The Modern Piano

Continuing from my previous post, The Pianoforte until the end of the 18th century, the piano continued evolving.

Southwell upright piano 1798


I have previously discussed the attempts of creating upright keyboards such as the clavicytherium and the pyramid piano. In 1798, William Southwell experimented with the square piano in order to create an upright square. Similar to the pyramid piano, was the upright grand. The style of an upright grand incorporating a bookcase was firstly made by William Stodart c.1795. The instrument was used domestically as a piano and as a furniture. This piano was a transition from the horizontal grand piano to his cabinet piano. 



In 1800, the soundboard was dropped to the floor by John Isaac Hawkins (1772–1855) in Philadelphia. He called his instrument the portable grand piano. The idea was for the piano to be easily moved by handles on each side. The particular instrument was the first attempt of creating an upright piano, with perpendicular strings and an iron frame. It was the first time that the soundboard was dropped to the floor. The piano has double strings, a moderator and a swell, which opens shutters in the case below the keyboard.

At the same time with Hawkins, the Viennese instrument maker Matthias Müller had also created an upright piano, the vis-à-vis Ditanaklasis. Müller’s instrument had two keyboards for two players. The keyboard with black naturals and white sharps is at 4 foot pitch and the other keyboard with white naturals and black sharps is at 8 foot pitch. In 1803 he built a ditanaklasis with one keyboard. The strings of the instrument were struck in the middle of the string, which produced a sound similar to a basset horn.

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In 1807 the Cabinet piano was introduced by William Southwell, and was built through 1840s. Southwell’s aim was to prevent the pianoforte of being frequently out of tune. They were tall  reaching a height of seventy-two inches. The strings of the instrument were placed vertical and the hammers were near the top of the instrument and plucked the strings from the front. There was also a sticker action; stickers extended upwards from the key and controlled by hammers.

Around 1815, Robert Wornum (1780–1852) invented the cottage piano, a short instrument with vertical stringing. In 1826, he added a pizzicato pedal between the two usual pedals. He had also introduced the tape-check action; a check worked against the hammer butt and raised the damper wire.

Ignace Pleyel (1757-1831) with Jean-Henri Pape (1789-1875) imitated the tape-action of Wornum in France. They called their piano a pianino. Pleyel adapted the tape-check action and continued manufacturing pianino’s throughout the 19th century. The action was also modified in Germany and eventually became the action used in the modern upright piano. 

Sébastien Érard (1752-1831) in 1821 patented the double escapement action; which is what is used in the modern grand piano. His action allowed notes to be repeated faster and easier than the single actions that had already existed. In comparison with Cristofori’s single escapement, where the hammer struck the string and fell back even if the key was still depressed. Without the escapement the hammer would be held against the string. With Érard’s double escapement, the jack resets beneath the hammer whilst the key is partially released, allowing the note to be repeated quickly without the hammer returning to its original position.

Something that I found interesting whilst researching Ignaz Moscheles, in his diaries (from Recent Music and Musicians) in June 1, 1825 he wrote:

“Pierre Erard showed and explained to me on a dumb keyboard his uncle Sebastian’s now completed invention, for which the firm has just taken out a patent. I saw the earliest experiment of this invention in Paris. It consists in the key, when only sunk halfway, again rising and repeating the note. I was the first to play upon one of the newly completed instruments, and found it of priceless value for the repetition of notes. In the matter of fullness and softness of tone, there is something yet to be desired, and had a long conversation on the subject with Erard”

In 1830-1831 it he commented that the touch was “vastly improved”. Regarding the tone of the piano, Moscheles’ wife Charlotte Moscheles wrote: 

Moscheles himself, was greatly favored by the improvements made in Erard’s pianos; their organ-like tone and full resonant sounds gave Moscheles such pleasure that no doubt he had every incentive to bring into relief these great excellences, and display them in his adagios. “A very violoncello”, he used to say, praising the tone, which he could prolong without using the pedals; to the excessive use of these he had a rooted aversion. “A good player” he used to say, must only rarely use the assistance of either pedal, otherwise he misuses it”. 

Video: Erard 1850

In 1825 the first square piano with an iron frame was created by Alpheus Babcock (1785-1842).

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Felt hammers pleyel 1844

Felt hammers. Pleyel, 1844.

Jean-Henri Pape in 1826 had introduced the felt hammers (until then leather hammers were used). Felt hammers are still used today.

In 1828, he also had introduced the console piano in Paris, a low upright piano. It was the first instrument to be built with over-stringing, with the bass strings passing over the treble strings.  Video: Pape Console piano 1844

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In 1830, Babcock also patented cross-stringing/overstrung pianos which eventually replaced straight strung pianos. The aim was for strings to cross over one another vertically in order to allow longer strings to fit into smaller frames, by using two bridges instead of one.

