For our fourth Salon, we discussed the piano, and listened to some representative works:
- Bach Fugue in g minor – a clavichord piece
- Handel Sarabande – harpsichord
- Mozart Piano Sonata #13 in B Flat KV.333 – First movement
- Beethoven Piano Sonata #8 in c minor Op.13 Pathetique – First movement
- Beethoven Piano Sonata #8 in c minor Op,13 Pathetique – Second movement
- Chopin Ballade #1 in g minor Op.23
- Chopin Ballade #4 in f mino Op.52
- Debussy Reverie
- Debussy Claire de Lune
- Bartok Allegro Barbaro
A very short history of the Piano
Many instruments we know today arise from the simple fact that a taut string set to vibrating will produce a musical tone. The guitar, the violin, the cello and all manner of keyboard instruments produce their tone from such vibrating strings.
At first, these strings were attached and stretched over bows, gourds, and boxes to amplify the sound; they were fastened by ties, pegs and pins; and they were plucked, bowed or struck to produce sounds.
Eventually, a family of stringed instruments with a keyboard evolved in Europe in the 14th century. The earliest of these was a dulcimer – a closed, shallow box over which stretched wires were struck with two wooden hammers. The dulcimer led to the development of the clavichord, which also appeared in the 14th century. These were followed by the spinet, virginal, clavecin, gravicembalo, and finally, the harpsichord in the 15th century.
The clavichord and harpsichord were especially important instruments in the development of the piano. In a clavichord the strings are struck by small metal blades called tangents, while in a harpsichord the strings are plucked by quills.
The clavichord allowed expressive control of volume and sustain, but it was much too quiet for large performances.
Want some Action?
When we discuss action, what do we mean?
The action is in general terms the mechanical process of how the instrument translates what the fingers do when pressing a key, into a musical tone. Pianists will also talk about how the action feels, meaning how the touch of the piano responds to their playing
See the daigram later in this post.
The harpsichord on the other hand produced a sufficiently loud sound, but the quill could only pluck the strings with unvarying force and hence an unvarying volume of sound. Therefore, performing artists on the harpsichord could not convey the same degree of musical expression as that of most other instruments, including the clavichord.
The first piano was invented about 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristofori, a harpsichord maker in Padua, Italy. Cristofori replaced the plucking-quill action of the harpsichord with a newly designed striking-hammer action, whose force could be precisely controlled by the player (see more later in this article). Thus was born the gravicembalo col piano e forte (keyboard instrument with soft and loud). This name was later shortened to pianoforte, then fortepiano, and finally just piano. In the 1700s the new instrument, made mostly by craftsmen in their shops, spread quietly through upper-class Europe.
In the 1800s the piano spread more quickly through the middle classes, and across the ocean to North America. Riding along with the Industrial Revolution, piano-making evolved from a craft into an industry. Many important changes took place during the 19th century: The upright piano was invented; the modern grand piano action was invented, incorporating the best aspects of the previous rival actions; the cast-iron plate was invented, vastly strengthening the structure and allowing the strings to be stretched at a higher tension, thus increasing the power and volume of sound; the range of the instrument was extended from about five octaves to the present seven-plus octaves; and, toward the end of the century, the square piano died out, leaving just grands of various sizes and the full-size upright.
By 1880, most of these changes were in place; the pianos made today are not very different from those of a hundred years ago. However, subtle changes have been made and continue to be made. Many of those changes have been made in tonal color, often making newer piano’s tones less subtle and brighter in order to cut through larger orchestras and modern recording mixes (often pianos used in pop music are of a much brighter timbre), and to accommodate modern ears. Of course, every piano is different.
Size does matter. Really.
In pianos, size IS directly related to musical quality. Although many other factors also contribute to tonal quality, all else being equal, the longer strings of larger pianos, especially in the bass and mid-range sections, give off a deeper, truer, more consonant tonal quality than the strings of smaller pianos. The treble and bass blend better and the result is more pleasing to the ear.
