Nowadays you can find many cheap piano keyboards, but that wasn’t always the case. Elisha Gray is credited to have invented the electronic keyboard piano in 1876, but there were many other inventions that lead to the creation of this instrument. Furthermore, since 1876 there have been many changes to the keyboard piano.
Early keyboard instruments
The history of the keyboard piano (or digital keyboard) is a long one, and it cannot be separated from that of classical keyboard instruments. This keyboard is an instrument that creates sound when a player presses the keys and using electricity, the keyboard interprets that pressure creating sounds.
Some of the first keyboard instruments were the pipe organ, the harpsichord, and the clavichord. Records of these instruments date back two thousand years, as they also appeared in religious writings, and the pipe organ seems to be the oldest instrument with keys. Forcing air through pipes, and powered with the help of water via a pump or a natural water source, the hydraulis, as it was called then, produced beautiful music.
Until the 14th century, the hydraulis got the name of organ and it was the only keyboard instrument around. However, it sometimes didn’t have a keyboard, and it used heavy large levers and buttons operated with the whole hand or parts of the hand to produce music.
In the 1300s the clavichord and the harpsichord appeared, and they were the ones that really looked like nowadays keyboards, as they standardized the 12-tone keys, where the natural keys were white and the sharps and flats were black.
They were pretty popular for a while, but in the 18 hundreds the piano started to become more and more popular and it eclipsed them. Every wealthy family had a piano, as it was a revolutionary instrument, incorporating many advancements in the music industry at the time.
The piano allowed a player to create music with volume and dynamics and still allowed him or her to have complete control over the music.
Now that we talked about the keyboard part of the instrument, let’s discuss the electric part too. Electronic sound technology appeared in the 18th century and the first instrument to use electricity was the Denis d’Or. This was created by Vaclav Prokop Dovis, a Czech inventor, in 1753. Shortly after, Jean Baptiste Thillaie de Laborde invented the clavecin electrique in 1760.
This instrument had a number of strings that were actioned using some picks activated electrically. That was the simple concept behind the first electronic keyboard, but it still produced sound using a mechanical effect, and not through electricity alone.
The first actual instrument to play music through an analog electronic system was the musical telegraph, and this instrument was invented in 1876 by Elisha Gray. He found out that sound could be controlled from an electromagnetic circuit that would vibrate by itself, and that’s how he managed to create an oscillator capable of producing one single note. It doesn’t seem like much but it was a very important step.
Gray’s instrument was a strange one as it created sounds using that electromagnetic oscillator and these musical notes were transmitted over a telephone line. As a result, Gray thought it would be a good idea to also add a speaker to this system and he added a simple loudspeaker into his instruments later on.
This loudspeaker was basically a diaphragm that worked in a magnetic field by vibrating and thus producing sound.
Development after Gray’s instrument
The next major breakthrough in the domain came from Lee De Forrest, who in 1906 invented the triode electric valve. This is also called the audio valve, and it was the first thermionic valve (or vacuum tube). In simple terms, in electricity, this is the piece that controls the electric current flow in a vacuum environment allowing you to control things like the amplification of the current.
Using this vacuum tube, De Forrest also built the first instrument to use it in 1915, and this instrument was called the Audion Piano. You could argue that this was the first keyboard piano, but it all depends on what really matters for you, the electric part, or the actual way of producing the sound.
From that moment on the vacuum tube started to be the main component of many electronic instruments, and for other pieces of hardware used for those instruments as well. This period lasted for about 50 years until the transistor technology came into play. There were many strange instruments that appeared in that era, in the 1920s especially, including the Theremin, the Trautonium, and the Ondes Martenot.
Generally, in music, polyphony means that the music has more than one sound in it, more than one voice. In the case of the electronic keyboard, the first instrument that was actually capable of producing polyphonic sounds was the Hammond Organ. This was invented in 1935 and it was the only instrument capable of doing that until the late 1940s.
The next step in the development of the electronic keyboard was creating sample-playback keyboards that should be used for making music. And this was done in the early 1950s with the invention of the Chamberlin and the Mellotron.
However, the first actual electronic piano that was actually purposed to be related to the piano was created in 1946 by the Rhodes company. Consisting of 3 and a half octaves, this small instrument came with its own amplification system. Along the years this instrument was produced by various companies and they all added a bit of new technology to it.
The appearance of synthesizers
There is a difference between keyboards and synthesizers, in the fact that keyboards will allow you to create music using a set of keys, each producing a note out of 88 options maximum. On the other hand, the synthesizer can theoretically let you create any kind of sound. But there are keyboards with synthesizer capabilities and vice-versa, and that’s why these two often get confused.
Thus, the electronic keyboard that we have today has been largely influenced by the success that synthesizers had in the ‘60s. Some of the first synthesizers were very large machines that were hard to operate and they were only used in professional recording studios.
With the advancements in technology, especially due to the new solid state components, these synthesizers could be compressed in size, and they could even become portable and used live. In 1964 the Moog Synthesizer appeared, and although it lacked an actual keyboard, it was the first step in the process.
In 1970 however, Bob Moog, the inventor of the aforementioned instrument created the Minimoog, a synthesizer that actually had a keyboard, and this was the basic design for most of the keyboards afterward.
However, most of these new analog synthesizers were still monophonic, meaning that they could only create one tone at a time. Obtaining polyphonic sounds was difficult at first and it could only be done using a complex electronic organ design.
As a result, the first polyphonic synthesizer keyboard appeared in 1977, and it had a microprocessor that was used as a controller, and due to this, it could be operated much easier. With this innovation, the MIDI also appeared and this was the standard in creating and processing music in studios.
Today there are many different types of electronic keyboards, each slightly different than others. First of all, there is the digital piano, which is basically a keyboard designed to give the player the same feel and sounds like an acoustic piano. These come with amplifiers and speakers already built-in, and they can be as good as some acoustic pianos.
You can also record audio files and save them on a computer, and that’s an advantage over the old piano. Furthermore, most digital pianos are capable of imitating the sounds of other instruments. Digital pianos don’t need to be tuned and they are less sensitive to humidity and weather.
A digital piano isn’t made to be easy to transport, although it’s lighter and more flexible than a regular acoustic piano. If you want something more than this, a stage piano is a digital keyboard that is better for live professional performances.
Then there are synthesizers and MIDI controllers, that we already discussed, and they are mainly used for music production purposes and to create a variety of sounds. There are also workstations and they combine the functions of a synthesizer and a home keyboard.