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Issue 974

TIDBITS® MAKES MUSIC ON

PIANOS

by Kathy Wolfe

This week, Tidbits tickles the ivories in commemoration of National Piano Month.

• Way back in the 3rd century B.C., the ancient Greeks were playing one of the earliest known keyboard instruments, the hydraulis, or water organ, with consisted of pipes with a valve that was opened when the key was pressed, releasing air through the pipe. In the 12th century, the keyed stringed monochord was improved upon until it became the clavichord, with sound produced by striking iron strings with small metal blades. The 14th century brought the innovation of drawing wire made of iron, gold, silver, or brass through steel plates. Even Leonardo da Vinci got into the act, designing a stringed keyboard instrument in the late 1400s. Sixteenth-century harpsichords had strings that were plucked by quills when keys were pressed.

• The inventor of what has become today’s well-known instrument is credited to an Italian harpsichord maker, Bartolomeo Cristofori, who, around 1700, developed the first piano. He called it “un cimbalo di cipresso di piano e forte,” which translates, “a keyboard of cypress with soft and loud.” It was later shortened to “pianoforte,” then later, just “piano.” Cristofori’s first piano had small leather-covered hammers.

• Although Cristofori produced about 20 pianos, his first love was harpsichords, and he went back to their production. Three of his original pianos survive today, including a 1720 model, with four octaves, which can be found in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

• In the mid-1700s, the keyboard expanded to five octaves. The Industrial Revolution ushered in a more powerful piano sound, with the advent of high-quality piano wire and the casting of massive single-piece iron frames. By 1810, keyboards had six octaves, and the modern-day seven octaves by 1820. In 1826, leather and cotton hammer coverings were replaced by felt.

• The piano has earned the nickname “King of the Instruments,” because of its phenomenal range. It spans from the lowest note that can be played on a double-bassoon to the highest note that can be played on a piccolo, a full orchestral range. The piano is considered a member of the percussion family because it only makes a sound when a hammer hits a string. It’s an independent instrument, meaning it can play melody and accompaniment at the same time.

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