The piano is the most popular instrument in existence and continues to be the premiere instrument as we enter its fourth century. It is the most complex mechanical device in any home and is capable of fulfilling the player’s every musical wish. With each development since its invention, the piano has increasingly been able to provide infinite nuance of expression, volume and duration of tone.
The history of the piano goes back three full centuries when an Italian harpsichord builder named Bartolomeo Cristofori produced a breakthrough technological advance, a new mechanism for the harpsichord which gave it the ability to be played with dynamic variations. He called this touch-sensitive invention “gravicembalo col piano e forte,” or “harpsichord with soft and loud.” For centuries before that, there were two keyboards widely in use during a parallel era that began in the 1400s. These were the clavichord and the harpsichord. Each had its own strengths, which made it popular for specific venues and music styles, and it was these, which eventually led to the piano.
Clavichords are constructed with bichord strings that are struck by tangents attached to the end of each key. Dynamic expression is also possible on the clavichord, but the range is limited to the mezzo-piano level. Though they were invented in the early Fourteenth Century, Clavichords are very portable and were extremely popular in domestic use and remained so for 300-400 years.
The harpsichord, which dates to 1505, was popular during the same period and had its own followers.
Harpsichord strings are plucked by a quill or plectrum. Yet the harpsichord could be played at a higher volume than the clavichord, which made it especially popular in churches, where it could be played along with the organ and still be heard.
The time was right for the next step – a keyboard that could satisfy composers, who were clamoring for an instrument with a broad dynamic range.
For his new instrument’s hammers, Cristofori used a small roll of parchment with a pad of leather glued on top, fitted into a wood molding. He also added something called the “escapement.” This design allowed the hammer to be thrown freely at the string in the last part of its travel, then escape rather than stay against the string. This allowed the string to vibrate freely.
Years later instrument builder Gottlieb Silbermann saw the drawings and built his own version of Cristofori’s design. J.S. Bach appraised Silbermann’s work, critiqued it, and caused Silbermann to make improvements, which Bach endorsed in the 1740s.
Later Composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were enchanted by the Viennese “harpsichord with soft and loud,” finding it increasingly responsive to the player’s wishes compared to the precision required to play traditional harpsichords. In 1777, Mozart wrote to his father praising Johann Andreas Stein’s instruments. Around 1780 the upright piano was created by Johann Schmidt of Salzburg, Austria.
No single innovation had the kind of impact of Cristofori’s invention, until a Parisian named Sebastian Erard invented the “double escapement” or repetition mechanism. This revolutionary idea, patented in 1821, made it possible for a hammer to hit the string again before the key was returned to its original position, making rapid repetition possible.
The Iron Age
In 1825, a quantum change occurred – an early American piano maker named Alpheus Babcock was granted a patent for his invention of a full cast iron plate for a square piano, thus removing string tension from the wooden case.
From then on, innovations came fast and furious. Evolution of improvements eventually led clearly to the grand pianos we know today with their 88 keys. They encompassed the best in structural integrity and strength, producing the full, rich sound we now enjoy.
In 1859, Steinway & Sons produced the first overstrung grand piano, and by around 1870 the piano was very close to that which we know today. Since 1885, the piano has not changed significantly in design. Finally, the instrument, composers and musicians had been waiting for was here.
The twins, mechanization and marketing, took hold of the piano-making world late in the 1800s, and the piano became a household object. Sales rose from just a few thousand in 1850 to 365,000 in 1909. The middle class had arrived. The piano itself was in a refined form and factories flourished.
The period often thought of as the heyday of piano making did come to an end with the depression and the advent of radio. However, fine pianos are being produced today by many firms in America and abroad and the piano is regarded as one of the outstanding achievements of invention.
The Modern Piano Technician
Today’s pianos have evolved as sophisticated, complex mechanisms. The modern piano technician must have knowledge in multiple aspects of piano service and there are many who specialize in particular areas. For instance, tuners must be capable of coping with 20 tons of string tension, and in understanding the structural stresses and environmental factors which affect a piano’s tuning. Others may specialize in the repair and regulation of the action, which has nearly 9,000 parts, all intricately interwoven. Pianos are so well designed that one can be in very poor condition and still play. But a competent action regulator can restore its vast range of responsiveness to varying touch, giving the player the utmost in musical control. The rebuilding of fine pianos from 100 years ago has become a major specialty today, as there are many fine instruments that were excellently built but now have parts that are badly worn.
Special technician note
Spinet pianos are upright pianos which are 36 to 39 inches tall. These pianos were designed and introduced to the public during the depression era in order to cut cost on production. Spinet pianos have been discontinued due to the lack of quality of the instruments. Spinet pianos are easy to identify because it is the shortest of the upright models, and possess what piano tuners call a drop action. This means that the action is tucked behind the keybed in order to preserve space. This design is of lesser quality than the direct blow action employed in all other types of upright pianos. Repairs and regulation on spinets are more of a challenge than other pianos because of the difficulty involved in removing the drop action from the piano in order to address any problems.
Some of the information on this page came from the PTG website. I am a proud member of the Piano Technicians Guild.