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Origins of an Instrument - Piano: Part 1

Origins of an Instrument - Piano: Part 1

Across the globe there’s a large number of different musical styles and no doubt that a few of these will stand out to you in particular, but whatever, your personal preference, there’s almost no doubt that the piano will have had some part in its production. In western music, pretty much all popular songs will feature a piano of some kind, apart from some acoustic songs which will only feature one instrument – usually a guitar, and even then, the vast majority of songs are written at a piano, and then moved onto another instrument. There’s no denying that this instrument has had a large impact on culture over the last few centuries, so in this article, we’ll take a look at why it has truck such a chord across the world.


By the 17th century most of the piano’s structure had already been designed and was being used in instruments such as the harpsichord, where upon pressing a key, a string within the piano would be plucked, giving it more of a guitar-like sound. In the modern piano, strings (which are pulled very tightly) are hit by a hammer when a key is pressed to create the sound. This mechanism had also already been used in the clavichord, but the difference was that in the clavichord the hammer would not move upwards again after striking the string meaning the sound would be dampened and different. Cristofori managed to achieve this in his piano design in 1698, and it was originally named the pianoforte, meaning in Italian ‘quietly-loudly’, since the piano was the first instrument with a keyboard that could be played at different volumes dependant on how hard the keys were hit. Previously, how hard the keys were hit would have no impact on the end sound. Since the instrument involves a hammer hitting into a string, some consider the piano a percussion instrument, like a xylophone or a drum kit.


There are now a variety of different piano models in use, and most fall into one of two categories. There are Upright pianos, which have a raised back behind the keys, where the strings are held vertically to be played, and there are the more expensive Grand pianos, where the strings are instead held horizontally away from the keys. This type allows a louder sound to be made, as the strings are less hidden within the wooden box, and opening the large lid will also increase the sound further. The grand piano is often considered better quality, and these are generally used for performances when possible. There are also more specialised models of piano, for example ‘silent pianos’, which have the option to silence the strings for practice playing without actually making any noise, and there are what are known as ‘prepared pianos’ where other objects are placed inside the box, next to the strings to alter the sound, or there is some other change made to the mechanisms, however it is important to be careful when altering the piano sound in this way, since the interior mechanisms of the pianos are very delicate, and repairing them can be very expensive.


In my next article, I’ll look in more detail at how piano players use the instrument, how the instrument is tuned, the influence it’s had on our society today, and what it is that makes this instrument so popular and useful.



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