A Brief History of the Piano

History of the Piano: Background

Before we really get started, here is a bit of background and a little forewarning! The history of instruments is just about as hard to trace as a family tree is, if not harder. There are people you know you are definitely related to, and there are also many question marks and roadblocks. I think that is why I enjoy learning about the history of instruments so much. 

While there is a clear line from zithers to keyboard-type instruments, the era before that is much murkier. Before all of these instruments, there were the hydraulis, the monochord, and so on. Without further ado, let’s check out some of the piano’s predecessors. 
One of the most obvious predecessors to the piano is the harpsichord. The harpsichord is a piano-shaped keyboard-type instrument. Other ancestors of the piano include (surprisingly enough) the dulcimer, as well as the clavichord.  The hammer dulcimer and harpsichord’s history goes back to the times of the renaissance (14th-17th century).

Zithers

History of the Piano
https://pixabay.com/photos/hammered-dulcimer-instrument-strings-4481476/

Zithers are string instruments with a wooden soundbox. The two main ancestors of the piano that were zithers include the psaltry and the dulcimer. Zithers have far more strings than your average guitar or violin. They often have as many as 40! But, if you think about it, it’s easy to see how a piano could have emerged from this idea of a large set of strings that were struck, plucked, or strummed. 

The Psaltry

 The psaltry was an ancient zither that was plucked with one’s fingers. This instrument is so archaic that it was even mentioned in the bible! According to Dulcimer.net, this instrument may have stemmed from the Hebrew zither called the nebel, or even perhaps from viol or lute-type instruments-This is where it gets a bit murky!

The Hammer Dulcimer

History of the Piano
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=229270

The hammer dulcimer was played with hand-held wooden hammers, and thus the strings were struck.

History of the Piano

Another one of the big things that these two zithers share with the History of the piano is a resonant soundboard. According to Dictionary.com, a soundboard is defined as ‘a thin sheet of wood over which the strings of a piano or similar instrument are positioned to increase the sound produced.’

It is interesting to note that the piano also has hammers inside of it that strike the string. In this way, the hammer dulcimer sounds very much like a History of the piano that is opened and plucked from the inside. If you take a look at the above photo, it really is remarkable how similar the two instruments look. From the way the strings are wound around the tuning pegs, to the way they are laid out. Another thing to know is that the hammer dulcimer is that it is a very ringy instrument. This often gets in the way of playing, because too many notes can overring, thus causing muddiness, or, even worse, blatantly dissonance. 

Here is an example of a modern song on a hammer dulcimer. Take a listen to this version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’.

Zithers Across the Globe 

Psaltry and hammer dulcimer type instruments can be found across the globe, from Asia to the Middle East and Greece. Let’s take a quick peek at two examples:

  • The cimbalom
  • The appalachian dulcimer
Zithers Across the Globe 
By Xylosmygame at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21063382

The cimbalom came after the hammer dulcimer. You can think of this instrument as a not-so-distant cousin to the piano. The cimbalom actually wasn’t invented until the 1800s, in Hungary. 

Take a look a the above picture. Isn’t it remarkable how similar it looks to the History of the piano because of the legs? The cimbalom is played in an Eastern European, or Romani style.

History of the Piano
Photographer:dancesincreek | Morguefile

Another example of a zither from another part of the world is the appalachian dulcimer. This dulcimer has a soundboard that is shaped moreso like a flat lap violin than a big trapezoidal soundboard. People often play traditional folk songs and hymns on it in the southern part of the United States. 

There are hundreds of more variations on the zither, but let’s keep moving forward in the evolution of the piano

Harpsichord and Clavichord

Harpsichord and Clavichord
By Gérard Janot – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7261761

The harpsichord was first created in the 1500s, Italy, by a man named Hieronymus Bononiensis (Historyofpiano.net). The above harpsichord was made in the mid-1600s in Antwerp. Some of the first harpsichords were very small, most only having a couple of octaves.

According to Britannica.com

‘The earliest surviving harpsichords were built in Italy in the early 16th century. Little is known of the early history of the harpsichord, but, during the 16th–18th century, it underwent considerable evolution and became one of the most important European instruments. ‘

You can always tell a harpsichord from a piano because it has inverted, white-on-black keys. Inside of the harpsichord, there are plectrums above the strings instead of hammers. This led to a distinct, bright sounds. There were many offshoots of the harpsichord, including the pedal harpsichord, ottavino, and the virginials. 

