Brief History of the Piano

A Brief History of the Piano

The Early Keyboard Instruments: Harpsichord and Clavichord

Prior to the construction of the piano, the harpsichord was the primary keyboard instrument from about 1600.  However, the first mention of the harpsichord dates back to the end of the 14th Century. The harpsichord is a stringed keyboard instrument in which the strings are plucked by a crow-quill plectrum mounted on the end of the key. The shape of the harpsichord varies and can appear similar to a modern spinet piano or a grand. Although harpsichords were popular for centuries and used by many of the great early composers like Bach, they possessed a major disadvantage-they were unable to make changes in expression with changes in the player’s touch.


The clavichord is the simplest and one of the smallest keyboard instruments whose sound is produced by strings. It is clear from both pictures and writings that clavichords, similar to surviving examples, were in existence in the early years of the 15th century. The clavichord was used throughout Western Europe during the Renaissance and in Germany until the early 19th century, but for most of its long history was primarily valued as an instrument on which to learn, to practice and occasionally to compose. Depressing the key causes a thin piece of metal (the tangent) to rise and strike the string. The tangent also acts as a fret, and the note sounds until the key is released. This simple mechanism allows the player to have control over the volume and release of the tone.

The First Pianoforte

About 1709, the Italian Harpsichord maker Bartolomeo Cristofori built the world’s first piano called the piano et forte (or soft and loud). Shortly after, others built pianofortes with hammer actions based on Cristofori’s work. Progressively, the pianoforte replaced the harpsichord and clavichord because it offered options previously unavailable with the earlier keyboard instruments.  The fortepiano is a hammer-string instrument having the capacity to make nuances primarily through the use of soft or loud playing. It was about 1850 that the “fortepiano” word was replaced with the “piano” word. In the early 1700’s, the piano did not attract much attention or support. J.S. Bach is reported to have preferred the clavichord, which he was accustomed to playing and which offered an easier touch.


The Square Piano

From  1760 to about 1880, significant changes were made in piano development. In about 1760, Johannes Zumpe built, in London, the first English square piano (later to be referred to as “square grand”). He was shortly followed by Broadwood of London, and Erard of France. Johann Behrend of Philadelphia demonstrated his square in 1775.  These early squares suffered from a weak tone and could not compare with the grand (wing form) pianoforte. In addition, the early squares did not have an escapement mechanism and the hammers could inadvertently hit the string again. Also, the hammers, made of small pieces of wood, with a thin coat of leather were all the same size, even the ones that struck the largest bass strings. Many of the fine American piano companies produced beautifully carved square grands throughout the 1800s, including Chickering, Knabe, Steinway, Mathushek and others. Many had beautiful rosewood veneers, ornately carved legs and music racks and scalloped ivory keytops. While there were some improvements made in piano construction over the next 75 years, the square piano continued to dominate the market, especially in America.


A major drawback of the early keyboard instruments, including the early square grands, was that they lacked power in tone. The demand for larger tone could only be answered with the use of heavier strings and a larger soundboard. This solution was limited by the wooden frame construction of the instruments not being able to withstand the tension of such strings. In about 1825, Alpheus Babcock produced a full iron frame. However, it was Jonas Chickering in 1837 who had improved the design and received a patent shortly after. While there was debate that the iron frames negatively impacted the tonal qualities, eventually they won over.  In 1855, Steinway showed its overstrung square grand at the World’s Fair in New York and proved itself a serious contender with Chickering as a piano innovator. This new design in stringing created the impetus for future research and design in piano making.

The Upright Piano

Records show that the first upright piano was built in about 1780 by Johann Schmidt of Salzburg, Austria.  About 20 years later, John Isaac Hawkins of Philadelphia patented an upright with vertical strings, a full iron frame and a check action.  In the early 1800s, Robert Wornum of London and Ignance Pleyel of Paris made improvements on the upright piano including a more durable and responsive action. By 1835, Germany began the production of well-constructed upright pianos and started phasing out square grand production. When Americans became serious about upright production, around 1860, they used the overstrung scale and full-iron frame, yet the touch and tone was inferior to high-quality squares.  Improvements were made during the later 1800s and today some high-quality uprights are being rebuild and restored.