In 1843, Jonas Chickering (1798-1853) improved Babcock’s iron frame and arranged one for the first time in a grand piano. Later in the century, the iron frame was altered and improved in order to hold more resistance in grand pianos by Steinway & Sons. From 1853 they have also started using the cross-crossing method in their square pianos which was later applied to their grand pianos. Eventually other builders started applying these methods.

The following year, in 1844, Jean-Louis Boisselot (1782-1847) invented the sostenuto pedal (firstly called sustaining tones). The pedal sustains only the notes that are pressed when the pedal is also pressed. The sostenuto pedal keeps the dampers raised only of the specific keys, whereas the sustain pedal (damper pedal that already existed) raises all the dampers.

Steinway 1874

In 1874 the sostenuto pedal was copied by Steinway. His first design was for the square piano, however he later applied it to his upright and grand pianos.

Video: illustration of Sostenuto and Sustain pedals

Additionally, in 1872 Steinway invented the duplex scaling  which is still used in some grand pianos. Duplex scaling enhances the tone by permitting the part of the string at the end (which is damped and does not vibrate) to vibrate.

During the era, the piano range had increased from the five octaves that Mozart’s piano had. Broadwood firm was the first to build pianos from 1790 having more than 5 octaves and eventually reaching 7 octaves by 1820. Eventually the piano range reached 88 keys with 52 white and 32 black.

Regarding the pedals of the piano, as already discussed they firstly appeared as hand stops, and then as knee levers. A precise date to the transition of pedals is not specified since the transition was not adopted by all the makers at the same time. In England pedals were found earlier. In the previous post I mentioned Americus Backers bi-chord pianoforte of 1772, the earliest English piano surviving with 2 pedals (una corda, sustaining). Later, trichord pianos included a device at the right side of the keyboard which controlled the change from three chords to one or two chords in order to permit una corda. The device was used until 1830. After that the una corda pedal was impossible.

Around 1806 Broawood pianos came with three pedals, an una corda and two for sustaining (the damper rail was divided in the middle C). Because it was impossible for una corda and both sustaining pedals to be used simultaneously the sustaining pedals were replaced by a split pedal which divided in half and performed the same function. Around 1820 the harmonic swell pedal was used by Clementi.  The pedal enhanced the tone by affecting the vibration of the strings.

Graf 1817 6 pedals

Conrad Graf, c.1817. 6 pedal

In France, c.1796, Érard imitated the use of the pedal from the English pianos. Nonetheless none of his grand pianos of the period survived. Viennese pianos started having 4 to 5 pedals after 1805. Concrad Grad (1782-1851) used 5 pedals until 1820 (una corda, bassoon, two degrees of moderator and sustaining). From then and until 1835, he used an una corda, bassoon, moderator and sustaining. A few years later, the bassoon pedal was replaced with a second moderator and in 1839 the piano pedals were reduced to three (una corda, moderator, sustaining). Two of Graf’s pianos had 6 pedals, including the Turkish music pedal. On the other hand, Streicher firm (successor of Stein) had five pedals until 1818 (the fifth pedal was a Turkish music pedal). Afterwards he used 4 pedals (una corda, bassoon, moderator, sustaining) and from 1840 only two pedals.

Summary of the pedals thus far:

  • Bassoon: a strip of parchment comes into contact with the strings to give a buzzing sound (usually part of the Turkish music pedal)
  • Harmonic swell: enhancing the tone by affecting the vibration of the strings.
  • Lute: it was Wornum’s pizzicato pedal. A strip of felt placed in contact with the strings to produce a more lute sound
  • Moderator: applies strips of leather/cloth between the hammers and the strings for a more muted sound (the modern practice pedal)
  • Turkish music: it is like the bassoon pedal however it also includes a drumstick (hitting the piano’s soundboard), a triangle (single bell or 3 separate bells), cymbals (2-3 strips of brass knocked against the bass strings) Video: Piano with Turkish pedal
  • Soft (buff): moves the action closer to the strings, so the hitting distance is less and the sound is quieter
  • Sustaining: raises the dampers on the strings so allow them to vibrate freely when the keys are not depressed
  • Sostenuto: sustaining only the notes that are pressed when the pedal is also pressed.
  • Una cordashifts the piano to keyboard in order to struck only one string

The Modern Piano

The modern piano exists in two form: the grand piano and the upright piano.

The strings and frame of the grand piano are horizontal, with the strings extending away from the keyboard.  It comes in different size such as as the concert grand which is approximately 3 m., the grand about 1.8 and the smaller the baby grand. The difference is that the longer the piano, the longer the strings used therefore the louder the instrument sounds.

Upright pianos have a vertical frame and strings, with the stringing extending in both directions and the hammers moving horizontally. There are some upright pianos with a tall frame and longer strings. These pianos are called upright grand pianos. Pianos between 107 to 114cm are called studio pianos. And pianos with shorter hammers and a little bit shorter than the studio piano are called console pianos. 

