We wrote an article on different types of keyboards, but in this guide, we’ll talk about how the piano keyboard appeared. At first, there were many different keyboard instruments, but they had their disadvantages, so Cristofori, an Italian instrument maker decided to create a keyboard instrument to solve all of those issues, and that’s how the piano and its keyboard appeared.
The history of piano keyboards is a long one, especially when considering that keyboards have been referenced in many old texts, including in the bible. The first mentioning of a keyboard instrument refers to the hydraulis, which was the precursor of today’s organ. This instrument dates back to 220 B.C. and it was played in Greece.
This instrument was also popular in the Roman Empire. But there were also similar instruments that were played differently, with the help of almost every part of a human’s body. Hands were used, as you might expect, but also wrists, knees, and feet. These instruments didn’t have an elegant feeling yet.
Furthermore, up to the 13th century, the instruments were played in a diatonic scale, unlike the twelve-tone chromatic scale used nowadays. Following all those instruments and innovations that came with them, the piano eventually appeared. In the 14th and 15th centuries, there were many new keyboard instruments that appeared.
Amongst those instruments, there were some that used hammers to produce the sound, and they were the clavichord, dulce melos, and chekker instruments respectively. There were others too that were plucked and these included the harpsichord and the spinet.
The first piano
After those inventions, somebody thought of how to bring something new in the world of music, and an Italian by the name of Bartolomeo Cristofori invented the piano around the year 1700. He had ties with the Grand Prince of Tuscany, a member of the Medici family, and he was a well-known harpsichord maker.
Historians don’t totally agree when he built the first piano, but what they know is that the keyboard looked differently from today’s pianos. Interestingly, the keys that are now white (the natural keys) were black in Cristofori’s piano, and the accidentals had a white color. There was another man by the name of Sebastian LeBlanc who said that the colors should be reversed.
When Cristofori invented the piano, there were other keyboard instruments which were a lot more popular – the harpsichord and the clavichord. Although these 2 instruments looked like the nowadays piano, the main difference between them and the modern instrument is the manner in which the sound was produced.
There was a difference between the instruments of that time as well. While the clavichord produced sounds using a set of strings struck by tangents, a harpsichord had its strings plucked by quills.
Harpsichord versus clavichord
One major issue with the harpsichord was the fact that you couldn’t control how loud or soft the sounds were heard. This dynamic couldn’t be used by composers to evoke emotion, empathy, or other feelings, as music often needs to do. This is where the clavichord had an advantage, in the sense that it allowed the player to let the notes prolong.
With the clavichord players were able to control the sound volume better. Technically, the clavichord was more advanced but it also had weaknesses. Amongst these, the tone of the instrument was a weak one, and although that made it good for emotional interpretations, in an arrangement where more instruments played, it was often hard to hear a clavichord.
Large hall performances were too much for this instrument. As such, there was a need for a new keyboard instrument to bridge the gap between something that was too loud and too soft. Professional players needed something that could be controlled with ease and could also produce enough sound volume. The piano was designed to be that instrument.
The creator, Cristofori did really well to solve the problems that past instruments had, mainly the fact that the hammers in keyboards were remaining in contact with the strings until his invention. The clavichord had this problem, where the tangent stayed in contact with the string and that dampened the sound.
Another thing that needed to be solved was to make the hammer retreat in its initial position without a motion that was too violent. That way the player could play the same note again, rapidly after.
The new piano allowed that to happen. The name of the instrument was pianoforte, which basically translates to soft and loud. And that was essentially what the instrument let you do, play music both soft and loud.
Of course, the initial pianoforte was not a perfect instrument, and there are some changes compared to the piano nowadays. However, it was still an instrument that was significantly louder than the clavichord and it could also be controlled better than the harpsichord. There were many keyboards afterward that were designed with slight alterations of Cristofori’s piano’s action.
The pianoforte allowed you to control the inertia of the hammers and thus produce dynamic sounds. This let great pianists express themselves better. There was a more complicated name for the instrument, and it was called clavicembalo col piano e forte. This long name translates to a harpsichord that’s capable of playing both at a normal level and stronger.
Despite the fact that the instrument had some clear differences, it was still called a harpsichord for many years. It was in 1732 when the instrument got its short name of piano and people started to acknowledge it more.
Along the years there were several inventions that helped bring the piano closer to how it looks and works today. Gottfried Silbermann, for example, built his own pianos, and they were a bit different. He used a damper pedal, which was very similar to the one used in pianos today. Cristofori’s piano didn’t have that. This pedal lifts all the dampers at once.
Silbermann went on with creating these instruments and one time he showed Johann Sebastian Bach one of his pianos. But Bach wasn’t really pleased with the instrument and he thought the sound wasn’t that great. In 1747, however, Bach received another, improved version of the instrument and he liked it.
This is how he had a massive impact on the perception of keyboard instruments. Playing the new piano he had a lot of success and popularized the instrument. In Europe, people started to really appreciate it, and the fame of the piano spread across the ocean into America. It was a fashion statement to have a piano at home, and only the rich could afford it.
The later history of the piano
The instrument continued to be improved upon, and there were many different manufacturers which constructed it a bit differently. But all of them wanted a more powerful sound and more sustain. English pianos were known to be louder and they had a heavier mechanism to help with that.
On the other half, pianos from Austria had a softer tone and a lighter mechanism. There was the Viennese school which had a lot of great piano creators, and the instruments created by them had a wood frame, leather-covered hammers, and there were 2 strings for each note. Furthermore, some of them had black natural keys and white accidentals, which is the opposite of today’s pianos.
Mozart was one of those who composed pieces of music that were specially made for these instruments. The music was designed to fit the softer and ethereal tonality of these pianos.
Pianos started to become more complicated, and they required more sophisticated and refined playing techniques. There were improvements starting with the 19th century when the dynamics of the instrument were improved. It was discovered that the strings sounded better if they were stretched diagonally in the soundbox.
Furthermore, some manufacturers started using metal for the frame. The felt that covered the hammers was replaced with leather. The piano also increased in size, with its range increasing from six and a half to eight octaves. Furthermore, the strings were reinforced with a metal bar to make them more resistant, and all of these changes came in the 19th century.
All these changes ensured a constant improvement on the piano and its keyboard, making everything more balanced and offering a better response. Finally, the piano that we know today was designed in 1859 and it was the Steinway concert grand piano.