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piano or pianoforte, musical instrument whose sound is produced by vibrating strings struck by felt hammers that are controlled from a keyboard.
The piano's earliest predecessor was the dulcimer. The first piano was made c.1709 by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731), a Florentine maker of harpsichords, who called his instrument gravicembalo col piano e forte. (One of the two existing Cristofori pianos is in the Metropolitan Mus. of Art., N.Y.C.) It differed from the harpsichord in that by varying the touch one could vary the volume and duration of tone. This expressive quality was shared by the clavichord, but the latter was far more delicate in tone.
During the 18th cent. changes in musical taste gradually favored the piano's greater volume and expressiveness, and the instrument had largely supplanted the harpsichord and clavichord by 1800. C. P. E. Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Clementi were the first major composers to write for the piano. The main body of its enormous literature, from the 19th cent., includes the works of Beethoven, Czerny, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Franck, Tchaikovsky, and Liszt. Debussy and Ravel used the special effects peculiar to the piano in highly original ways. In the 20th cent. some composers, notably Bartók, emphasized the instrument's percussive qualities.
The piano was originally built in the shape of a harpsichord, and this style, the grand piano, has always been the standard form. It was greatly improved by the 19th-century innovation of an iron framework, best applied by the Steinways of New York City. The square piano, with strings parallel to the keys, was the most popular domestic piano until the early-19th-century perfection, in Philadelphia, of the upright piano. The English piano maker John Broadwood (1732–1812) was the first to develop the present heavier, more sonorous instrument. In 1810 the double-action striking mechanism, which permits rapid repetition of a tone, was perfected.
In the late 19th cent. a mechanical player piano was developed. A perforated paper roll was passed over a cylinder containing apertures connected to tubes that were in turn connected to the piano action. When a hole in the paper passed over an aperture, a current of air passed through a tube and caused the corresponding hammer to strike the string. The electric piano was developed in the 1930s. In the 1980s computer and compact-disc technology made possible the invention of a “reproducing piano,” an instrument designed to recreate a pianist's playing, accurately capturing the nuances of the performance. Innovative developments of the 1990s include the disklavier, a computerized grand piano that uses optical sensors to produce sound, and the two-lid piano, which opens from the top and bottom to better project sound.
See O. Bie, History of the Pianoforte (2d ed. 1966); H. Westerby, History of Pianoforte Music (1924, repr. 1970); A. Dolge, Pianos and their Makers (1911, repr. 1972); C. Ehrlich, The Piano (1976); R. Harding, The Piano-forte (1933, repr. 1978); A. Loesser, Men, Women, and Pianos (1954, repr. 1990), J. Parakilas et al., Piano Roles (2000).
(abbreviation, p), in music, one of the most important dynamic shadings; also, its designation in notation. Piano is the opposite of “forte.” The dynamic mark pianissimo (abbreviation, pp) is derived from piano. Mezzo piano (mp) falls between piano and mezzo forte. In the 19th century, composers began to use symbols for degrees of volume even softer than pianissimo. For example, the dynamic mark pppppp was used by Tchaikovsky in “Autumn Song,” from the piano cycle The Seasons.
a stringed percussion instrument with a keyboard, first constructed between 1709 and 1711 in Italy by B. Cristofori, the inventor of the piano’s percussive mechanism, or action. The sound of the piano was produced not by plucking, as with the harpsichord, but by striking the strings with small wooden hammers covered with a special felt. The instrument was thus capable of producing a more sustained sound, ranging in volume from very soft to very loud. By the end of the 18th century, the piano had supplanted the harpsichord and clavichord.
The intensive development of pianism placed new aesthetic demands on the piano, resulting in continual improvements in the instrument, particularly in the second quarter of the 19th century. In the second half of the 18th century, two main types of action were developed. In the Viennese action, the keys were connected directly to the hammers; in the English action, they were separate from the hammers. A repetition action was also introduced, which encouraged the development of virtuoso technique. At the same time, the pedal mechanism was improved, making it possible to dampen the sound with the left pedal or to sustain the sound with the right; use of the latter technique also had the effect of enriching the sound through sympathetic resonance.
The shape of the instrument underwent modification, with the square piano giving way to more rounded models. The construction was improved by the use of metal braces to reinforce the wooden frame. The subsequent introduction of the cast-iron frame permitted overstringing, which heightened the tension of the strings, thus increasing the strength of the instrument and improving the quality of the tone. Today, the piano is manufactured in two variants—the grand piano and the upright piano.
Over the years, the range of the piano increased; the modern piano has a compass of 7¼ octaves, or up to 90 or more notes, extending chromatically from A in the fourth octave below middle C to C four octaves above middle C. The piano’s wealth of expressive possibilities and its ability to reproduce music in several parts make the instrument suitable for use in solo performance, in ensembles, for accompaniment, and occasionally as part of the full orchestra. The piano ranks with the organ and violin as one of the greatest instruments, and its literature represents the highest achievements of the greatest composers of the 18th to the 20th century.
REFERENCESZimin, P. Fortepiano v egoproshlom i nastoiashchem. Moscow, 1934.
Closson, E. Histoire du piano. Brussels, 1944.
Hirt, F. J. Meisterwerke des Klavierbaus . . ., 1440 bis 1880. Olten, 1955.