Inventions that changed music – Part 1: The Piano

Piano” by Sean MacEntee is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

[This is part one of a short and sproadic series of articles exploring a number of inventions/creations that I think of as being instrumental (hah!) in changing how music is made and/or or how music sounds]

Aside from those with a taste for such things, the only time most of us hear what a keyboard instrument sounded like before the invention of the piano is when we hear a church organ or watch a Jane Austen film.

The organ is widely believed to be the first type of instrument to use a keyboard in order to determine the pitch of a sound, which is turn was generated through the passage of air over a reed or up a tube.

Prior to the piano two keyboard instruments, the harpsichord and the clavichord, used different techniques to get sound from the action of the player hitting a keyboard, both of them using metal strings tuned to different pitches and both, fortunately, having the pitch ascending from left to right on the keyboard.

The harpsichord

Image by 134213 from Pixabay

The harpsichord was most likely invented in the late Middle Ages and it thrived in Europe from the 16th to the mid-18th century.  As you can see from the image above, the harpsichord offered an early opportunity to whip on a cloak and indulge in some prog rock-like posing, though there is, sadly, no historical evidence of this ever happening.

When a key is pressed on the harpsichord a lever activates a trigger which then causes a plectrum (usually made from the quill of a bird’s feather, unlike the plastic ones used by modern guitarists) to pluck a string.  This mechanism leads to a couple of  advantages and a disadvantage.

Because all the player is doing is triggering a sound, the keyboard only needs a light touch, making the instrument suitable for the gentle ladyfolk of the period.  Once triggered, the plectrum returns to the staring position quickly, allowing for quite fast runs of notes to be played.  On the downside, the note sounds exactly the same no matter how hard the key’s are pressed – in modern terminolgy the keyboard is not velocity sensitive.  Basically you could play like Jerry Lee Lewis and still sound like Elizabeth Bennett.

By the way, the British Harpsichord Society has over 1,600 members so if you fancy getting one you won’t be alone.

The clavichord

Pax:Vobiscum, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The clavichord flourished from around 1400 to 1800.  It is actually quite different in action to the harpsichord, though they both create sound by making tuned strings vibrate.  In the case of the clavichord, pressing the key causes a small brass blade (the “tangent” – similar in shape to the end of a flat head screwdriver) to hit the string.  Uniquely for a musical instrument, this action both causes the string to vibrate and also determines the length of the string which vibrates (the length of string on the other side of the blade is dampened).

Again there are pros and cons of this action.  On the plus side we now have an instrument which is velocity sensitive – the more welly you give it the louder the sound (though clavichords are quiet instruments only suited for playing in drawing rooms or, at a push, small halls).  On the downside, the action of the mechanism only resets when the player releases the key, so playing quickly is nigh-on impossible beyond a certain point.

Sadly, the British Clavichord Society was formally dissolved on 31 July 2019, so clearly harpsichord players are a pluckier bunch.  For a flamboyant look at the modern version of this instrument (the Clavinet) see here:

The dulcimer

The final piece of the piano ancestral tree isn’t a keyboard instrument at all.  The dulcimer is a stringed instrument, still in common use today, where tuned strings are made to vibrate by being hit with padded or unpadded sticks (usually with a oval or spoon-shaped end) held by the player.

Photo of a hammered dulcimer, taken in Portland OR by Dvortygirl, 7/17/05 and posted with permission of the owner/artist, whose hands are shown in the photo.
Public Domain

The dulcimer gives us velocity sensitivity and it can be played quickly, but it is a quiet instrument with a limited range of notes, only two of which can be played at a time.

It looks like there has never been a British Dulcimer Society, though the Nonsuch Dulcimer Club seem to be a friendly bunch (

The main event – the piano

As the fleet of mind reader will have realised by now, the piano takes all the best bits of these three instruments, none of the bad bits and adds more good bits.

The piano was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) of Italy.  Cristofori was unsatisfied by the lack of control that musicians had over the volume level of the harpsichord. He is credited for switching out the plucking mechanism with a hammer to create the modern piano in around the year 1700.

