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Piano is a common abbreviation for pianoforte, a musical instrument with a keyboard. Its sound is produced by strings stretched on an iron frame. These vibrate when struck by felt-covered hammers, which are activated by the keyboard.

Inasmuch as the piano is a chordophone with an attached keyboard, it is a similar instrument to the clavichord and harpsichord. The thing which distinguishes the piano is that rather than the string being plucked by quills as on a harpsichord, or being struck by tangents which then remain in contact with the string as on a clavichord, the strings are struck by hammers which immediately rebound, leaving the string to vibrate freely.

History The piano was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori. It is not clear exactly when he built his first piano, but Franceso Mannucci wrote in his diary that Cristofori was working on an "arcicembal che fa il piano e il forte" ("harpsichord that plays both softly and loudly") as early as 1689. All of his surviving instruments date from the 1720s, however.

Cristofori's early instruments were made with thin clavichord strings, and were much quieter than the modern piano. However, they could produce a wider range of dynamics than the clavichord, and the sound sustained longer.

Cristofori's piano design remained in use relatively unchanged until the 19th century.

Cristofori's new instrument remained relatively unknown until an Italian writer, Scipione Maffei, wrote an enthusiastic article about it, complete with diagrams of the mechanism. This article was quite widely distributed, and most of the next generation of piano builders started their work as a result of reading the article.

One of these builders was Gottfried Silbermann[?], better known as an organ[?] builder. His pianos included a feature where the dampers could be lifted from all the strings at once. On modern pianos, this is done by depressing a pedal, but Silbermann's pianos had an organ-style draw-stop instead. Otherwise, Silbermann's pianos are virtually direct copies of Cristofori's.

Silbermann showed Johann Sebastian Bach one of his early instruments in the 1730s. Bach did not like it at that time, though he did approve of a later instrument he saw in 1747.

These early pianos had wooden frames, two strings per note, and deerskin-covered hammers. The development of the modern piano owes much to the collaboration between Beethoven and the English firm of Broadwood: as Beethoven grew progressively more deaf, the instruments that Broadwood sent him grew progressively larger, louder, and more robustly constructed -- iron frames, three strings per note, the modern felt-covered hammer.

Throughout the 19th century, Steinway patented many innovations on piano technology, notably the middle selective sustain pedal and advances in hammer action allowing cleaner repeated notes. Other manufacturers added features such as supplementary resonating strings, unstruck and undampened, which add harmonics to the sound.

Some early instruments had shapes and designs that are no longer in use. The once-popular square piano has the strings and frame on a horizontal plane, but running across the length of the keyboard rather than away from it. It is similar to the upright piano in its mechanism. Square pianos were produced through the early 20th century, and were of modest quality. Most had a wood frame, though later designs incorporated increasing amounts of iron. The giraffe piano, by contrast, is mechanically like a grand piano, but the strings run vertically up from the keyboard rather than horizontally away from it. This makes it a very tall instrument. These were uncommon.

The modern instrument Modern pianos come in two basic configurations and several sizes: the grand piano and the upright piano.

The grand piano, as we know it today, was introduced by Steinway in the late 1800s, combining a number of previously introduced innovations.
These included:

  • A cast iron plate
  • The 88 key tonal range
  • The "repeating" action
  • The overstrung scale

The present-day upright piano replaced the square piano somewhat later.

Upright pianos are more compact due to the frame and strings being placed vertically, extending in both directions from the keyboard and hammers.

  • The sound quality is adversely affected by several factors: firstly (the shortened distance the hammers travel -- need to check).
  • Secondly, because the hammers are travelling horizontally, a more complicated mechanism and more time is required to return them to their rest position, so an upright piano is not capable of playing repeated notes as rapidly.

To fit in the full length of the bass strings without making the piano too tall, these are sharply angled diagonally across the body of the piano. This also affects sound quality as the hammers do not strike parallel to the string, and causes problems in tuning due to the stresses on the frame at the transition point between string groups. Furthermore, the left-hand pedal's una corda function -- which on grand pianos moves the entire action, thereby making the hammers strike one string instead of three -- isn't possible, because the differences in string angle would not allow a consistent reduction in tone quality across the range of notes. The workaround, moving the hammers' resting position closer to the strings, is reasonably effective in reducing volume, but the tone obtained is weak rather than expressive.

Grand pianos have the frame and strings placed horizontally, with the strings extending away from the keyboard. This avoids the problems inherent in an upright piano, but takes up a great deal more space. Several sizes of grand piano exist. Manufacturers may vary, but in general they are: "concert grand": approx. 3m; "grand": approx 1.8m; and "baby grand". The baby grand is designed for domestic use, although its much shortened strings mean the sound quality is in some cases poorer than an upright. It is hardly ever used in any serious context, but is a handy instrument for people who want to have a grand piano but cannot afford the cost, either in terms of money or floor space, of a larger instrument.

Almost every modern piano has 88 keys (7 octaves and a bit, A to C). Many older pianos only have 85 (from A to A), while some manufacturers extend the range further in one or both directions. The most notable example of an extended range can be found on Bosendorfer[?] pianos, some of which extend the normal range downwards to F, with others going as far as a bottom C making a full eight octave range. On some models these extra keys are hidden under a small hinged lid, which can be flipped down to cover the keys and avoid visual disorientation in a pianist unfamiliar with the extended keyboard. Some of the extra keys are added only for the "ring" their strings will add to the tone, and are not meant to be played.

The keys for a piano are white and black. The keys are ordered so the notes ascend in pitch, from left to right.

Typically piano music is written with a treble clef and a bass clef. Each group of 12 semitones is an octave (so called, because there are eight whole tone spaces, or eight white keys, per octave). There are five black keys for the half-steps within an octave.

The pattern for black and white keys is White-Black-White-Black-White-White-Black-White-Black-White-Black-White. (ie: C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B )

Much great music has been written for the piano, with it being an instrument central to the classical music repertoire.

In 1863, Henri Fourneaux[?] invented the player piano, a kind of piano which "plays itself" without the need for a pianist. Also in the 19th century, toy pianos began to be manufactured.

A relatively recent development is the prepared piano, which is a piano adapted in some way by placing objects inside the instrument, or changing its mechanism in some way. John Cage is famous for modifying the piano in different ways to suit the music he wrote.

A person who plays a piano is known as a pianist.


Piano is also a dynamic direction in music, often appearing in sheet music as p, and indicating to the performer that he should play softly. It is the opposite of forte, meaning "loudly".

The Piano is also a 1993 film starring Harvey Keitel and Holly Hunter.

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