Devilishly hard to master but unrivalled for learning the elements of music, the piano has now become a standard piece of furniture. The instrument dates from the early 1700s, but there were several forerunners. The dulcimer, a stringed instrument played with hammers, was probably of ancient Middle Eastern origin.
By the 1400s, Europeans were playing a keyboard called the clavichord, which had metal blades called tangents that struck the strings. Since the tangent stayed against the string until the key was released, the player could alter the pitch. More widespread was the harpsichord, which appeared in the 14th century and remained popular through the 18th. On the harpsichord, leather picks called plectra pluck the strings, giving a tinny sound of uniform volume.more forcefully, and a louder tone results. After the note was struck, its hammer withdrew so that it could be played again immediately. At last there was a keyboard that gave the player an almost full range of musical expression.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, several improvements were made on the pianoforte, as it was called. The action (keyboard mechanism) contained several thousand parts. A fuller and richer sound resulted, and most of the major composers by then were writing works for the piano. The most famous American piano maker, Henry Englehard Steinway (1797-1871), emigrated from Germany and founded a company that made high-quality pianos with large cast-iron frames and bass strings strung diagonally over others.
In the first decade of the 18th century, Italian harpsichord builder Bartolomeo Cristofori invented what he called an arpicembalo che fà il piano e il forte (harpsichord that can play quietly and loudly). His innovation was a mechanism that gave the player control over the volume—strike the key.
American-made instruments gained more respect when a Baldwin grand became the first one to win the Grand Prix Award at the 1900 Paris International Exposition. The social culture of the piano has been significant. A stringed or woodwind instrument requires training to play in tune, but a piano’s keys do not need to be adjusted constantly during performance, making it an ideal instrument to have in a home. Of course, the strings of a piano, struck again and again by its felt-covered hammers, do need to be tuned from time to time, which is a task done solely by the professional piano tuner, rarely by an individual owner. In the home, multiple players could take lessons on a single piano, and as they progressed, play hymns, popular songs, and many other compositions.
The piano was considered proper for young women to learn, but its presence and playing also provided entertainment that, in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, had not been supplanted by radio, TV, or the Internet. Since so many Western families wanted their children to become proficient piano players, a number of teaching methods sprang up: for example, the Lethko-Palmer Method is still published under the Alfred’s Basic Piano Library series.
The first “electric” pianos were made by Harold Rhodes, who called them “electronified,” in the 1940s. Rhodes operated a 40-studio piano chain, then gave piano lessons to his fellow soldiers while serving in World War II. The instrument that came out of this, the Fender Rhodes piano, became an important part of late 20th-century music, including jazz, rock, and funk.