The instrument was actually first named “clavicembalo col piano e forte” (literally, a harpsichord that can play soft and loud noises). This was shortened to “pianoforte” and then the now common name, “piano.”

The strings of the piano are struck by a felt covered hammer when a key is struck.  This gives the velocity sensitivity of both the dulcimer and the clavichord.  Unlike the clavichord, the hammer must rebound from the strings instantaneously to avoid it dampening the string as soon as it has hit it.  An additional design challenge is that the distance from the hammer to the string must be as small as possible to facilitate more rapid playing and control over expression.

Early attempts at such an instrument used simple mechanisms where, for example, a rigid rod at the back of the key pushed the hammer upwards until the key was stopped by a rail and the hammer then continued up until it hit the string, settling back to its original position afterwards.

The problem with this approach was that the distance between the hammer and the string had to be large enough to stop the hammer from bouncing back and forth between the strings and the part of the mechanism that pushed it, creating a stuttering sound.  This in turn limited the ability of the player to play quickly and with sufficient dynamic expression.

Cristofori experiemented with a “harpsichord with hammers” in 1698 and there is documentary evidence of one of these instruments belonging to the Medici family in Florence in 1700.

The breakthrough that Cristofori had can be seen in the three surviving examples of his pianos, which date from the 1720’s.  The world’s oldest piano:

File:Pianoforte Cristofori 1720.jpg” by Shriram Rajagopalan is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

In the surviving instruments a pivoted piece of wood is set into the key. The pivoted piece  (the “jack”) lifts an intermediate lever when the key is depressed. The lever, in turn, pushes upward on the hammer shaft near its pivot in a rail fixed above the keys. When the key is pressed completely down, the jack tilts and disengages itself from the intermediate lever, which then falls back, permitting the hammer to fall most of the way back to its rest position, even while the key is still depressed.  This feature, called an escapement, is the heart of Cristofori’s invention; it makes possible a short free flight for the hammer, after which the hammer falls so far away from the string that it cannot rebound against it, even when the keys are struck firmly. Cristofori provided a check (a pad rising from the back of the key) to catch and hold the falling hammer. At the end of the key he included a separate slip of wood to carry the dampers that silence the string when the key is at rest.

Utilizing an intermediate lever to act on the hammer near one end of its shaft provides an enormous velocity advantage, and the hammer flies upward toward the string much faster than the front end of the key descends under the pianist’s finger, adding to the crispness and sensitivity of Cristofori’s action. In addition to his innovative mechanism, Cristofori also introduced a unique double-wall case construction that isolated the soundboard from the pull of the strings. The sound of his instruments is strongly reminiscent of the harpsichord.

Development of the modern piano

In the early 19th century, piano makers were principally concerned with two problems whose solutions led to the modern piano. These were the relatively small volume of sound that could be produced from the thin strings then in use and the difficulty of producing a structure that could withstand the tension even of such light strings once the range of the instrument exceeded 5 1/2 octaves.

The use of one-piece metal frames allowed for the tension exerted by each string (about 24 pounds for a piano of 1800) to rise to an average of approximately 170 pounds in modern instruments, the frame bearing a total tension of 18 tons.  This, in turn, allowed for thicker strings to be used and this, coupled with a rearrangement of the strings so that the bass strings fanned out over the treble strings and the use of felt pads rather than the original leather, provided a richer and louder tone.  It is also the reason why modern grand pianos are a different shape (with a fatter sticky-out bit) than the original pianos.

A final development (the “double escapement”) allowed for the string to be hit again even without fully returning the key to its original position, allowing for very rapid trilling of notes.

I don’t propose to cover the history of piano music and how it has expanded and changed through the ages, but what other instrument could have given us classical masterpieces (the first piano music being “12 pieces in Sonate da cimbalo di piano e forte“, published in 1732), jazz, boogie woogie and Chas and Dave?

Two closing facts:

  • There is no British Piano Society, though there is a British Piano Music Society, which is Dutch
  • The modern piano contains over 12,000 parts.

In part 2 we will look at another stringed instrument which is closer to my heart….

© Northern Man 2024