The pedals used in the modern piano are the soft pedal/una corda, sostenuto and the sustain (mostly referred to as ‘the pedal’). There are pianos with the middle pedal (sostenuto) missing. Most upright pianos have three pedals, and instead of the sostenuto pedal, which is mostly found on expensive upright pianos, have the practice pedal. Additionally, the soft pedal on the upright piano is not a truly una corda pedal since it does not shift the action like in the grand piano (the entire keyboard moved to the right in order for the hammers to hit 2 or 3 strings). Thus the left pedal of the upright piano is mostly a half-blow pedal, it moves the hammers closer to the strings in order to reduce the volume of the sound.

The modern piano has 88 keys. The bass strings have only one string, the tenor has two and the treble strings have three unison strings. Therefore, the piano can have up to 236 strings and supports a pressure of 36000 pounds. The strings are made of high-tensile steel wire.

The action of the grand piano is an improved action of Erard’s double escapement and as already discussed some grand pianos have duplex scaling. Whereas the action of the upright is based on Wornum’s tape-check action. The main difference of the two pianos is that because the parts of the upright piano move horizontally, the key must be allowed to come all the way back before it is played again. In the grand piano, a key is repeated after it has only returned to about 1/3 of  its way. Therefore, a grand piano offers more control as well as faster repetition in very rapid passages. What is more, modern upright pianos are overstrung and underdamped (the dampers are situated under the hammers). Straight-strung over-damped pianos are older pianos. The grand pianos are also mostly overstrung.   Video: Grand piano action  Video: Upright Piano action

Bösendorfer’s Imperial 290 Grand Piano has 8 full octaves, 97 keys instead of 88. The extra keys are found in the bass and coloured in black.

Video: Imperial 290 Bösendorfer

Stuart & Sons has also created a piano with 97 keys, and they have also created a piano with a longer range with 102 keys. Stuart & Sons not only have expanded the key range, but they have also added a fourth pedal, the dulce pedal. The fourth pedal acts like a second soft pedal and reduces the intensity of the hammer strike.

Feurich has also added a fourth pedal, the Pédale Harmonique which gives an expressive sound. When the pedal is fully pressed, the notes are not dampened and when it is half pressed, the dampers are raised from all the strings until a note is played, which then causes the damper to fall down in order to mute the note. The other strings left to vibrate sympathetically producing e reverberation. Video: Feurich Pedal Harmonique

Fazioli piano F308 has a fourth pedal which reduces the volume without modifying the timbre. Video: Fazioli F308

Grotrian Steinweg created a double piano the GROTRIAN Duo which allows two pianists to play on one piano. The two pianos are connected by a bridge, thus they sound like one instrument instead of two. The instrument can be separated in order to be played individually. Video: Grotrian Duo

Grotrian Steinweg.jpg

Nowadays, there are many makers and each brand has something different to offer. From upright pianos that offer the tonal quality of a baby grand piano, to pianos with 4 pedals and 102 keys, to crystal pianos, to galaxy pianos and to pianos with different decorations. The most known brands are Bösendorfer, C.Bechstein, Blüthner, Fazioli, Heintzman & Co., Mason and Hamlin, Petrof, Schimmel, Shigeru Kawai, Steinway & Sons (which includes Boston and Essex pianos), Yamaha Corporation and many more!



The Pianoforte until the end of the 18th century

This blog began with the history of the piano and its evolution. I have taken it from the very beginning, discussing the beginning of the string instruments and how they all evolved and contributed to the evolution of keyboard instruments. I have referred to the main keyboard instruments that existed, and how they evolved to the piano. I have not discussed the modern use of those instruments and how they developed after the 18th century.  The aim was to discuss how the piano came to be and how it evolved to our modern piano.

The instruments that I have referred to so far are:

  • Monochord
  • Organistrum/Symphony
  • Chekker/Eschiquier
  • Epigonion
  • Psaltery
  • Hammered dulcimer (santoor)
  • Hydraulis
  • Pipe organ
  • Portative organ (organetto)
  • Positive organ
  • Regal
  • Clavichord (fretted, unfretted, pedal)
  • Clavicymbalum
  • Harpsichord (pedal harpsichord)
  • Clavicytherium
  • Spinet
  • Oval spinet
  • Spinettone
  • Virginal (Muselar, spinett, ottavino, double virginal)
  • Archicembalo
  • Claviorganum

All of those instruments contributed to the creation and evolution of the modern piano. One particular instrument though is considered to be the ancestor of the piano; the dulce melos (doucemelle), a keyed dulcimer, that looked like a clavichord. The strings of the instrument were struck, not plucked, by hammers on keys.

If the instrument existed, none have survived. The only iconographic evidence that exists is by Henri Arnaut de Zwolle from his manuscripts from 1440. He described three dulce melos; the first a normal dulcimer plucked by the fingers or struck by wooden sticks. The second and third instruments were played by keyboard. The second dulce melos had parallel bridges and the third oblique bridges. The instrument had about 3 octaves and twenty pairs of strings with tonal bridges under each group forming an octave. It is possible that Arnaut had only suggested the instrument and that it never existed.

