That may seem like a silly question but you would be surprised at how many people, even skilled piano players, have absolutely no idea what goes on inside the big wooden box or even where the design originally came from. I’d like to give you a quick thumbnail sketch of what a piano is, a smidge of its history and how it works. I will try to keep exotic nomenclature to a minimum (backcheck, key bushing, agraffe, sostenudo, etc.).
One description of the piano might be the love child of the hammer dulcimer and the harpsichord. The key arrangement of the piano is the same as the harpsichord except that the piano has more keys. The history of the hammer dulcimer is obscure but hammered stringed instruments have probably been around for at least a thousand years and probably quite a bit more. A dulcimer is mentioned in the Bible in Nebuchadnezzar’s court but the King James Version translation of the word used for that instrument is suspect. The true origins are lost in the sands of time. The key arrangement of the harpsichord was inherited from the organ. The earliest references to the harpsichord are from the 14th century but, again, it could be older and its progenitor is also unknown. With its graphic key arrangement (natural notes like A, B, C are white and accidentals like D sharp and G flat are black) the harpsichord is a great compositional tool and it was a favorite of the Baroque composers but it had a serious limitation. It could only play at one volume level because it plucked the strings. What was needed was a keyed instrument that could play with dynamics, both soft and loud. Actually, that is the name of the instrument: Pianoforte which is Italian for soft-loud. We abbreviate it to piano. Unlike the ambiguous origins of the harpsichord and hammer dulcimer we know where the piano came from. It was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori in the early 1700’s. Prior to the piano Cristofori had made several variations on the harpsichord. Such was his genius that, amazingly, his original pianos had most of the same basic features as our modern piano. I played a reproduction of a Cristofori action at the Smithsonian Museum at a special exhibition a number of years ago and I was struck by how similar it looked and played to a modern action.
The two main requirements of a piano action are that it must multiply the power of a person’s fingers to strike the strings and the hammer must fall back off the string slightly after the strike so that it does not mute the string. Otherwise, the instrument would be called a pianomuffle instead of a pianoforte. The third element necessary for a piano action is a dampering system. When the key is returned to its original position the sound must stop. Otherwise, all of the strings would continue to ring and you would have a piano-cacophony (I.E a loud discordant noise). This muting is accomplished with an additional mechanism and a felt pad for each note that mutes it when the key is lifted. To complicate matters further, all modern pianos have a pedal that lifts all of the dampers simultaneously, allowing the musician to play a number of notes at the same time (a chord) and let them continue to ring as he or she ads more notes, hopefully with a harmonically pleasing relationship. A forth element, the ability to repeat a note without the key having to return up to its original position, would be added later but it was not absolutely necessary for the early small and sprightly pianos. It did become necessary for later large and powerful instruments with greater key dip.
Like their predecessor the harpsichord, the early pianos had a limited range in pitch and volume and a wooden frame. With the advent of the cast iron frame (also called the harp or plate), which was able to tolerate much higher string tension, pianos could be designed that were louder and could go lower in pitch. Modern pianos have a huge range of eighty-eight notes and concert sized instruments can get quite loud under the hands of a skilled player.
The piano is as much a machine as it is an instrument. Compared to other stringed instruments such as a violin or a guitar, it is profoundly complicated. Hang out at a piano store sometime and see if someone can show you the insides of a piano or at least a model of a piano action. If you have never really examined one before you will be amazed at how complex and interactive it is. It is as much technology as it is art – albeit a much older mechanism than we typically associate with that word.
It would be hard to make a case for a musical instrument that has been more influential over the last two hundred years than the piano. The violin, the guitar and the drums have all made a big impact on music but the piano is still the king of instruments. If you look inside the big wooden box you might be surprised at how interesting it is.