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- The piano is such an integral part of many types of music. It was for the piano that Mozart wrote 27 concertos and Beethoven wrote his famous sonatas. Chopin, Schubert, and Liszt composed music for the piano in the nineteenth century that opened up new worlds of sound. In the twentieth century, some of the most memorable jazz was produced by bands centered on pianist such as Duke Ellington and Oscar Peterson, and popular music standards were composed on the pianos of Georges Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter. Rock music has also had its share of outstanding pianists, including Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and Belly Joel. Despite all of this, the piano is only about 300 years old.The ultimate ancestor of the piano – and of all stringed instruments, including the lute, guitar and violin – is the harp. The clavichord and harpsichord, which are the piano’s immediate predecessors, were influenced by the harp, too. As instrument for public performances, however, both the clavichord and the harpsichord had drawbacks. The clavichord produces sound when a metal blade, the tangent, strikes a string inside the body of the instrument. The tangent remains in contact with the string while the note on a different principle. When a key is pressed, a plectrum plucks the corresponding string. Since the plectrum does not remain in contact with the string, the volume of the note is not reduced, but there is no way to change how hard or for how long the plectrum strikes the string, and thus no way to vary the volume or sustain the note.
Around the beginning of the eighteenth century, Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco was credited with developing an instrument with a completely novel method of striking the strings. When a key was pressed, a metal hammer struck a metal string and rebounded, allowing the string to vibrate. This vibration was carried through a bridge to a sounding board – technology that Cristofori borrowed from the harpsichord – which released the acoustic energy into the air as sound. The volume of the sound depended on the musician’s touch: the harder a key was struck, the more forcefully the hammer hit the string, and the louder the note. At first, Cristofori’s invention was called « gravicembalo col piano e forte », which can be loosely translated as « soft and loud keyboard instrument. » This rather clumsy name was soon changed to pianoforte and eventually piano.
Despite its advantages, the piano was not an immediate success. it was not until an Italian writer, Francesco Scipione, wrote a glowing review of the new instrument that it became popular. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the piano underwent many changes. Foot pedals were added to give more control over volume and the ability to sustain a note. Stronger, heavier piano wire was used for the strings, giving the piano greater volume. The hammers, originally covered with leather, where covered with cloth, producing a more consistent tone. And the tonal range of a standard piano increased from five octaves to seven and one-third octaves or even more.
The piano’s golden age arguably lasted from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth. Pianos appeared in the parlors and living rooms of private homes of both the working class and wealthy, suggesting they were valued not just as a musical instrument, but also a piece of furniture and a status symbol. The piano’s popularity provided employment for piano teachers, piano tuners, and piano mover. Music publishers churned out millions of pages of sheet music for the popular songs of the day, though taste have changed and few are played or even remembered today. Concert pianists were as popular as musical superstars of today, and their social lives were written up in newspaper and discussant social gatherings.
Even today, the piano remains popular. Technological developments have continued, with electric pianos using an amplifier to boost the sound, and digital pianos employing computer technology in place of piano strings. These latter instrument not only are far more portable than standard piano, but also are capable of producing sounds that no acoustic piano could make.