Piano–a history like none other



What do you know about the origin of the piano? Probably very little so sit back now and let me teach you something about your chosen instrument. You will be surprised at the story that brought about this landmark musical instrument.

From it’s humble beginnings to it’s illustrious presence in today’s world. If a piano could talk it would have so many stories that eventually you would get tired of listening to them.

Let us begin with Bartolomeo Cristofori. Anyone with a name as prestigious as that demands our attention I think. He was born on May 4th, 1655 and he died Jan 27, 1731 at the age of 76. Now, in that time frame, around the year 1700, he invented the piano by fitting a harpsichord with a mechanism that utilized small hammers instead of the usual plectra.

This was totally unorthodox, unheard of and way out in front of all technology of that day. Now, you need to know that plectra is a thin flat piece of plastic, tortoiseshell, or other slightly flexible material the corresponding mechanical part that plucks the strings of an instrument such as a harpsichord.


He called this invention “gravicembalo col piano e forte” or in English “harpsichord with soft and loud”. In fact, “piano e forte” means soft and loud which is one of the main differences between its forerunner the harpsichord and the piano. The piano is supported by “dampers” that are controlled by foot-pedals in our modern piano and allows the soft and loud effect. We know it simply as the piano.

“...to play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable....”
— Ludwig von Beethoven

The year was 1711 and although Christofori further refined his invention in his later instruments hence began the extraordinary new chapter in the history of music. Because of its versatility, the piano has remained popular to this day as the fundamental keyboard instrument of both home and concert hall.

It should be mentioned that the period from the early 1700’s to the late 1800’s saw many changes to the design and mechanism of pianos as piano builders dabbled and experimented. Piano making evolved sometimes quite radically in builders competed with one another to find that perfect Heavenly sound. About the end of the 19th century the design was pretty well set.

It is unusual to find a piano today that has been made before 1875 but the real antiques still exist. In fact, I tuned a piano that was built in 1888 and the owner had the original papers to prove the authenticity. If you were wanting to few a piano dated before 1875 it would be found in a piano museum.


The Victorian period formally begins in 1837. This is the year Victoria became Queen of England and ends in 1901 which was the year of her death. The common perception of the Victorian period is the Victorians were “prudish, hypocritical, stuffy and narrow-minded”.

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In fact during the Victorian Era learning to play the piano was an indispensable part of a well born English lady’s education. This lasted until the advent of radio and television whereby these distractions led to a decline of training on the piano or any other instrument for that matter.

Of course this prudish nature would not apply to everyone in the country but oddly enough this propriety did come out very clearly in such matters as industry and design. For it is here at this time that you’ll find piano cabinetry featured fancy carvings, fretwork, moldings and ornate veneers.

Hence, the pianos of this era took on a whole new look as competition in the industry of piano manufacture heated up.


Indeed, it is during this great Victorian Era that factories began mass producing pianos and not only that but the competition was such that the price actually went down low enough for the general public could now  afford them. Now pianos came into the living rooms of the homes and the children and parents alike began to make music on them.

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Remember, at this time, there was no radio, TV and such to distract from practicing on the keys, memorizing chords and learning new compositions, etc. The piano had finally arrived where it would make the most impact on society right smack-dab in the lap of the very ones who would take it to new heights. It was in with the family gatherings.

Note worthy is the fact that the total US production of pianos soared from 22,000 in 1860 to 364,000 in 1909, and the worldwide output in 1910 reached 600,000 instruments per year. World War I helped the US piano industry, which was classified in 1917 by the Council of National Defense as “essential to the national welfare.” The US Navy and Amy, for example, bought many pianos for their training ships and camps.

We cannot leave this section without identifying what type of piano was being produced. It seems to boil down to three essential types.

(1) The Vertical Piano

We typically call it an upright today. It is the most common and has evolved today into the most sought after and the most diverse. I can say that in terms of variety of heights and cost.

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Indeed, the first official “upright” piano was perfected by John Isaac Hawkins in Philadelphia. The year was 1800. It is said that Hawkins was commissioned to make an upright piano for Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826; 3rd President of USA) which he did. It is also recorded that Jefferson had it returned to Hawkins because the soon to be President “just didn’t like it.”

I won’t get into the different categories as this is primarily a history lesson of a bygone era but just to say this piano has stood the test of time.

Vertical pianos were unique in that their strings and soundboard were in the vertical position. Hence, they took up less room and therefore could fit into the smaller country homes not needing the large ballroom type room or even the large dining sweet area some of the rich and wealthy had in there houses.

(2) The Square Piano

This is a piano that was fraught with trouble not only for the owner but for the piano tuner also. Square pianos had a rectangular shape with the strings positioned horizontally. The strings parallel to the length of the keyboard similar to its counterpart the Grand Piano.

Square pianos were massive and usually ornate in wood used in the cabinetry but proved faulty in the sound they produced. The sound did not ring out as a “piano e forte” should and that was the result of smallish hammers and soundboard installed. In other words, the beauty of the beast far out shown its roar and left it sadly but rightly so in the back of the race toward piano supremacy.