Video: Dulce Melos

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The inventor of the piano was Bartolomeo di Francesco Cristofori (1655-1731) of Padua. In the previous post, I have mentioned that in the late 17th century he created the oval spinet and the spinettone for Prince Ferdinando of the Medici family of Florence. Cristofori  was appointed in 1688 to the Florentine court to look after the Medici musical instrument collection.

The inventory of musical instruments of de Medici in 1700, (Inventario di diverse sorte d’instrumenti musicali in proprio del Serenissimo Sig. Principe Ferdinando di Toscana) mentions a new instrument by Cristofori, the Arpicembalo. The inventory describes the instrument as “a large keyboard instrument by Bartolomeo Cristofori, of new invention that produces soft and loud, with two sets of strings at unison pitch….”.

The journalist Scipione Maffei, in 1711 published anonymously an article where he named the instrument gravicembalo col piano e forte;

Nuova invenzione d’un gravicembalo col piano e forte; aggiunte alcune considerazioni sopra gli strumenti musicali.

The instrument was probably invented around 1698-1699. Nonetheless, a precise date is given in an inscription in Gioseffo Zarlino’s Le Istitutioni harmoniche by a Florentine court musician,  Federico Meccoli. He writes “these are the ways in which it is possible to play the Arpicimbalo del piano e forte, invented by Master Bartolomeo Christofani of Padua in the year 1700”;

Questi sono gl’andamenti che si possono adattare in su  l’Apri Cimbalo del piano e forte. inventato da Bartolomeo Christofani Padovano. l’Anno 1700.

Cristofori attempted to combine the advantages of the clavichord and the harpsichord into one new instrument. The clavichord could be used expressively by controlling loudness and timbre, however because of its size it was not loud enough thus it was used as a home instrument. The harpsichord was mostly a concert solo instrument, yet it lacked the expressivity of the harpsichord. Cristofori’s instrument sounded like a harpsichord but instead of plucking the strings they were struck by hammers. Basically the hammer replaced the clavichords’ tangent and was rebounded from the string, instead of touching the string all the time while it was sounding.

Cristofori invented an action with an escapement mechanism. When the key was pressed, the hammer struck the string and instantly returned back to its position, letting the string to vibrate until the key was released, which then activated a dampening mechanism on a jack to mute the string (adapted from the harpsichord). The hammer was held back by an action called back check, until the player released the key, in order to avoid the hammer from hitting back the string. Cristofori’s action was very light that gave the capability for repetition.

He had also invented the una corda mechanism, which it was the first stop to modify the sound. In the modern piano, the una corda or the ‘soft pedal’ is operated by the left pedal. On Cristofori’s pianoforte though, it was operated by a hand knob located on the side of the keyboard. When it was activated, the entire action shifted to the right, so the hammers would only strike one string (una corda) instead of the two strings that Cristofori’s pianos had.

Cristofori did not live to see music written for his instrument. The first music published for his pianoforte was the twelve Sonate da cimbalo di piano e forte detto volgarmente di martelletti by Lodovico Giustini (1685–1743) in 1732. The sonatas contained dynamic expressions such as più piano and più forte that was impossible to execute on a harpsichord.

Only three of Cristofori’s pianos have survived:

  • 1720 piano, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
  • 1722 piano, includes an una corda stop at the Museo degli Strumenti Musicali in Rome.
  • 1726 piano, includes an una corda stop at the Musikinstrumenten Museum at Karl Marx University in Leipzig, Germany.

Video: Cristofori’s 1720 piano    Video: Escapement action of Cristofori’s 1726 pianoforte

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When Cristofori’s drawings and descriptions were published by Maffei in 1711, instrument makers began to recreated Cristofori’s instrument. In 1716, Jean Marius submitted four models of hammer harpsichord (clavecins à maillets), an action for an upright instrument and a down-striking action (wooden hammers attached vertically at the end of the key levers) to the French Royal Academy of Science. In 1725 Maffei’s article was translated to German by Johann Ulrich König who called Cristofori’s instrument a harpsichord of new invention, with soft and loud.

Gottfried Silbermann (1683–1753), a German instrument maker, used Cristofori’s designs and created his own instrument. He copied Cristofori’s actions, yet he failed to copy correctly the back check. Additionally, he invented his own device, the modern damper pedal. The damper action was, like Cristofori’s una corda, controlled by a hand stop on the side of the keyboard. When activated the dampers were lifted away from the strings, permitting them to vibrate. This device though, unlike the modern pedal that is used expressively, it produced a different tonal colour. The device could also be divided, allowing the dampers of the bass and treble sections to be lifted separately.

