall. In 1825 the cast-iron frame was invented in America. This made the piano much stronger so that it could make a bigger sound and the strings were not likely to break.
A piano has a keyboard with white keys and black keys. When a key is pressed down, the damper comes off the string and a hammer hits the string. It hits it very quickly and bounces off so that the string is free to vibrate and make a sound. When the player takes his finger off the key the damper falls back onto the string and the sound stops. The strings are stretched very tightly across the frame, passing over a bridge on the way. The bridge touches the soundboard. This means that the vibrations are sent to the soundboard. The soundboard is a very important part of the piano. If it is damaged the piano will not make a sound.
The mechanism which makes the hammer bounce off the string very quickly is called the “escapement”. In 1821 Sebastian Erard invented a kind of double escapement. This made it possible to repeat the note very quickly. The hammer only touches the string for about one thousandth of a second. The hammers are covered with felt which is a mixture of wool, silk and hair.
The piano has two pedals. Larger pianos have three.
- The damper pedal - this pedal is on the right. When a pianist presses it down with his right foot, any notes he plays will keep on sounding even when he takes his finger(s) off the note(s). This is because there are dampers (they look a bit like the hammers) that rest on all the strings. When the pianist holds the right pedal down all the dampers come off the strings so that the strings are free to vibrate. When a note is played, that note will continue to sound. Some other strings will also vibrate very lightly (this is called “sympathetic vibration”). It will make the sound smoother and richer. Pianists have to learn how to use the pedal well. This will depend on such things as the style of the music, the size of the piano, the size of the room and whether there is a lot of furnishing there.
- The soft pedal - the soft pedal is on the left. When a pianist presses it down with his left foot, the notes sound quieter. On a grand piano the whole keyboard and action shift a bit to the left so that the hammers only hit two strings instead of three. Also the parts of the felt which hit the string are softer because they have not become hard with lots of use. The soft pedal is normally kept down for the whole of a piece or the whole of a section of a piece. This pedal is sometimes called the una corda pedal. Una corda means: one string. This is because in the early pianos it was possible to press the pedal a little way so that the hammers hit two strings, then press it further so that they hit only one string. This is why the sign to tell a pianist to use the left pedal is “una corda”. To cancel the left pedal the composer writes “tre corde” (“three strings”) in the music.
- The middle pedal is called the sostenuto pedal. Like the right pedal, it keeps the sound going, but it only affects notes that are already being played at the moment when the middle pedal is pressed down. This makes it possible to keep one chord going while playing other notes that will not carry on. All concert grand pianos have a sostenuto pedal, and some modern upright pianos do as well. Some upright pianos have a middle pedal that is not a sostenuto pedal at all, but a practice pedal. It places a piece of cloth in front of the strings, that makes the sound very quiet indeed so that a pianist can practise without disturbing other people. The sound of a piano with a practice piano is very limited and different. The practice pedal can usually be pressed down and put in a slot so that it will stay in place.
Famous piano composers
Once the piano became popular in the late 18th century many composers wrote music for the piano. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart started to learn on harpsichords when he was very small, but the piano was becoming popular when he was a young man and he wrote many sonatas and concertos for the piano. Franz Joseph Haydn also wrote a lot of piano music. Ludwig van Beethoven was a very famous pianist before he became very famous as a composer. His piano compositions include 5 concertos and 32 sonatas. In the Romantic period many composers wrote for the piano. They include Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin. Later composers include Sergei Rachmaninoff, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich and Bela Bartok.
Famous piano players
Some famous piano players from the early days of the piano include Dussek, Mozart, Clementi, John Field and Chopin. In the 19th century Franz Liszt was a very great influence on the piano by composing and performing very difficult music. Other great pianists include Clara Schumann and Anton Rubinstein. 20th century pianists include Artur Schnabel, Vladimir Horowitz, Josef Hofmann, Wilhelm Kempff, Dinu Lipati, Claudio Arrau, Artur Rubinstein, Sviatoslav Richter, Alfred Brendel. Among the greatest pianists today are Vladimir Ashkenazy, Daniel Barenboim, Leif Ove Andsnes, Boris Berezovsky and Evgeny Kissin.
Pianists who play popular music include Liberace, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Swaggart, Little Richard, Elton John, Billy Joel, Thelonious Monk, Tori Amos and Ray Charles. Perhaps the greatest jazz pianist was Fats Waller.
Playing the piano
The piano has been a very popular instrument ever since the mid 18th century when it soon replaced the clavichord and the harpsichord. By the early 19th century the sound that the piano made was big enough to fill large concert halls. Smaller pianos were made for use in people’s homes. At first these included square pianos and giraffe pianos, later on the upright pianos became popular for home use. Pianos are not often used in orchestras (if they are, they are part of the percussion section). They may, however, be used for piano concertos (pieces for solo pianist accompanied by orchestra). There is a vast amount of music written for piano solo. The piano can also be used together with other instruments, in jazz groups, and for accompanying singing.
Music for the piano is normally written on two staves: the upper stave is for the right hand, the lower stave for the left hand. Much of the time the right hand music is written in the treble clef, the left hand music in the bass clef.
Pianists have to learn many things. It is important to sit comfortably with a straight back so that hands can reach all the keys. The hands should be shaped like a ball so that the fingers are curved. They should be able to control the sound they make with the weight of the arm and fingers. Lots of practice is needed to become a good pianist. Some people can play the piano very well “by ear”, but learning to read music helps a person to become a better pianist and musician. Playing the piano helps people to understand harmony because the piano can play chords.
Pianos need to be tuned regularly. A piano tuner is a person whose job it is to tune pianos.
- The New Dictionary of Music and Musicians ed Stanley Sadie; 1980. vol 4, p.458
- The New Dictionary of Music and Musicians ed Stanley Sadie; 1980. vol 14, p.691
- History of the Piano Forte, Association of Blind Piano Tuners, UK
- The Piano Encyclopedia- The practical guide to keyboard playing, composing, and improvising at the piano.
- The Frederick Historical Piano Collection
- Table of wood materials found in pianos
- Piano Room
- Martha Beth Lewis' Piano Page - Really useful information about buying, learning, playing piano