Measured by height, from the floor to the top of the piano.
Spinet – <40”
Console – 40”-44”
Studio – 44”-47”
Upright – 48”+
Measured by length with the lid closed from the very front of the piano (keyboard end) to the very back (the tail). Lengths start at 4′ 6″ and go to over 10′ (even longer in some experimental models). Note that there are no set definitions, the below is a guideline only.
Petite – 4’6” – 4’10”
Baby, or Small – 4’11” – 5’9”
Parlor – 5’10” – 6’4”
Semiconcert, or Ballroom – 6’5” – 7’
Concert – 7’+
What types of pianos are there?
In today’s world, the main division is between acoustic and digital pianos. However, this article is solely about acoustic pianos.
There are two major types of acoustic pianos produced today, upright (or vertical) and grand pianos. Within those two categories, there are numerous subdivisions. But before we go on, let’s take a little tangent to discuss another type of piano that was popular in the Victorian era, the square grand piano.
The square piano, or square grand as it is sometimes called, looks like a rectangular box on legs, and was very popular as a home piano during the 19th century. Its ornate Victorian case makes very pretty furniture — but it also makes a terrible musical instrument for 21st-century playing and practicing, due to tone and performance that is limited by narrow soundboards, simple actions and string spacing that made proper hammer alignment difficult. Tuning, servicing, and repair are difficult and expensive, very few piano technicians know how to do it, and parts are hard to come by. These are gorgeous instruments, but not the best musical ones.
There are various types of vertical pianos, generally based upon the size of the piano (see sidebar). Please note that verticals are somewhat compromised musically in comparison to grand pianos because of size constraints, and changes to the action necessitated by the layout (for example, verticals rely on springs in the action whereas grands rely more on gravity), and these compromises get larger as the piano gets smaller.
- Spinets and consoles – Spinets were very popular in the post–World War II period, but in recent years have nearly died out. Both spinet and console actions must be compromised somewhat in size or placement within the piano to fit them into pianos of this size. The tone is also compromised by the shorter strings and smaller soundboard. For this reason, manufacturers concentrate on the furniture component of spinets and consoles and make them in a variety of decorator styles. They are suitable for beginning students and for those who simply want a nice-looking piece of furniture in the home. Once students progress to an intermediate or advanced stage, they are likely to need a larger instrument.
- Studio– Studio pianos are more serious instruments, and are called studios because they are commonly found in the practice rooms of music schools. Manufacturers make them in both attractive furniture styles for the home and in functional, durable, but aesthetically bland styles for school and other institutional use.
- Uprights – Uprights are the best musically for verticals. New ones top out at about 52″, but in the early part of the 20th century they were made even taller. Most uprights are made in an attractive, black, traditional or institutional style, but are also available with exotic veneers, inlays, and other touches of elegance.
The width of a vertical piano is usually a little under five feet and the depth around two feet; however, these dimensions are not significantly related to musical quality.
Grands less than 5′ long are the musical equivalent of spinets and consoles; that is, they are musically compromised and are mainly sold as pieces of furniture. Musically, larger verticals can often be a superior instrument.
Grands between about 5′ and 5½’ are very popular. Although slightly compromised, they can reasonably serve both musical and furniture functions and are available in many furniture styles. Above 5½’, pianos rapidly improve, becoming professional quality at about 6′. Pianos intended for the home or serious professional top out at about 7′ or 7½’. These sizes may also satisfy the needs of smaller concert venues. Larger venues require concert grands, usually about 9′ long.
Widths are usually around 5′ and heights around 3′, but only the length has a bearing on musical quality.
Advantages / Disadvantages – Verticals vs Grands
- Takes up less space, can fit into corners
- Lower cost
- Easier to move
- Sound tends to bounce back into player’s face, making subtle control of musical expression more difficult.
- Action is not as advanced as grand; repetition of notes is slower and less reliable in most cases, and damping is sometimes less efficient.
- Keys are shorter than on grands, making subtle control of musical expression more difficult.