Around 1703-1704 Silbermann, on behalf of Pantaleon Hebenstreit (1668-1750), created an extended hammered dulcimer. The king of France Louis XIV, in 1705, called the instrument Pantaleon in his honour. It seems by 1727 Silbermann, had added to those large cimbaloms, removable keyboards to make the playing easier. Basically the Pantalon (Hämmerwercke/Hämmerpantalone) was a large dulcimer and had about 200 strings, double or triple. The instrument did not have dampers leaving the strings to vibrate freely.   Video: Silbermann Piano

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In 1739, a new design appeared, the tangent action by Christoph Gottlieb Schröter (1699-1782). The tangent action originates from the clavichord’s action. Both tangents are activated by the player pushing the keys for the tangent to be lifted up and hit the string. Although in the clavichord the tangent stays in contact with the string while the note is still sounding, in the tangent piano the tangent is rebounded, like in the pianoforte’s escapement. The tangent action also has dampers on the jacks to mute the string when the key is depressed, and like its contemporary instruments it may have stops such as an una corda and Silbermann’s damper stop. The sound of the instrument is a combination of a clavichord and a harpsichord and it was used throughout the 18th century.

Video: Tangent Piano   Video: Tangent action

In 1739,  Domenico del Mela of Gagliano had created the Vertical upright pianoforte in Italy. Like the clavicytherium, the instrument was a pianoforte, with the soundboard going above the keyboard. In 1745, Christian Ernst Friederici created the Pyramid piano (Pyramidenflügel) in Germany, also an upright piano with the soundboard above the keyboard. The shape of the instrument was like a pyramid , with the strings running diagonally upwards. Friederici basically copied the design of his contemporary grand piano into a vertical form. It was a simple version of Cristofori’s 1720 piano, however it lacked the feature of repetition. The instrument had doors at the front that would open exposing the strings. By 1840 both upright and pyramid pianos stopped being produced.

Video: Pyramidenflügel

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Johannes Zumpe (1726-1790) was the lead maker of the English square piano (Tafelklavier) from 1766 to c.1790 (whether he was actually the first creator of a square piano is unknown). The square piano was a small rectangular piano with a range of about 5 octaves. At the beginning it sounded like a harpsichord. Eventually its sound became more ‘pianistic’.

The action of the square piano is called the English single. It was a very single action, without an escapement, with a leather rod under the hammer which bounced into contact with the string. From 1768 onwards Zumpe’s square pianos had three hand-operated stops in the compartment at the left of the keyboard. One was to lift the treble dampers, the second for the bass dampers and the third pressed a buff leather against the strings. When used with the other stops it produced a gut-strung harp tone. Because the single action was limited in the obtainment of dynamics, the double action was invented by John Geib in 1786. His action featured an intermediate lever which increased the speed of the hammer, as well as an escapement so the hammer would fall away from the string whilst the key was pressed. By the mids of the 19th century square pianos exceeded 6 octaves.    Video: Square Piano 1789 by Johannes Bätz.

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Johann Andreas Silbermann (1712-1783), Gottfried Silbermann’s older brother, was the author of the  old German action the Prellmechanik, around 1769, which later became the Viennese action. The Prellmechanik also derived from the clavichord, however instead of having a tangent, there was a moving hammer bound with the key lever. When the key was pressed the key lever lifted up while the hammer’s tail was blocked, flipping the hammerhead (which pointed towards the keyboard) to hit the string.

Johann Andreas Stein (1728-1792), c.1781 improved it and simplified Cristofori’s action (adding a back check) into the Prellmechanik with escapement, the hammer could escape after the note was played leaving the strings to vibrate, permitting a louder sound and a quicker response. Stein instead of using pedals or hand-stops, included a knee-operated lever in replacement of Silbermann’s damper stop.

The oldest surviving grand pianoforte with pedals is a pianoforte made in 1772 by Americus Backers, and was owned by the first Duke of Wellington. Backers is therefore considered to be the first one to have used pedals instead of hand stops and knee levers. The particular piano is also regarded as the first English grand piano. The piano has an una corda and damper lift which are activated by pedals. Both pedals are incorporated to the instruments front legs. When the left pedal, una corda, is activated, the whole keyboard slides to the right, causing the hammers to strike only one string, when the right pedal is activated, a mechanism lifts all the dampers away from the strings.   Video: Americus Backers 1772 piano

After Backers invention, Adam Beyer incorporated, from 1775, a damper pedal in his square pianos as well as a nag’s head swell pedal in 1777, like the one used in the harpsichord from 1754. The pedal caused the right side of the lid to open.



From 1783, Broadwood started using the una corda and the sustaining pedal. In France, Érard was the first to add several pedals to his pianos. The piano shown is from 1793 and it has a buff (harp), a moderator (celeste), a sustain for the bass notes, a sustain for the treble notes and a swell.


Anton Walter 1782 mozart

Mozart’s piano by Anton Walter, c.1782, at Salzburg Museum

The Austrian pianos replaced the hand stops with knee levers in the 18th century, until the knee levers were replaced by pedals in the early 19th century.  Anton Walter (1752-1826), the most popular instrument maker of Viennese pianos, altered Stein’s model and contributed further to the sound of the instrument. For instance, Mozart’s piano (c.1782) included three hand stops and two knee levers that worked as the two damper stops. (the specific instrument was refurbished and modified internally for Constanze, Mozart’s widow, c.1808, so whether that was the original mechanism its debatable).

