Invention Of The Piano: History Of The World's Most Versatile Musical Instrument

By | November 20, 2020

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The piano is the go-to instrument for composers and songwriters. (Sina Schuldt/picture alliance via Getty Images)

As the instrument of choice for nearly all composers, the piano is one of the most important musical instruments in history, but when was the piano invented? Who invented the piano? What did early pianos look like?

The Forerunners Of The Piano

The piano's oldest ancestor is the monochord, an ancient musical instrument consisting of a single string stretched across a sound box with movable bridges that could change the frequencies of the sound. Although it was popular throughout the Middle Ages, it was limited in its musical quality. Musicians with a flair for invention experimented with improvements to the monochord and ended up creating the harpsichord and the dulcimer, string instruments that required the player to strike the strings with a small hammer to produce sound.

The clavichord, a keyboard string instrument developed in the late Middle Ages, was popular throughout the Renaissance era and the instrument of choice during the Baroque and Classical periods of music composition, but it differed from the modern piano in a key way—literally. It had only one string per key, and sometimes, a string even pulled double-duty across two keys, while modern piano keys cover as many as three strings each. As a result, the clavichord wasn't loud enough for stage performances, so it was mostly used as a tool to compose music.

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Portrait of Bartolomeo Cristofori, inventor of the piano. (Anonymous/Wikimedia Commons)

Bartolomeo Cristofori Invented The Piano

In 1688, Italian craftsman Bartolomeo Cristofori was appointed to the court of Florence by Prince Ferdinando de'Medici to maintain its harpsichords and other musical instruments. Cristofori was as vexed about the limitations of the clavichord and harpsichord as the musicians who came before him, so he tinkered with the instruments until he found a way to amplify their sound.

One of his key breakthroughs was a mechanism that allowed the hammer to pull away from the string as soon as it was struck, letting it ring clear without the hindrance of the hammer. He also developed a catch for the hammer so that it wouldn't bounce back and strike the string again. Cristofori combined all of his innovations into an instrument documented as an "arpicimbalo," which featured hammers, strings, and a dual keyboard and boasted a four-octave range. More importantly, the instrument could produce sound that was loud enough for stage performances