The Piano—Versatile and Expressive Instrument
WHAT is your favorite musical instrument? It would not be surprising if your answer was, The piano. In the United States alone, over twenty-one million people play this instrument. And it is little wonder, since the piano possesses many qualities that make it ideal as a means of musical expression for both the amateur and the skilled professional.
The piano’s range of eighty-eight notes is the widest of any standard instrument. Its notes can reach higher than a piccolo and lower than a bass violin. Because of the way it is constructed it is possible for a pianist to play both melody and accompaniment at the same time. In fact, when playing piano duets, two pianists can strike as many as twenty-four notes at one time. The piano lends itself to many different musical styles, and it blends in with almost any combination of instruments. Yet, even the beginner can quickly learn to play simple pieces that sound quite agreeable. No doubt you are among the millions who take pleasure in listening to piano music or, perhaps, enjoy playing the piano yourself.
In your enjoyment of piano music, have you ever wondered what goes on inside that large wooden box—what causes that lovely ringing sound to come out when the player strikes the long row of black and white keys? How did we come to have the piano?
In terms of musical history, the piano is a rather recent development. Although there are records of keyboard instruments dating back as far as the middle of the fourteenth century, it was not until about 1700 that the first real piano came into existence. It was the invention of Bartolomeo Cristofori, a maker of harpsichords in Florence, Italy. The harpsichord had come to be the most popular keyboard instrument of the time, but it had the disadvantage of being able to produce music of virtually only one volume, since the mechanism merely plucked the strings. Variety was achieved by the addition of different groups of strings, but still the player could not alter the sound significantly by the way in which he struck the note. Cristofori’s invention, on the other hand, made use of small hammers that struck the strings rather than plucking them. This innovation enabled the player to control the sound of each note by the force with which he struck the key. He could accent certain notes, and he had at his disposal the whole range of volume from piano (soft) to forte (loud). The new instrument was called gravicembalo col piano e forte (“harpsichord with soft and loud”), later simplified to “pianoforte” and eventually to “piano.”
While the piano underwent many changes over the following years, Cristofori’s instrument had the essentials of the modern piano: wire strings, hammers, keys, dampers (small pads that rest against the string to stop the tone when the key is released) and an escapement, a device that allows the hammer to fall away from the string while the key is still held down. Cristofori’s piano, however, met with little success in Italy. Consequently, he went back to making harpsichords, leaving the further development of the new instrument to others.
Germans living in Germany, Austria, England and America made most of the important contributions to the piano’s development in the years that followed. In the early 1700’s Gottfried Silbermann of Freiberg in eastern Germany became acquainted with Cristofori’s design and began building pianos. Later, his pupil Johann A. Stein began building them at Augsburg in southern Germany.
But in order for the piano to continue to develop it was necessary that musicians like the instrument and be moved to write piano music. Johann Sebastian Bach, the great German composer, is reported to have played Silbermann pianos, though they never caught his imagination. But two of Bach’s sons, Carl Phillipp Emanuel and Johann Christian, made significant contributions that aided the piano in gaining acceptance. C. P. E. Bach wrote the first dependable guide to piano fingering, Essay on Keyboard Instruments, as well as 210 compositions for the keyboard. His youngest brother, Johann Christian, is credited with the first public performance on the piano in London in 1777. The first composer to write pieces exclusively for the piano was Muzio Clementi, who published three sonatas in 1773.
However, the one who became the most famous pianist-composer of his day and who did more to develop piano music than any other composer of the eighteenth century was an Austrian, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He wrote his first piano concerto at the age of eleven and composed many more during his lifetime. He preferred the pianos of the German and Viennese makers, especially those of Johann A. Stein. These pianos reached the peak of their development toward the end of the eighteenth century. They had a well-balanced scale, neither bass nor treble being too loud, the one for the other. These instruments produced a beautiful singing tone, but without the customary volume of modern pianos. Many feel that Mozart’s compositions still sound best when played on this type of piano.
The Piano Comes into Its Own
During this time, another school of piano building was developing in England, headed by the Broadwood Company. Their pianos were larger, more heavily strung and were thereby able to produce a greater sound. This kind of piano pointed in the direction that piano construction would be taking as the nineteenth century began. As piano playing and composition of music developed, greater and greater demands were made on the instrument.