Video: Anton Walter Piano


The piano had a long development. Many instrument makers experimented with different actions and mechanisms for the piano. It is impossible though to refer to all of them, thus I have briefly discussed the instruments that had a dominant role in the history. During the 18th century the Viennese pianos were better in articulation, fast scales and passage work whereas as the French and English piano were more expressive instruments.


Coming next: The modern piano  ♪ ♫

The Harpsichord family

In the previous post I have discussed the Clavichord. Both the harpsichord and the clavichord coexisted at the same time. Despite that, not only they look different but they also have different mechanisms. The harpsichord existed in quite a few different forms. The whole harpsichord family seems to derive from the psaltery, since like the psaltery it produces sound by plucking the string instead of striking, as in the clavichord or a piano.

Henri arnaut manuscript

Clavicymbalum manuscript by Henri Arnaut de Zwolle, 1440

Starting with the Clavicymbalum, it is considered to be the ancestor of the harpsichord and one, if not the only one, of the earliest reference to a harpsichord. The earliest reference is by Johannes de Muris in 1323 in his Musica speculative where he describes a monochord instrument in triangular shape with a curved side, having two octaves. It seems that it was a small instrument and worked like a psaltery. Instead of plucking the strings with the fingers, the strings were plucked by keys. The earliest sculpture dates from 1425 from an altar piece from Minden cathedral in Germany, where a small keyboard is played by an angel. The best source with detailed iconography is by Henri Arnaut de Zwolle from 1440. Arnaut wrote that the instrument could have been single or double strung and the strings could have been brass or iron, which shows that the sound of the instrument was not really established.

Video: Henri Arnaut replica Clavicymbalum

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The Harpsichord is assumed to date from 1397 from Padua, from a record regarding the invention of the clavicymbalumIn comparison to its contemporary keyboard instruments, it is bigger in size and different in shape, looking more like our contemporary modern grand piano.

The strings of the harpsichord are plucked. When the key is pressed, the jack is raised (which is a tongue with a small guitar pick called a plectrum). When its depressed, the jack returns back to its position, and the string is muted by a felt found on the jack. The following video shows how it works; Video: Harpsichord Action.  The sound of the harpsichord is more metallic and it cannot be used expressively like the clavichord. The volume cannot be manipulated, since the loudness of the sound decreases after the note is played. In order to provide a different timbre, they produced stops to vary the sound.

Unlike the fretted clavichord, where two or three notes are played on the same string, a key/a note on a harpsichord can have more than one string. When there are multiple strings on a note, the additional ones are called choirs. This is in order to manipulate the volume and the tone of the instrument. Therefore, the different choirs may sound differently. Through the stops of the harpsichord different choirs could be chosen. This means that they also have their own jacks. The different choirs act as a disposition.  The concert pitch of the instrument is at 8 foot pitch, which is the standard tuning at 440 Hz; the A above middle C in 8-foot pitch is at 440 Hz.

The Flanders harpsichord by Hans Ruckers and his descendants used longer strings, having great tension, with two sets; one at 8 foot and one at 4 foot (one octave higher). There were even German harpsichords that included a 16 foot stop, an octave below the 8 foot choirs. The Flemish harpsichord introduced the two-manual harpsichord to enable easy transposition at the fourth interval. They also had a more sustaining tone than the Italian harpsichords. The early Italian harpsichords were single-manual instruments and lighter in construction. There was also little string tension, thus the sound, although pleasing, was unremarkable therefore they were mostly used for accompanying singers and other instruments and not as a solo instrument.

At the end of the 16th century, couplers were added to the harpsichord, so one keyboard could play both strings for a fuller and richer sound. Thus the additional keyboard was now used for contrasting dynamics. By the 18th century, the Flemish harpsichord was developed further in France, and it was extended from four to about five octaves. Pedal harpsichords started appearing after the 18th century, and like the pedal clavichord, they were probably used by organists. Additionally, larger harpsichords started appearing at the time which often had three choirs per note. The choirs could be easily chosen by the player in different combinations.  Usually the upper manual was more quiet than the lower in order to create different dynamic contrasts.

Video: Pedal Harpsichord      Video: Harpsichord Coupler

In the UK from 1754, harpsichords with nag’s head swell started appearing by Jacob Kirckman. Through the use of a pedal a section of the lid rose and fell to provide a dynamic range, from muted ppp to open lid sound. From 1769 Burkat Shudi had also developed the venetial swell, which were wooden blades, like Venetian blinds. The harpsichordist controlled the volume through the swell pedal by opening and closing the wooden blades.

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Clavicytherium at the RCM, London.


