The Piano has a long and interesting history that spans across many countries and cultures. From it’s humble beginnings as a harpsichord to their majestic grand piano form, the piano is steeped in stories from all over the globe.
The very fundamental principle of a piano; that a taut string, when plucked, struck or bowed will produce a sound is traceable back to prehistoric times. A large amount of ancient civilisations attached strings over an array of hollow objects to amplify the sound. The earliest stringed instrument that featured a keyboard emerges in Europe during the 14th century which is known as a dulcimer. The stretched wires were struck by wooden hammers, encased in a shallow box. This eventually led to the development of a clavichord a few years later followed by many other variations, eventually leading to the harpsichord in the 15th century.
The harpsichord is however still a far cry from the pianos of today. They had only one, unchangeable volume which greatly limited the range of expression that many other instruments had. Furthermore the strings were not struck like they are in modern pianos, but were plucked. This impeded it’s ability to have a resonating or even a sustained sound. Only allowing for it to have a bright, arpeggio sounding note. Despite these features appearing to be set backs, they were central to the piano’s development and eventual popularity as they pointed to key features that players were looking for in a string instrument.
The modern day piano is attributed to Bartolomeo Cristofori who was employed by Ferdinando de’ Medici; the Grand Prince of Tuscany. He was an expert harpsichord maker and held a wealth of knowledge about stringed keyboard instruments. The piano that he invented represented the combination of all the positive aspects of the previous clavichord and harpsichord. With a piano, the player had the ability to vary it’s dynamics; one of the major draw backs of harpsichords and clavichords.
Cristofori’s version of the piano became popular when an article was release in 1711 praising it’s uncompromising ability to produce the sound that people had so longed for. This article brought about the next generation of piano builders, whom over the years added more and more improvements including thicker strings, a sustain pedal, more strings per note, varying hammer materials and many many more.
The piano as we see it today was fully formed by the end of the 19th century. Especially due to the industrial revolution, the production and quality of pianos has been improved greatly.