Ludwig van Beethoven, who made his concert appearance in Vienna in 1792 at the age of twenty-two, had tremendous technical ability and was also noted for the depth of the expression and the power of his playing. His music was truly piano music. Much of the music published prior to Beethoven could be played on most keyboard instruments and often was represented as being “for harpsichord or piano.” But there could be no doubt about Beethoven’s music. It was piano music, and it demanded the best of both performer and instrument, often more than the pianos of the day were able to deliver. Beethoven was noted for attacking pianos with such force that during the performance keys, hammers and strings would go flying.
In efforts to adjust to the ever-increasing demands of pianists, piano manufacturers built larger and heavier frames to support the desired string tension. The real solution to the problem proved to be in the one-piece cast-iron frame. In 1825, the idea was applied in the “square” piano (resembling the clavichord) by an American craftsman, Alpheus Babcock, and was incorporated in the grand pianos of Jonas Chickering of Boston. Later, it was improved on by the New York firm of Steinway & Sons, whose frame, developed in 1855, has been the model for all successive pianos up to the present time. For all practical purposes, by the mid-1800’s the piano had developed into the instrument that we know today, although many refinements are still being made.
How the Piano Produces Music
So when you look into a modern grand piano, what do you see? Your attention is first drawn to a large cast-iron frame lacquered a golden bronze. Over the frame are strung some 240 steel strings of various lengths and gauges, the shortest and thinnest at the treble or right-hand end and the longest and heaviest—the bass strings—on the left. The bass strings are wound with another wire so that they are heavier and can vibrate more slowly. The strings are held by “hitch pins” on the curved side of the frame and are attached to tuning pins along the front of the piano, just in front of the player. These pins go through holes in the frame and into a very hard laminated wooden “wrest plank,” or pin block. The wrest plank is made from rock maple or some other hardwood, and the pins fit very tightly to prevent them from slipping. The strings exert a pressure of almost twenty tons on the frame.
In order for the instrument to produce music, the strings have to be set in motion. This is accomplished by means of the “action.” The only part of the action that we usually see is the keyboard, but when the key is struck, it sets into operation a finely balanced mechanism that throws a small, felt-covered hammer at a string. The hammer is only in contact with the string for 1/100th of a second before it falls back into place, ready to be struck again. Each of these little mechanisms is called an “escapement,” and there are eighty-eight of them in a piano. The action contains a total of over 8,000 separate parts. The keyboard also operates the “dampers,” which are strips of felt attached to wooden frames that rest on top of the strings. When the key is depressed, the damper is raised, allowing the string to vibrate freely as long as the key is held down. When the key is released, the damper falls back into place, stopping the vibration of the string.
All the dampers on the piano can also be raised at one time by means of the damper or “loud” pedal that is operated by the player’s right foot. For most of the notes, each hammer strikes three strings tuned in unison; the lower notes have only two strings or one string. The pedal on the left is called the “una corda,” or “soft,” pedal. It shifts the entire action to one side so that the hammer will strike fewer strings, giving a quieter sound.
However, merely setting the strings in motion by means of the action is not enough, because the vibration of the thin metal strings creates such small air waves that the sound is scarcely audible. For that reason, the piano contains a device that is common to all stringed instruments, a “soundboard.” The soundboard is a piece of thin spruce that covers the entire underside of the piano (the back side of upright pianos). To transmit the vibrations from the string to the soundboard, the string is passed over a wooden bridge that is glued to the soundboard. The vibrations pass through the bridge and the soundboard is set in motion. The fine range that you hear is due to the amplified vibration of the air waves made by the soundboard.
Piano builders make the piano pleasing not only to the ear but also to the eye by installing the instrument in a handsome case that also serves as a second soundboard. Many piano cases are finished in beautiful veneers of mahogany, walnut or other fine woods. Some pianists prefer the simple elegance of the traditional black-ebony finish. When completed, the modern piano contains over 12,000 parts. It is a marvel of engineering and design and is the result of more than 250 years of continual development. As a result, it produces a wealth of sound. It is no wonder that composers have been fascinated by its seemingly endless musical possibilities, and that pianists themselves never tire of playing it.
We can be grateful that man’s Creator put within him the capacities of mind and heart that enable him to enjoy and to make for himself and others the beautiful sounds of music. We can be thankful also that He gave man the ability and ingenuity to conceive of and build instruments like the piano.