The Making of a Piano
Updated: Jun 26
The piano is an instrument that uses a keyboard to produce sound. It produces sound when someone presses a key. When keys are pressed, it causes the hammers to strike strings. The strings then vibrate which makes the musical tones. The vibrating strings cause the sides of the piano to vibrate which amplifies the sound.
Unlike many other string instruments, the piano has no natural limitations on its loudness; it can produce as much or as little volume as needed. There is no volume control on an acoustic piano. The level of sound coming from the piano is at the discretion of the person controlling it and how hard they strike its keys.
The piano has been in existence for hundreds of years. It was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori, an Italian harpsichord maker during the late 17th century. His invention was the first piano to be made, producing sound with hammers hitting strings rather than plucking them.
It's unclear where and when Cristofori began making his new instrument. Most historians agree that it started sometime in 1698, but the exact date and year are still disputed. Where he started making his pianos is another argument. The two leading contenders are in his workshop at No. 28 Via Dei Servi in Florence or No. 11 Piazza San Marco in Venice.
The first evidence of Cristofori's work with pianos can be found through a court document from the Accademia Dei Rozzi, an academy for musicians and poets started by Ferdinando de Medici, Grand Prince Tuscany (1663 – 1713.) This court document summarizes a legal dispute between Cristofori and his employee.
This court document lists the different instruments that Bartolomeo Cristofori created. Among them are listed "un gravecembalo col piano e forte detto volgarmente di martelletti" ("a harpsichord with soft and loud [playing], commonly called little bells".) This shows that Cristofori had already invented the piano by 1709, less than ten years after working on it.
During the early 18th century, three crucial events in the evolution of the piano happened. These are important to understand when tracing the history of this early piano.
In 1711, Prince Ferdinando de Medici commissioned Cristofori's pianos. This is proof that they had become popular enough to be mentioned in official documents by this time. It also shows that they were being used in performance settings outside of just having someone play solo.
The second crucial moment happened in 1713 when Ferdinando died, and his brother Gian Gastone de Medici succeeded him as Grand Prince of Tuscany. He was a man known for living an extremely hedonistic lifestyle, so much so that many believed he worked to undo all his brother's good deeds.
This brought us to the third event in 1717 when Cristofori invented a hammer-action mechanism for his pianos. Though he had already created an instrument capable of making sound by hitting its strings with small hammers, this invention greatly enhanced that capability by introducing a much more complex action system. This system allowed players to control the dynamics of their performance by simply varying how hard they hit the keys.
With this invention, Cristofori invented an entirely new way to play instruments that were known as (and is still called today) "mechanical piano action." It's what allows pianos of any type to work, and it was invented by Cristofori around 1720.
In all, there are about 300 of these pianos that still exist today. They have been played regularly throughout their lives, so they are relatively good for being over 300 years old. Many of them can be found in museums or royal collections, but some can be found in private collections of pianos.
In the early 18th century, Cristofori was already known for his work with keyboard instruments. He had been a harpsichord maker since 1688, and he even wrote a treatise on the harpsichord in 1707. This treatise can be found in the book called "The Art of Playing the Harpsichord", and it is one of the primary sources historians use when they study his inventions.
During this time Cristofori made a significant contribution to the development of keyboard instruments with his invention of an instrument known as piano e forte, or "soft and loud" (in Italian.)
The piano e forte was crafted for Prince Ferdinando de Medici and is known as the first piano. It wasn't called a "piano" during its creation. That term wouldn't even be coined until 1801 when piano makers began developing their instruments to sound more dynamically versatile. Instead, the first piano became known as a "gravicembalo col piano e forte" or harpsichord with soft and loud playing capability.
The invention of the gravicembalo col piano e forte became one of three important events in the history of the early piano. Because it was not known as a piano, scholars and historians have given it the name Cristofori's Hammerklavier. This is in reference to Johann Sebastian Bach's famous piece written for the piano known as The Well-Tempered Clavier (Latin for "keyboard".)
Despite its relative obscurity compared to most historical artifacts, this instrument represents one of the most significant contributions to modern musical technology. It is one of the first inventions that allowed players to control dynamics through its new mechanism, which interfaced with the instrument maker's wooden components to create an innovative way of making sound on a keyboard instrument.
Cristofori invented his hammer-action mechanism around 1711, and it would go through several modifications before he died in 1731. He created fully functional pianos, but there were some slight design flaws that modern makers have since corrected through countless technological advancements.
It wasn't until 50 years later that this hammer-action mechanism became the standard for all keyboards, including many other keyboard instruments.
The second event that occurred around the same time as Cristofori's invention was the composer George Frederic Handel. It is important to note that there are very few primary sources from this period of his life, so scholars can't be exactly sure when he made his first piano composition, but they do know it was written during the early 1700s.
Handel probably wrote his first piano composition in 1711, but it is unclear whether he used Cristofori's mechanism for Prince de Medici. There is evidence that he was familiar with this instrument and its capabilities because of his association with Prince de Medici and others. This evidence suggests that Handel used Cristofori's mechanism whenever he wrote music for the piano.
The third event related to the early history of the piano involves Gottfried Silbermann, who was an instrument maker in Germany during this time. He became interested in Cristofori's invention and began building his instrument versions in the late 1730s.
Silbermann's version of the piano is crucial because it represents a transitional period for keyboard instruments away from the harpsichord and toward a new school of music that would soon revolutionize not just keyboards but also an entire genre of classical music. During this time, composers began writing music for the piano and other instruments so that they could be performed in small rooms. They no longer had to write suites or other large group pieces because the piano allowed them to register for one instrument or a smaller ensemble.
Despite its important contributions to musical history, it should also be noted that there have been various advancements in the piano since its invention in the 1700s. For example, some of the earliest pianos were built with a keyboard with black and white keys. It wasn't until later that the modern configuration of 88 keys on each manual was introduced to allow for more musical possibilities.
Another change would come about through new advancements in the mechanism.
Currently, there are two significant types of piano mechanisms used in modern pianos. One is the fully weighted action that implements an additional device called an escapement. This mechanism was invented by Sébastien Érard, who started building his instruments around 1810 because he thought the Cristofori mechanism wasn't adequate. This invention allowed designers to create pianos that sounded like acoustic instruments in small rooms. Still, it would take several decades before this design was fully developed into the modern piano that we know today.
The other type of modern action is called the upright action, and it has no escapement. Instead, it uses a jack and buttress system that Pleyel first introduced in 1807. This allowed pianos to be built with a less complex mechanism that could withstand the constant pressure of being played for an extended period of time without needing repair.
Despite its early history as being exclusively an instrument only musicians could play, the piano is now considered an instrument that almost anyone can learn. Even so, it remains one of the most popular instruments in the universe of classical music today.