- Cabinetwork is usually less elegant and less impressive.
Vertical pianos are suitable for those with simpler musical needs, or where budget and space constraints preclude buying a grand. Despite the disadvantages noted above, some of the larger, more expensive verticals do musically rival smaller, less expensive grands. They may be a good choice where space is at a premium but a more subtle control of musical expression is desired.
- Sound develops in a more aesthetically pleasing manner by bouncing off nearby surfaces and blending before reaching player’s ears, making it easier to control musical expression.
- More sophisticated action than in a vertical. Grand action has a repetition lever to aid in the speed and reliability of repetition of notes, and is gravity-assisted, rather than dependent on artificial contrivances (springs, straps) to return hammers to rest.
- Longer keys provide better leverage, allowing for significantly greater control of musical expression.
- Casework is usually more elegant and aesthetically pleasing.
- Takes up more space
- Higher cost
- Harder to move
It’s a Bit Damp!
Dampening is the process of stopping the strings from vibrating, thereby stopping the tone.
A piano has dampers made of felt that rest on the strings. When a key is pressed, the damper for that key is lifted off of the string, and when the key is released the damper falls back onto the string.
A piano also has a damper pedal which when pressed down, lifts all of the dampers off of every string, regardless of whether the key is pressed down or not. The dampers are not dropped back onto the strings until the pedal is released.
For all of you gearheads out there!
Going back to our short history, remember that while the clavichord allowed expressive control of volume and sustain, it was too quiet for large performances. Alternatively, the harpsichord produced a sufficiently loud sound, but had little expressive control over each note. The piano was created as an attempt to combine loudness with control, avoiding the trade-offs of both of these other instruments.
Cristofori’s major breakthrough was solving the fundamental mechanical problem of piano design: the hammer must strike the string, but not remain in contact with it (as a tangent remains in contact with a clavichord string) because this would dampen the sound. (The hammers are made of felt and if they stayed in contact with the string, would stop the vibrations). Moreover, the hammer must return to its rest position without bouncing violently, and it must be possible to repeat a note rapidly. Cristofori’s piano action was a model for the many different approaches to piano actions that followed. His early instruments were made with thin strings, and were much quieter than the modern piano—but compared to the clavichord (the only previous keyboard instrument capable of dynamic nuance via the keyboard) they were much louder and had more sustain (the length of time a tone sustains itself).
|Action of a grand piano|
Tuning pin (19)
Pin block (20)
Back check (11)
Damper lever (12)
Damper tray (13)
(9) Repetition lever
(8) Hammer shank
(7) Drop screw
(6) Hammer flange screw
(4) Regulating screw
Yes, dear, you’ve changed….
I had mentioned previously that relatively little has changed in the past 100 years of piano making. However, the many years before that saw vast changes, meaning that the pianos played by Mozart, Beethoven and even Chopin were quite different from the modern instrument. Today’s pianos are much more powerful and sonorous.
The changes were made due to a constant desire for performers and composers for a more powerful and more sustained sound. The Industrial Revolution enabled manufacturers to meet those desires.
At first, the robustness of the piano itself was continually strengthened, allowing for more of both of these ideals. Eventually this led to the cast iron frame, the ultimate solution to the problem of structural integrity as the strings were gradually made thicker, tenser, and more numerous (in a modern grand the total string tension can approach 20 tons).
The double escapement action, which permitted a note to be repeated even if the key had not yet risen to its maximum vertical position, was invented.
Overstringing also was invented. This is a special arrangement of strings within the case: the strings are placed in a vertically overlapping slanted arrangement, with two bridges on the soundboard instead of just one. The purpose of the overstrung scale was to permit longer strings to fit within the case of the piano.
A little bit (but not too much) of technical information about the piano. Important words are in italics.
A piano can be thought of as comprising four elements: mechanical, acoustical, structural, and cabinetry.