‘National schools of construction arose, notably in Italy, Flanders, France, England, and Germany; and highly decorated cases with painted lids became fashionable.’ (Britannica.com)

The harpsichord and clavichord are where the piano gets its lid! 

The clavichord came around much earlier than the very harpsichord. According to Britannica.com, 

“The clavichord, stringed keyboard musical instrument, developed from the medieval monochord. It flourished from about 1400 to 1800 and was revived in the 20th century. It is usually rectangular in shape, and its case and lid were usually highly decorated, painted, and inlaid.” https://www.britannica.com/art/harpsichord 

The clavichord was relatively small as well. It was usually 3 or 4 octaves.

Hating on the Harpsichord 

Funny side note: The harpsichord is often the brunt of music jokes because it didn’t have much dynamic contrast. Here is one of them: 

The late Sir Thomas Beecham used to say the sound of the harpsichord is like “two skeletons making love on a tin roof”. https://www.kaitaia.com/jokes/Music/harp2.htm 

Another, more friendly joke includes:

“Why did (insert famous composer’s name here) throw away his/her harpsichord?” 

(Because it was baroquen)

Despite all the ‘hate’, the harpsichord has recieved, there has been a recent resurgence of Baroque-pop, which has brought the harpsichord back into fashion.

Roots: Going Back Even Further

Next, I’m going to tell you about a false ancestor of the piano, as well as an ancient Greek string instrument from which zithers may descend. 

An Instrument Worth Mentioning: The Thumb Piano

If you want to go back to a different route, you could also say that the kalimba is one of the first keyboard instruments. The kalimba is a handheld instrument that comes from ancient Africa. Unlike the zither, the kalimba is a member of the lamellophone family. I comes from a different family of instruments,so  we can’t truly say that it’s an ancestor. Since this is a bit of a misleading term, we thought we’d mention it! That being said, it is a gorgeous instrument in its own. 

Take a listen to the kalimba in this relaxing cover of ‘A Thousand Years’ by April Yang here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XSIzK1l5pbw

Fun fact: Another word for the kalimba is the mbira! 

If you’re looking for more information, the following article from Kalimba Magic does a great job of explaining the differences between the piano and the kalimba. https://www.kalimbamagic.com/blog/item/how-does-the-kalimba-relate-to-the-piano#:~:text=The%20kalimba%20and%20the%20piano,the%20arrangement%20on%20the%20piano

The Monochord

Let’s travel back to ancient Sumer to an instrument called the monochord.  It is estimated that the monochord was created around 500 BC, around the area of the fertile crescent/ ancient Iraq. The monochord, also known as the sonometer, was a very old instrument that consists of a resonating box and just one string. 

Multiple notes could be played on the monochord after the bridge was recreated in order to be moveable.

Greek mathemetician Pythagoras reportedly reinvented the monochord.  This reinvention was known (fittingly!) as the monochord of Pythagoras. However, according to this philosophy site the reinvention was made by the Benedictine monk Guido de Arezzo. Guido was a well-known music theorist who also created the basis for what we now know as music notation. See? I told you music history was going to get murky! 

Another offshoot keyboard instrument from ancient times is the hydraulis. According to this source at Britannica, the hydraulis was a very early form of (mechanical) pipe organ that was created around the 3rd century BC. The hydraulis was the first official keyboard instrument. This is about as far back as I have traced, so let’s zoom back forward. After all of this history, we still haven’t arrived at our destination point. But by the early 1700’s, we did have the pianoforte. 

Looking Forward: The Pianoforte / Pianoforte

Even once we make our way to the pianoforte, we are not at the modern piano yet. You’re probably wondering, ‘What’s the difference between the two?’

According to squarepiano.com, the fortepiano refers to a piano that was made before 1830.

Many music aficionados (myself included) often bring up how very important the distinction between the modern piano and the fortepiano actually is. The modern piano has a much higher string tension than the fortepiano did, resulting in a significantly altered tone. They also had white on black keys, and many had knee levers rather than pedals. These instrument had less sustain in their sound, and were relatively quiet when we compare them to today’s pianos. 

Another notable difference between the two instruments is that they were framed with different materials. It was also significantly smaller

If you’d like to hear a pianoforte, you can take a listen to Mozart’s one here:

The First Piano(forte)

The first pianoforte was made in the year 1700 by a man named Bartolomeo Cristofori. Cristofori was a harpsichord maker from Italy. He wanted to create an instrument that had more touch sensitivity than the harpsichord.

History of Piano: Timeline

History of Piano: Timeline

Here is a more clear timeline of the creation of the History of the piano as we know it today. Please keep in mine that this in an extremely condensed version!

