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Origins of the Piano

The piano is home to many songs of brilliant composers. Beethoven, Bach and Mozart all favored the 88-key instrument because it sounds beautiful in both a 50-person orchestra symphony or as a solo recital piece (not to say that other instruments don’t). It’s one of the only instruments that produce a unique loud, yet soft sound that so many patrons enjoy.

While the piano gained popularity during the 17th century, it had actually been around for much longer. The piano was invented at the beginning of the 16th century thanks to the harpsichord (a similar piano-like instrument), but not in the way you think… 

Bartolomeo Cristofori, of Italy, hated how musicians couldn’t control the volume of the instrument, so he created the clavicembalo col piano e forte (later shortened to piano, thank goodness) by exchanging the plucking mechanism on the harpsichord with a hammer. The original name literally means soft and loud keyboard instrument.

Cristofori created an instrument that would later be played by 37 million people worldwide by making this one little switch. Unfortunately, his invention flew under the radar during his time because it was difficult to play and too expensive for the working class, which made up the majority of the population. A well-known organ builder, Gottfried Silbermann of Germany, soon caught word of this invention from an Italian article.

Piano with reversed keys

Silbermann was intrigued by this new instrument and took to improving on the Cristofori model in 1711. The one important addition Silbermann included that Cristofori failed to was the sustain pedal, which allowed for a sustained sound. However, the piano’s popularity didn’t skyrocket with this change.

What really thrusted the piano into the spotlight was Bach’s approval of it, which took a few decades and a few revisions of the instrument itself. Bach used the instrument during a performance for the king of Prussia and the rest is history.

The piano began to rapidly develop and evolve as many composers wanted to use it. At one point in the piano’s long journey to what it is today, the piano keys were reversed in color. This is the type of piano that Mozart composed some of his most famous pieces. The pianos we’re familiar with today are far from the Cristofori piano, but we have his hatred of the harpsichord to thank for this beautiful instrument. 

Learn to play what YOU hear.