Mechanical: When you press a piano key (usually 88 in number), the motion of your finger is transmitted through a series of levers and springs to a felt-covered wooden hammer that strikes the strings to set them vibrating. This complex system of keys, hammers, levers, and springs is known as the action. Also, when you press a key, a felt damper resting against each string lifts off, allowing the string to vibrate. When you let the key up, the damper returns to its resting place, stopping the string’s vibration. Pedals, usually three in number, are connected to the action and dampers via trapwork levers, and serve specialized functions such as sustaining and softening the sound. The right-foot pedal is called the damper or sustain pedal; it lifts all of the dampers off all the strings, allowing the strings to ring sympathetically. The other pedals are not used nearly as much by a large margin, and we need not discuss them here.
Acoustical: Piano strings are made of steel wire for the higher-sounding notes (treble), and steel wire wrapped with copper for the lower-sounding notes (bass). They are graduated in thickness, length, and tension, and strung tightly across the structural framework of the piano. Each note has one, two, or three strings associated with it. Each such set of strings is known as a unison because all the strings in a set vibrate at the same pitch. The strings lie across narrow hardwood bridges that transmit their vibrations to a wooden soundboard, usually made of spruce in higher priced pianos. The relatively large area of the soundboard amplifies what would otherwise be a rather weak sound and broadcasts the sound to the ears. The dimensions, arrangement, and positioning of all the acoustical elements in a piano is known as the piano’s scale design. The scale design varies with the model and is a major determinant of the piano’s tone.
Structural: The strings are strung across a gold- or bronze-colored plate (sometimes called a frame or harp) of cast iron, which is bolted to a substantial wooden framework. This heavy-duty structure is necessary to support the many tons of tension exerted by all the taut strings. A vertical, or upright, piano is one in which the structural element stands vertically, and is most commonly placed against a wall. A grand piano is one in which the structural element lies horizontally. In a vertical piano, the wooden framework consists of vertical back posts and connecting cross beams. In a grand, wooden beams and the familiar curved rim comprise the framework. One end of each string is anchored to the plate toward the rear of a grand or the bottom of a vertical piano. The other end is coiled around a tuning pin embedded in a laminated hardwood pinblock hidden under the plate at the front (grand) or top (vertical). A piano is tuned by turning each tuning pin with a special tool to make very slight adjustments in the tension of its string, and thus to the string’s frequency of vibration, or pitch.
Cabinetry: The piano’s cabinet (vertical) or case (grand) provides aesthetic beauty and some additional structural support. A grand piano’s rim is part of both the wooden structural framework and the case. Accessory parts, such as the music desk and lid, are both functional and aesthetic in purpose.
Can I have a little sympathy here?
The richness of a piano’s tone (and the reason that pianos are generally the hardest to duplicate digitally) is because of sympathetic vibration. Obviously when a key is pressed, the original string struck by the hammer vibrates, and the tone of that string is carried through the bridge to the soundboard which will now amplify that tone.
Now remember dampening? I mentioned earlier that when the key is released, a damper comes down that stops the tone. Well and good –but now remember the damper pedal, which lifts all of the dampers off of every string whether the key is pressed down or not. Not only does this sustain the notes played, the true sonorous beauty of the piano is due to the fact that with the damper pedal down and all dampers raised, this allows all strings in the harmonic progression with the keys pressed to also vibrate in what is called sympathetic vibration, adding a richness and fullness of the sound due to the many strings of a piano.
To demonstrate this phenomenon, go to a piano and without holding any pedal down, press down slowly and gently (so that no string is struck) Middle C, and the E and G above it. You are basically not playing the note, you are simply lifting the dampers off of the strings.
Holding these three keys down, now with your left hand strike the octave C’s below middle C robustly but quickly let go. What should happen is that the notes you struck, being dampered, stop resonating, but the C chord you are holding down should still be vibrating sympathetically, being in the harmonic progression of the notes you just played.
Although the acoustical and structural elements have been described separately, in fact the plate, wooden framework, soundboard, bridges, and strings form a single integrated unit called the strung back. A piano, then, consists of a strung back, an action, and a cabinet or case.