The oldest string keyboard surviving, related to the harpsichord, is a Clavicytherium; it is held at the instrument collection of the Royal College of Music in London. The instrument is not signed nor dated. Nevertheless, documents of one of the internal joints were dated around 1470-80, and they refer to a citizen of the city Ulm in Germany. Hence, the clavicytherium was probably made in Germany. It is basically an upright harpsichord, and its soundboard it’s vertical instead of horizontal. In this way, the player hears the sound directly. Nonetheless, because the jacks must move horizontally, its action, for returning the jack to its position, is more complex and because of that it has a heavier touch.

Video: Clavicytherium


A different kind of harpsichord is the Spinet. It has the same mechanism,  however it is more triangular, with a concavely bent side on the right, which curves away from the player. The main difference is that the angle of the strings, is about 30 degrees to the right of the keyboard, whereas in a harpsichord they are at 90 degrees angle to the keyboard. The strings are also in pairs, having a gap of at least 4 millimetres and the widest 10.  The jacks are located in the wider gap, in the opposite direction plucking the strings on either side of the gap. Therefore, the spinet has only a single choir of strings, at eight-foot pitch. Because of the angle, the tone is also slightly different; the sound is weaker since it is impossible to pluck as close to the nut. Because of that the spinet was used domestically.  Video: Spinet and action

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Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731), the inventor of the piano, had invented in the late 17th century two types of spinets intended for the Medici family of Florence, for the Prince Ferdinando. He firstly invented the oval spinet and the spinettone, also called spinettone da teatro and spinetta traversa (transverse spinet). The aim of Cristofori was to fulfil the Prince’s wish, who needed an instrument with multiple choirs for more volume in order to fit in the orchestra. Cristofori achieved combining  two 8 foot registers with long bass strings (like in a harpsichord) in a spinet.

Oval spinet split keys

The oval spinet has the strings placed parallel to the keyboard, like in a virginal. The instrument has an oval shape because of the way the strings are placed, which are in an alternating pattern. The lowest C is located in the middle, C# is found behind C, D is found in front of C etc. Since the instrument is a harpsichord, the strings are also plucked by plectra. The oval spinet has two choirs of strings both at 8 foot with different timbres; thus when each is used separately the tone is different. When both strings are played simultaneously the sound is louder. The first oval spinet of 1690, has two split keys (the black keys divided); the F# and G#. Whereas the second surviving oval spinet of 1693 has a normal octave and not split keys. The diagram shows the complex arrangement of the lowest keys. By including two split keys, Cristofori completed the octave by adding D and E on the sharp keys, whereas the key of E was instead C.

The spinettone, like the spinet,  had a diagonal shape with jacks plucking the strings in opposite-facing pairs with larger gaps along the strings. In comparison with the spinet, the spinettone was very long, however narrower than a harpsichord. The instrument had was built as an improvement of the oval spinet, having the same mechanism. It had multiple choirs at 8 foot and 4 foot pitch (normal and an octave higher, with each choir having its own jacks). The choirs could have been played simultaneously or individually by sliding the keyboard forward and backward.

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The harpsichord, the spinet and the virginal were the same kind of instruments in different forms. The Virginal looks like a clavichord and sounds like a harpsichord. It is basically a small harpsichord in a rectangular shape. Unlike the harpsichord,  it has 32 single choir of metal strings, one string per note, which are parallel to the keyboard. Each string is longer than its neighbour, with the bass strings at the front, as a result a triangle is formed inside the case. Because there is only one string per note, this means that the virginal is not as loud like the harpsichord, however it has more volume than the clavichord. Thus, they were popular as domestic instruments and they have been in use since at least 1460.

There are a few variations of virginals. Flemish virginals have the keyboard either to the right or to the left of the case. When it is to the right the strings are plucked nearer the centre and they produce a resonant, rich sound. These virginals are called muselar.  The muselar has 4 octaves range, and because it plucks the string near the centre, it makes it difficult for repeating notes since the vibrating string interfers with the plectrum from connecting. Video: Muselar Virginal

When the keyboard is placed to the left, the virginal is called spinett virginal (not to be confused with the spinet). The strings are plucked nearer the end producing a brighter sound. The spinetts are made mostly in Flanders, England and Italy.  Video: Spinett Virginal

The ottavino is a small virginal, tuned an octave higher. The were mostly used in homes in Italy during the 17th and 18th century,  accompanying singing. The Flemish ottavino could have been coupled with the virginal producing a double virginal. The Italian one was a separate instrument. The double virginal was basically a spinett or muselar, with a small ottavino (the child), placed under the soundboard like a drawer, next to the keyboard of the larger instrument (the mother). They could have been coupled together by removing the jack rail of the larger instrument and placing the ottavino over its strings. Thus when its keys of the mother were pressed, the jack activated the strings of both instruments, sounding in octaves and producing a brighter sound. The earliest double virginal known is from 1581 by Hans Rucker, a  Flemish harpsichord builder.