  • Ancient Sumeria: The Monochord
  • Ancient Greece: The Hydraulis
  • Medieval Times/ Europe: The Psaltry, then the Hammer Dulcimer
  • 1300’s/ Renaissance Europe: The Clavichord
  • 1500’s Italy:The Harpsichord
  • 1700 the first piano(forte) was made (Piano timeline references http://www.historyofpiano.net/piano-history/timeline-of-piano/ )
  • Early 1800s’s- Erard pianos began being made. 
  • 1960’s The first Rhodes pianos were made

In the early 1800s, the Erard piano (see our article on weird pianos throughout history here!) came around with a new design. It was around this time that the term pianoforte was shortened to the word piano. It is also around when the first upright pianos were being made.The Erard piano was a unique anomaly in and of itself. Erard pianos were made by French instrument maker Sebastien Erard, who created double escapement. (MIM)

But we’re not done yet! Now, let’s take a look at how we got from the forte piano to upright pianos, cabinet pianos, grands, and digital pianos. 

Making our Way to the Modern Piano: Manufacturing Lighter Instruments

In 1766, Johann Zumpe started manufacturing pianos that were lighter, on a large scale (Historyofthepiano.net). Zumpe was an instrument maker from Germany. He pioneered the instrument that is now known as the ‘English square piano’. Historians often remark that this instrument sounds like ‘a mellow harpsichord’. 

English Square pianos have about 5 octaves and could fit into very small spaces. They look like a small table with keys! Since square pianos could fit into just about any home, people started buying them left and right. One important thing to note is just how economical square pianos were, in comparison to the harpsichord. Back then, musicians were looking for the same things we look for today: Economical, space-saving pianos!

There were some German offshoots of the English square piano, but they were more similar to the earlier clavichord than anything else (Squarepianos.com).

Square pianos had something called sticker action. The stickers, or rather, levers, push the hammer inside the piano to the string. Take a listen to a square piano here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aM9xSn1Y0eU 

The Cabinet Piano

The first, tall cabinet pianos were created in 1807 (Historyofpiano.net). Cabinet pianos also had ‘sticker action’ at first. 

Many early cabinet pianos had silk sunbursts in the center of the cabinet like the one shown on the MET museum website: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/504395 The people who made these sunbursts were called ‘piano silkers’.

There is a whole host variations of names variations in the different types of cabinet pianos, such as the following: 

  • Piccolo 
  • Semi-cottage
  • Cottage
  • Cabinet 

The following terms are simply descriptors for the size of the cabinet piano, the piccolo being the shortest, and the cabinet is the tallest. The piano sticker action was later reinvented for different iterations of the instrument. 

I could write an entire article on cottage pianos/cabinet pianos alone! From the history of the different styles of piano legs to the silk artwork, to the style of the candle holders, there is a lot more to learn. I would highly recommend checking out this site if you are interested in learning more about the developments that happened to the piano in Victorian times: https://www.pianohistory.info/victorian.html 

The Creation of the Electronic Piano

The first electronic piano was created by a man named Harold Rhodes (Sound familiar?!) in 1965 (Fenderrhodes.com/history). Rhodes’ instruments were manufactured by the company Fender, and took off like wildfire in the 1970’s. You can hear a Rhodes suitcase piano in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQNgVkOBOsA 

Conclusion

As you can probably see, the modern piano took quite some time to become what it is today. And while I feel that I have barely scratched the surface when it comes to the history of the History of the piano, that’s all we’ve got for now. I hope that you’ve learned a thing or two! Oh, and be sure to keep checking back with our BestPianoKeyboards blog for more playing tips and cool piano facts! 

References

https://www.britannica.com/art/harpsichord

Squarepiano.com

https://www.kaitaia.com/jokes/Music/harp2.htm

http://www.historyofpiano.net/piano-history/timeline-of-piano/ 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cimbalom

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hammered_dulcimer

https://www.squarepianos.com/square.html

https://www.pianohistory.info/victorian.html

https://www.britannica.com/art/hydraulis

http://mim.org/musical-history-of-the-erard-piano/ 

https://www.pianohistory.info/actions.html#:~:text=STICKER%20ACTIONS&text=Others%20called%20them%20JACKS%2C%20%5Blifting,use%20it%20in%20upright%20pianos.

https://en-academic.com/dic.nsf/enwiki/2098890

https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/504395 https://www.fenderrhodes.com/history/narrative.html

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