(3) The Grand Piano

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Now we come to the king and as he holds court everyone stands in awe. The Grand piano’s mere presence in a room excited every person who has ever even tinkled the ivories. It had it all and left little doubt right from the beginning that you don’t fool around with greatness. It’s still that way today. That hasn’t changed one bit.

Grand pianos had the strings positioned horizontally, of course, supported by a full sound board directly under the strings catching every tweet and flutter of the piano keys. The mechanical action of the grand had its position directly under the long stretched out strings resonating and filling the space it occupied.

The piano hammers worked from underneath the strings and fell back in place when they were called upon to engage and were gravity fed making for fluid and swift recovering.


By the time we step into the 20th Century in the year 1900 mankind had no idea of the massive changes that would come about during the next 100 years. Twentieth Century development in matters like wars, politics, cultures, science, mathematics, engineering, information technology to name a few developed at an alarming rate.


Already on the decline since 1923, piano sales were decimated during the Great Depression and World War II. The vacuum was filled by the radio, gramophone, motion pictures, and later, television. All of which encouraged passive enjoyment of entertainment and diminished the piano’s status as a necessity.

Piano Production Increased

Then piano production rebounded in the US to an output of over 200,000 instruments per year by the early 1960’s, but the real boom occurred in Japan, where Yamaha alone met that output level in the 1970’s. Korean production levels peaked around 1990 at 243,000 units per year. In 2009, the world’s top producer was China with an annual output of 324,000 pianos.

Sprinting right along side all of these vast changes was the piano. In fact the 20th century has been dubbed “The Golden Age of Piano”. During this period the development of the piano as we know it today was practically complete. Square pianos with there beautiful body but feeble “voice” were essentially gone giving rise to a new breed of “Market Trend Pianos”.


These so-called “Market Trend Pianos” were again changing the feature of the piano in terms of their height primarily. The 1930’s marked the beginning of a trend toward smaller, then smaller again, pianos.

Pianos like the Standard Upright Piano which took that title from any piano that was taller that 51″ (or 129.5 cm).

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The Studio Upright came in next claiming any piano between 44′ and 51″ (or 112 – 129.5 cm) with no exceptions.

The Console Piano followed the downward swing in height accepting into its fold any piano between 38″ and 44″ (or 96.5 – 112 cm)high.

Piano Manufactures were not done there because by the end of the 1940’s the Spinet Piano was introduced. Some of these being shorter than but no more than 38″(or 96.5 cm) in height. The Spinet Piano often carried less keys in some cases leaving out and entire first octave or at least part of it. This trend toward smaller pianos did lead to oblidge that portion of the public with smaller living accommodations. Yes, pianos  were changing.

The “Upright” Grand Piano was also a new trending piano that many were willing to call an “Upright Grand” in order to shake the mindset a little by giving the public a new thought. Promoting this Upright Grand Piano as a one of a kind entity yet in reality all that was changed was the body.

It was made taller now coming in a 5′ 8″ tall with a cabinet that was a work of art. Many of these were simply beautiful with their glorious wood grains and stains that brought out the rich flavour of the wood.  However, the mechanical parts remained unchanged but this Upright Grand at least “looked” the part of Grand very well.

The Grand Piano

In grand pianos, the frame and strings are horizontal, with the strings extending away from the keyboard. The action lies beneath the strings, and uses gravity as its means of return to a state of rest.


There are many sizes of grand piano. A rough generalization distinguishes the concert grand(between 2.2 and 3 meters [7 ft 3 in–9 ft 10 in]) from the parlor grand or boudoir grand (1.7 to 2.2 meters [5 ft 7 in–7 ft 3 in]) and the smaller baby grand (around 1.5 meters [4 ft 11 in]).

The first historical mention of instruments is in Genesis 4:21. The King James Version reads as follows: “And his brother’s name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ”.

The first instrument in history to have a keyboard was the Hydraulis, the precursor of the modern organ. It was built in Greece about 220 B.C. By the Second Century A.D. the organ was commonly used at important festivities in Greece and the Roman Empire.

Other Notable Creations

We should mention here in our brief history of the piano one called “Player Piano”. So called because it was designed to play music “by itself”. The first player piano was actually a piano player with a primitive, bulky mechanism built in a separate cabinet.

Enter in the electronic age and computers and with all this comes the Digital Piano. Beginning in the late 1950’s several companies marketed mechanical/electronic piano that were more portable than acoustic pianos and could be played through either loudspeakers or headphones.

Really, the sky is the limit with this type of keyboard as first of all they never need tuning and are portable.


Piano History

There you have it. A very short, almost concise but hopefully interesting and informative rendition, of our wonderful piano in “most” of it’s various fashions and forms. It does seem to me though, as I scan the piano history given here, that one thing is constant.

Can you guess what it is that is the same from Beethoven to today? ……it is the illustrious piano “sound”. There is no change in the sound of the piano for it is timeless and immortal. It cannot be improved upon because a piano sounds like a piano. No mistaking it for another instrument orchestra.

Yes, of course, it can be played “better” depending on who is playing and have richer tones depending on the make of piano. All that, but the unadulterated and ultra unique sound a piano makes…..will live on.

Written by Duane Graves of Duane's Piano Tuning & Technology