Video: Ottavino               Video: Double Virginal

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In 1555 Nicola Vicentino (1511-1576) described in his L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica an enharmonic keyboards, the archicembalo, a harpsichord with two keyboards that enabled microtonality.  The extra pitches where produced by split keys. The lower keyboard had additional sharps from E to F and from B to C. As a result, there were thirty six keys in the octave and they were divided into thirty one equal dieses.

The only surviving instrument with Vicentino’s 31 octave system is held at the International museum of library of music in Bologna, Italy. It was made by Vito Trasuntino of Venice (1526 – after 1606). It bares the signed name “Clavemusicum Omnitonum Modulis Diatonicis Cromaticis et Enarmonicis”, meaning it was intended to play diatonically, chromatically and enharmonically.   Video: Archicembalo

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Another variation of a keyboard instrument from the 16th century was the Claviorganum, a combination of organ and a keyboard instrument, usually a harpsichord.  The instrument was not common, it was quite expensive and it was mostly found in aristocratic families. It also came in different shapes, such as harpsichord-shaped with a chamber organ underneath, with one or two manual harpsichords, or as a clavichord with pipes underneath. The claviorganum is described by Michael Praetorius in his Syntagma Musicum, 1614:

“…a clavicymbal, or some other symphony, in which a number of pipes is combined with the strings. Externally it looks exactly like a clavicymbal or symphony, apart from the bellows, which are sometimes set at the rear and sometimes placed inside the body”.

Video: Claviorganum

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The harpsichord can have different forms, with different registration and dispositions. The early music written for keyboard instruments was either for the organ or for all the keyed instruments (harpsichord family, clavicord etc). The first music published for solo harpsichord was during the 16th century.  During the Baroque era the harpsichord was a popular instrument for composers. Music written for solo harpsichord included preludes, fugues, fantasias, toccatas, variations and dance suites. The instrument was eventually declined, and replaced by the piano.



Next Post: The Pianoforte until the end of the 18th century   ♪ ♫

The Organ and its evolution

I have started this blog by discussing the beginning of the string instruments. The string instrument: how it all started

  • A hammered string instrument: the dulcimer
  • A plucked string instrument: the epigonion
  • The first string keyboard: the chekker

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The first pipe keyboard instrument was  the hydraulis.  It was an ancient Greek water organ, invented in the 3rd century BC by the Alexandrian engineer Ctesibius, the ‘Father of the Organ’, and it used water pressure to pump air through the pipes. To be performed it needed two people, one person for the hand-pump, which maintained the pressure of air and another one to press the keys. The reservoir of water was under the bronze pipes. The pipes, were closed underneath and when the keys were pressed, they would open and the pressed air would travel through the pipe. Firstly, there was only one row of pipes but they increased throughout the years.               Video: Hydraulis

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The oldest surviving hydraulis was found in Dion in Greece and its held at its Archaeological Museum. It is dated from 1 BC. In the 2nd century AD the water and the pumps were replaced by bellows and inflated leather bags. By the 7th-8th AD the hydraulis was called organ and it became very popular in Constantinople.

Video: Organ, Bach, BWV 565 Toccata and Fugue

In 757 AD the Emperor Constantine V of Constantinople sent, as a gift, a pipe organ to Rome, to the King Pippin of the Franks. About the 10th century the organ was established as a church instrument. At the time, the bellows were operated by foot, and in the 13th century the sliders were replaced by keys.  Until the 14th-15th century, the organ could only produce one sound. By designing specific mechanisms, with different stops at the pipes they could then produce different combinations of other instrument sounds. Organs have a pedalboard played by feet and several keyboards. In this way, different sounds can be combined and mixed up on the different keyboards and then be performed together. The oldest playable organ is in the Cathedral Valère Basilica in Sion, Switzerland. It was built circa 1430 and restored in 1954.

Video: Organ at Sion, Switzerland 

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Portative Organ by Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece c.1490/95



The portative organ (also called organetto) was a small portable organ, around the 12th-15th centuries. It had one manual with less than two octaves, and one or two ranks of pipes. The performers would hold it on their right side, play the keys with their right hand and use the bellows with the left hand. It was mostly used for secular music and sometimes in religious processions.

Video: Portative Organ 



The medieval positive organ was larger than the portative. It had more ranks of pipes, one manual and no pedal. It was built either as a small instrument that would be placed on a table or stand (and needed a second person to operate the bellows) or as a free-standing instrument.  By the 15th century, the positive organ had stops in order to control the sound. It was used for secular and sacred music, as a chamber organ, as a basso continuo in ensembles as well as in small churches and chapels.   Video: Positive Organ

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Regal, c. 1525, possibly by Georg Voll, at the Met Museum, NY

The regal was also a small portable organ, circa 1450, and was mostly used during the 16th and 17th  centuries. One person would play the keys, whilst another one would pump the two bellows to supply air. The pipes are made of brass; thus, the sound is more nasal.  The regal can be considered the ancestor of instruments such as the harmonium, accordion, concertina.         Video: Regal



Coming next: The clavichord! ♪ ♫