The piano is thought of as relatively modern. However, its very earliest origins are to be found in the B.C. era. Today, it is the most played instrument in the world. The History of The Piano. Pianoforte: The Development of Music’s Most Popular Invention.
From the beginning of time, man has had a fascination with creating music. It is believed that prehistoric humans discovered that sounds could be made by plucking taut material, such as the string on a hunting bow.
Instruments That Foreshadowed the Piano
The very first string instrument was the harp upon which the strings are plucked. The curve of the harp, which provided the differing lengths of strings, was to later influence the shape of the piano.
One of the precursors to the piano is the psaltery, a wooden box with strings stretched across. The strings of a psaltery were plucked with the fingers or a kind of plectrum made from a quill. It was extremely popular in the 14th and 15th centuries, and is thought to have been influential in the creation of the harpsichord.
Similar to the psaltery is the dulcimer. It is not known exactly when the dulcimer was created, but it is believed to originate from Iran, before the time of Christ. A dulcimer is similar in appearance to the psaltery. However, the instruments are played very differently. Unlike the psaltery, the strings of a dulcimer are struck with wooden hammers rather than plucked. In this way, the dulcimer can be seen as more akin to the modern piano.
Early Keyboard Instruments
During the 12th century, the keyed monochord was created. As more strings were added this instrument eventually became the harpsichord, which by the 14th century had approximately ten strings. Interestingly, by this time, the layout of the keyboard was established and has remained largely unaltered ever since. There have been minor adjustments to the colour and size of keys, but the basic layout is unchanged.
The earliest mention of a piano is in 1598, when in letters to the Duke of Modena Paladino describes an instrument he has design called the Pian e Forte. This was undoubtedly the first design of a keyboard instrument that played both soft and loud notes. However, what is not known is whether it was merely a harpsichord that had been adapted to facilitate this or a real piano.
Bartolomeo Cristofori and The Pianoforte
It was not until over a hundred years later that Bartolomeo Cristofori began work on his greatest creation. Cristofori was able to build the first pianoforte, which had a unique ‘escapement’ mechanism (swift retraction of the hammer once the string is struck).
By 1726, Cristofori had made around twenty pianos, but the instrument was met with a muted response and he quickly returned to building harpsichord. The harpsichord remained the most popular keyboard instrument until approximately one hundred years after the pianoforte’s invention.
Incredibly, three of Cristofori’s pianos are still in existence. The earliest can be found in New York, it dates from 1720 and has four octaves. Another is kept in Rome and the third is in Leipzig.