Pianos: The Harp’s Long Lost Cousin?

When people talk about the history of pianos, they typically claim the pianoinstrument originated in Florence, Italy in the 1700’s. A central region of Italy and the capital city of Tuscany, Florence is the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance.

It’s said that an Italian harpsichord maker by the name of Bartolomeo di Francesco Cristofori invented the pianoforte in 1709. A majority of other keyboard and stringed instruments heralded the piano and led to the expansion of the musical instrument everyone knows today.

The History

Bartolomeo Cristofori designed the pianoforte based on a wooden frame of the harpsichord. He employed an inimitable keyboarding apparatus that was akin to a clavichord.

Since then, the musical instrument everyone knows today as the piano has had a large number of innovators. These individuals have helped to shape it into what we know today, in terms of both sound and functionality.

But this doesn’t put forward the entire story of the piano’s history, whose initial foundations trace back to the first stringed and air-powered instruments developed in ancient times.

Early days

The use of tight and vibrating strings to produce sounds goes back to primeval times. In the primordial world, strings were appended and enlarged over boxes, gourds and bows to magnify the sound. They were fastened in place by pins, pegs and ties.

These materials were struck, bowed or plucked to emit sounds. In due course, a family unit of stringed instruments progressed in the 14th century in Europe.

One of the earliest instruments was called a dulcimer, which is a shallow and closed box where stretched wires were struck using two wooden hammers. Next came the clavichord, followed closely by the spinet, virginal, clavecin and gravicembalo.

In the 15th century, the musical instrument called the harpsichord was invented. It was limited to one standardized volume, which meant the softness and loudness couldn’t be controlled while it was being played. For this reason, performing artists were unable to put across the same grade of music as that of most musical instruments at the time.

The creative desire for a more controlled expression led them direcPianostly to the innovation of the piano. This particular musical instrument allowed artists to alter the tone and loudness with only the force of their fingers.

The harp’s role

The harpsichord was an essential development leading to the creation of pianos. The piano’s capacity to project sounds and tones a lot louder than instruments that came before it, along with the ability to modify the intensity of the sound, caused many musicians at the time to then compose piano works.  

This leads us to 1709 in Florence. Cristofori had invented an instrument named "gravicembalo col piano e forte". I believe it roughly translated to loud, as well as soft musical instruments.

Since it was a rather long name, it was later shortened to something more pronounceable,  pianoforte, and eventually, it was simply called the piano. The earliest existing instrument invented by Cristofori dates back to 1720 and it is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In spite of numerous enhancements in the last 300 hundred years or so, it’s truly astounding to see how alike his instruments are to modern pianos.

Do you find it as fascinating as we do how the piano–or any musical instrument–has developed over the centuries? 

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