It is easy for us to take the piano for granted. After all, hasn’t it always been part of the musical world?
The answer is no! The piano that we know and love today was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori (May 4, 1655 – January 27, 1731) in Italy during the early 18th Century.
Here’s a nice video from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York demonstrating the sound of a Cristofori instrument.
All musicians — in fact all people — owe Bartolomeo Cristofori a huge debt for leading the way toward the modern piano.
Before Cristofori’s Piano, keyboard instruments made their sound by air pressure (pipe organs) or quills plucking strings (harpsichord). These two types of instruments had dominated music for centuries.
These two instruments — pipe organ and harpsichord — were used to create some great music. But Cristofori, and many musicians of his day wanted more. What was missing was the keyboard player’s ability to use expression or varying the loudness and softness of the sound. This could easily be done on instruments like the violin but was nearly impossible on a keyboard instrument.
There were only two ways that expression could be achieved on a pipe organ or harpsichord. The first way was for your instrument to have more than one keyboard or manual with each one set to a different sound (loud and soft). That is why most organs and some harpsichords have two or more manuals (keyboards). The second way was to use different stops or sounds that the keyboard player could choose for loud or soft music.
What Cristofori invented was a modified harpsichord that, instead of plucking the strings, replaced the quills with felted hammers that struck the strings and, for the first time, allowed players to vary the sound by the way that they touched the keys. It was a revolutionary step for the early 18th century. For the first time, the player could instantly change the sound without needing to move his hands to a different manual or change stops.
Here are three videos of the Invention No. 13 in A Minor by J.S. Bach (1685-1750) played on an organ, harpsichord and piano:
The modern piano that we play today sounds much different than Cristofori’s and that difference is the result of over a century of technological developments that culminated in the late-19th Century. It is that “modern” sound that we all associate now with the piano.
The composer David Lanz (b. 1950) wrote a New-Age style piece called “Cristofori’s Dream” in 1988. This piece was hugely popular among those who like an ethereal piano sound. Lanz’ “Dream” offers a good comparison to Cristofori’s original in the previous video.
Here’s a link to an article about Cristofori and his invention.