Sunday, December 10, 2023

The Piano – A Conglomeration of Music


By Suzanne Norquist

The mere silhouette of a piano fills our minds with various melodies. It seems like pianos have been around forever. However, the ones we recognize weren’t invented until the 1700s. After that, they went through numerous refinements.

A piano is a stringed instrument, like a harp—with strings hit by hammers, like a dulcimer—and hammers operated with keys, like a pipe organ. It produces both loud and soft sounds, which makes it unique. The piano was initially called the pianoforte, combining the Italian words for soft (piano) and loud (forte). The term was later shortened to piano.

A form of the pipe organ, which inspired the piano’s keyboard, has been around since the third century BCE. It essentially allowed someone to play more than one wind instrument at a time, each pipe representing a different instrument. Greek and Hebrew cultures as well as the Roman Empire used organs. 

On a dulcimer, strings are hit by small hammers to create sounds in a resonating box. This mechanism is used in modern pianos.

The dulcimer appears to have originated in the Middle East, perhaps five thousand years ago. People throughout the ancient world played it. The instrument evolved over time, creating a greater dynamic range. In 1690, a German musician designed an extra-large one for himself, four times the regular size, nine feet long with an extra soundboard.

Another ancestor of the piano was the clavichord. This stringed instrument used a keyboard to strike a string with a brass rod. This was considered an improvement over the pipe organ. Clavichords are small and unable to produce a big sound, making them only useful in small rooms or as practice instruments.

Clavichords appeared in the fourteenth century and were popular in the Renaissance Era.

Harpsicords, created in Italy around 1500, are shaped like pianos but function quite differently. Pressing the keys causes the strings to be plucked by a quill. They are louder than clavichords but produce sound in a limited volume range. 

Bartolomeo Cristofori, an Italian instrument maker, invented the first piano. He was employed by Ferdinando de' Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany, as the Keeper of the Instruments. To overcome the harpsichord's shortcomings, he switched out the plucking mechanism with hammers (like the dulcimer) that would hit the strings and gently return to their original position. The strings could produce sounds at different volumes based on how hard the musician pressed the keys, the first of its kind.

It's unclear exactly when he built the first pianoforte. One appeared on an inventory made by his employer in 1700.

Other instrument makers copied Cristofori’s pianoforte, making changes along the way. Gottfried Silbermann built his own version and had Johann Sebastian Bach offer suggestions. At first, Bach criticized it, saying that the higher notes were too soft.

Silbermann made changes. Bach liked the revised piano so much that he served as an agent selling them.

Over time, others made improvements, including the number of keys and the shape. Eventually, frames were crafted from cast iron, and it became the instrument we use today.

Who knew that playing the piano involved so much history? And I love the songs that go from loud to soft and back again. Forte—piano—forte, all in one instrument. Thank you, Mr. Cristofori.


”Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection

Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.

Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist

Rockledge, Colorado, 1884

Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away? 

Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.