The piano has been perhaps the most popular instrument since it’s inception. This serves as a brief history and hopefully will enlighten you on the progression of this great instrument.
Before the piano, the existing keyboard instruments were the harpsichord, clavichord and organ. These instruments could not change dynamic level; no matter how hard you pressed on the keys, or how lightly, the sound would stay at the same decibel level. Composers relied on interesting rhythms to keep the listener engaged, versus instruments such as strings or woodwinds, which could crescendo and decrescendo.
Around 1700, instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori created the first fortepiano. This name directly translated literally means loud-soft. In other words, it was the first keyboard instrument to play dynamics! These pianos had less keys than the standard 88 seen today. The sound was also brighter and a little weaker sounding than a modern piano. Many of these pianos had the damper pedal located by the player’s right knee instead of on the floor. This would be the same piano that Mozart and Beethoven played on.
Listen to the tone quality; the louder the performer plays, the actual sound changes, and vice versa for when the performer plays softly. This gave each piece of music a different character, something that has been slightly removed today due to the more homogenous sound of contemporary pianos. Also notice how the key colors are inverted; during the 1700s ebony, a rare wood, was more bountiful than ivory (elephant tusks or hippopotamus teeth). In recent times poaching has become illegal, thus ivory is not used anymore. During the 1800s technology allowed piano makers to put an iron frame in the piano. This meant that thicker and stronger strings could be used, resulting in a louder and more powerful sound that our modern ears are more acquainted with.
There are many recordings of classical composers’ works being performed on a period piano, or a piano from their respective time. Search the internet and take a listen, you may be surprised at the drastic change in sound! Don’t stop at just the piano, check out other instruments to see how they’ve progressed.
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