Like many of the squares before it, many 19th century uprights were true works of art. Hand-carved rosewood and mahogany cases with intricate scrollwork dressed many of the instruments.  The heavily built cases and frames have caused uprights to sacrifice a little purity in the tonal department. This concern was debated in the late 1800s and some manufacturers produced uprights with three-quarter rather than full plates in order to allow the sound to escape better and decrease the likelihood of a “metallic” sound. However, the full-plate was later used in most uprights in order to provide greater strength and stability.
The Birth of the Modern Grand and American Piano Production

The early great composers did not require a keyboard instrument that could exceed the traditional 5 octaves in range. Until 1803, even Beethoven’s music did not exceed this range. But by 1818, Beethoven was composing music that exceeded 6 octaves in range, including the Sonata in B-flat, op. 106. It has been contended that Beethoven, through his composing, forced piano makers into developing instruments capable of greater ranges.  However, others claim that his music evolved with the ability of the current instruments to perform it. Erard in France and Streicher in Vienna were early producers of grand pianos with escapement mechanisms, but did not produce a significant number of instruments by 1818.

By the mid 1820s, stronger cabinets and iron frames were produced, which led to heavier strings and thus, greater power was produced by the instruments.  Jonas Chickering of Boston was among the first in the world to produce pianos with iron string plates.  From 1830 to about 1850, French piano companies including Erard and Pleyel made significant contributions to the development of the grand piano, especially in the ability of the action to repeat more quickly and smoothly.  During this period, pianos were being produced with felt covered hammers rather than leather-covered hammers.


While there is some evidence that Americans built pianos as early as the 1780s, Chickering was the first American piano company, established in Boston in 1823. and was the dominant force in American piano production for the next several decades and the first to market quality grand pianos on a continuing basis. Some of the greatest pianists of all time, including Franz Liszt, and Louis Moreau Gottschalk, preferred Chickering grands to every other piano they tested.
In 1856, Henry Steinway, who had emigrated to New York from Germany, started building grands. Steinway drew on the work of his predecessors and in a short time became a major international contender in the piano building industry. In 1859, Steinway received a patent for cross-stringing grands. This type of design allowed for longer strings in a given case. By 1860, Steinway had expanded its factory to an entire block in Manhattan and was increasing piano production at a significant rate.

By 1900, more than half of the world’s pianos were made in America and the five largest manufacturers were all American. During the 1920s, the heyday of piano production, thousands of American piano companies were producing uprights and grands, and many were well-constructed instruments quite suitable for the average consumer. During this time, a significant percentage of American upright pianos produced were player pianos. Following the Great Depression, the emphasis on piano production was economy, and both uprights and grands were sold in much smaller sizes. The “baby grand” became a popular consumer grade piano during the ’30s and ’40s. Inventions like the gramophone, the radio, the record player and the television hampered piano production in the early 20th Century.

During the 1960s and 1970s, piano production quality generally declined. Cases were often poorly constructed with plastic veneers covering particleboard and action parts suffered as well. Even companies like Steinway started replacing traditional bushings and joints with plastics and teflons. Needless to say, these instruments did not stand the test of time.  Many of the 1970s and 1980s grands needed rebuilds within 15 years while some pianos from the 20s are still going strong today with original parts. Japan increased piano production at an alarming rate during the 1970s, mastering the art of efficient production, and many Yamahas and Kawais have been sold in the U.S since. While these instruments are often quite adequate for the general consumer, it is doubtful that rebuilders will take the time and invest in rebuilding these imports since they often come up short when compared to the early 20th Century American pianos.