A Brief History of the Piano

Whether you’re a brand new piano student or if you’ve been playing for years, you might wonder how this magnificent musical instrument came into being.  The history of the piano is an amazing one – almost as incredible as the selection of pianos you’ll find for sale today.  Ready for a musical trip back in time?  Let’s take a closer look at piano history.

The First Musical Instruments

People have always been fascinated by musical sounds as a way to express emotion, to communicate, and to be entertained.  The very first musical instruments were very simple ones; percussion instruments like drums and rattles, as well as bow strings and simple pipes made of reeds.  It was thousands of years ago when humans discovered that reeds and bowstrings of different lengths could produce different musical tones – the same sounds we now call notes.  These ancient musical instruments, including panpipes, were actually the precursors to the pianos we play today.

The first instrument to employ strings was the harp, which is so ancient that it is mentioned in the earliest writings known to man; and, if you look inside your piano, you can see that it’s a version of the harp which makes the sounds you hear when you strike the piano keys.  The first “harp” struck with hammers was the hammer dulcimer, which is still a popular instrument today.

The Pianoforte

It is generally accepted that the pianoforte (or fortepiano), which was the brainchild of an Italian harpsichord maker and musician named Bartolomeo Cristofori, was revealed to the public sometime between 1700 and 1709, in Florence, Italy.  This is not at all surprising as Florence, which is located in the central part of the Italian nation, and which is the capital of Tuscany, is renowned as the cradle of the Renaissance.

The first pianoforte Bartolomeo Cristofori introduced was based on a new design he had recently implemented for the harpsichord, which is similar to the piano, but which has a much different sound as its strings are actually plucked instead of struck.  The innovative keyboard and the mechanisms connecting the keys to the hammers which in turn struck the internal strings of the pianoforte were similar to those found inside the clavichord, which is another instrument related to the piano which was popular in the days of the Renaissance.  The pianoforte was something of a curiosity until around 1711, after which it gained the popularity it still enjoys today.

Since it was first introduced more than 300 years ago, the pianoforte’s name has been shortened, and incredible changes have taken place, all with the intent to shape the instrument’s appearance, sound, and function.  Incredibly, three pianofortes made by Cristofori survive today, as do a number of pianos that span the entire history of the instrument.

Pianos Over the Centuries

The modern piano keyboard has not changed much at all since the twelve basic notes which repeat over the 88-key layout were first established in Medieval Europe sometime around the 13th century.   At that time, the keys were used in pipe organs, and keyboard music was quite a novelty, with keyboard players still working to establish a way to chart notes and determine how many musical notes actually existed.

In artwork and in examples of early pianos, we see that the color scheme of the black and white keys was actually reversed during the early days, with the majority of the keys being black or dark brown wood, and the elevated keys which are black today being made of white ivory.

As musical styles and composer preferences changed, the piano continued to evolve to become the instrument it is today.  Now that you know more about the history of the piano, you’re certain to enjoy playing even more!

Phil Barrow

Phil Barrow

Phil is a guitarist and Director of Resound School of Music, a music school specializing in at-home music lessons. Phil's passion is helping others to discover their lifelong love of music, and he writes about a variety of topics aimed at helping you to become a better musician.

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Resound School of Music was started in 2009 with a vision of providing the finest music instruction available from the comfort of your home. But don’t be mistaken; we’re not your typical, stuffy music conservatory, nor do we want to be. Instead, we are the music school that was designed with you in mind.