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Lesser Known Facts about the Piano

Compared to instruments such as the violin and trumpet, the piano has a relatively shorter lifespan of just over three hundred years. But it owes its evolution to other keyboard instruments such as the organ and harpsichord.

Did you know that the early European keyboards were operated by the hands rather than with fingers? They were simple devices and the spacing between keys on the early organs, the oldest of the keyboard instruments, was the same as the spacing between the pipes through which the sounds emanated - sometimes up to four inches. Four inches between keys! Perhaps it is no wonder that very young children play keyboard instruments by thumping the keys with their hands instead of the fingers - maybe there is something historically ingrained!

Up to the early 13th century, the keys on the keyboards were mainly diatonic - meaning there were only the notes C, D, E, F, G, A and B. These organs were used to accompany plainsong - the religious singing of monks - and the range of these were only about two octaves, meaning they often only had fifteen keys, to match the vocal range of the monks. But as religious plainsong became more florid and elaborate, so did the organ. By about 1330, the organ already extended beyond the seven notes it was initially constructed with, and included most of the black notes we normally associate the piano as having.

The initial purpose of music was perceived to be religious, but the rise of secular music outside the churches also led to the development of keyboard instruments that could be played in homes. Hence the term "keyboard instruments" went beyond merely the organ and included others such as the harpsichord and spinet. The latter are what we call "closed-case keyboard instruments", meaning the strings can be enclosed by a lid. These closed-case keyboard instruments had tuned strings held tightly above a sounding board and the strings were plucked with quills. However, the keyboard player could not affect the plucking of the strings through the depressing of the keys, and hence could not affect the volume in the same way we can on the modern piano.

Later harpsichords and spinets included a second keyboard to add weight to the music to effect changes in volume. But while there were now distinctions in volume in keyboard music, music was only either relatively louder or softer. Musical sections were often repeated in two different volumes. This is one of the ways of identifying early music from the Baroque or before.

It was not until the eighteenth century that the plucking of strings in keyboard instruments was abandoned in favour of the hammer action that we see in the piano today. In a modern piano the hammers strike the strings depending on the speed the keys are depressed, so the gradations in volume can be subtler than the earlier keyboard instruments. It is from this period that you start to see expressions such as crescendo and diminuendo feature more in keyboard music.

The hammers in grand and upright pianos strike the strings differently - because the grand piano is more expansive in size, there is the space for hammers to be laid out under the keys. The piano hammers hit the strings from below, and gravity pulls the hammers back (and consequently raises the hammers). In an upright piano, however, the keys are struck laterally by the hammers and pulled back using internal springs. For this reason piano players may find it easier to play repeated notes on the grand piano rather than on the upright pianos. The quick repetition of notes on the grand piano is also helped by the escapement; the hammer is caught before it reaches its original position and is hence primed to strike the string and repeat the note again. This allows the repetition of notes to be more efficient than if the keys had to travel the full distance before moving back again. Listen to the beginning of Beethoven's Hammerklavier Piano Sonata - if you tried to play the opening on the grand piano, you would find it easier than on the upright.

The hammers of piano keys are covered with a light material to cushion the impact of striking the strings - otherwise the strings would be ruined in no time! The early German pianos used buckskin, although the variations in size and elasticity meant that this was not a practical material. Later 19th century pianos utilised leather, both for its uniformity and lightness, and as piano production and industrial methods improved a blend of rabbit fur and sheep wool introduced by Jean-Henri Pape became popular because it remained in contact with the string longer, and hence produced a fuller, rounder tone compared to leather.

The strings which vibrate to give the lower sounds in the piano are longer, as the vibration of the longer string gives a lower sound compared to the vibration of a shorter string. Think of a guitar - if you press on a fret and the length of the vibrating string is shortened, you get a higher note than if you merely left the string alone. So the lower notes on the piano have longer strings, but they are thicker to give them more weight when struck and also because a long, thin, stretched string is more liable to break when struck. But to counter the excess volume from the vibration of the thicker strings, the lower keys have only two strings per note compared to three strings per note for the higher notes.

The thickness of piano strings were gradually thickened to produce more volume. This meant that the tension of strings had to be increased so the strings would be maintained at the same pitch. The increase in tension added to the need for a tough, heavy frame; the first grand piano with an iron frame was built in 1843 by Jonas Chickering, and the cast iron frames by Steinway established themselves from about 1860.

The earliest pianos made by Bartolomeo Cristofori in the early 1700s had a range of four octaves. In 1742 the oblong-shaped pianos made by Johann Sacher were fashionable for a time because they took up less space than the grand piano and were also cheaper to manufacture; however the bass strings had to be short and were therefore weak in tone and volume.

The first upright piano - or vertical piano as it was called - was built by Domenico del Mela of Gagliano in 1739. The previous grand piano was simply turned upright on a stand, with the strings and soundboard hovering about the keys. However from about 1800 manufacturers realised the strings could be dropped towards the floor, in front of the player's knees, instead of just hovering above the keyboard, so the height of the instrument was reduced.

By the end of the 18th century the piano had become commonplace and pianos were seen as status symbols in the homes of the wealthy. The popularity of the piano can be attested to by the launch of Piano-Forte Magazine by James Harrison in 1797. Perhaps displaying a business acumen that would extend to later centuries, Harrison promised a new piano to readers who collected all 250 issues. If Harrison were still alive today he might be producing children's magazines, getting children to buy magazines by stealth in the hope of building a final project through the collection of mutiple individual pieces.

In 1759 a particular piano-harpsichord hybrid was produced in France with knee levers to vary the volume; the current foot pedals of the modern piano were introduced by John Broadwood in 1783. But piano makers continued to experiment radically with the piano - some pianos had up to four pedals, while others were built with bells, cymbals and triangles inside the case, operated by foot pedals. Try playing that!

A final fact: Did you know that the favourite composer of research scientists appears to be Mozart? Ever since the experiments in the 1990s of playing music to children before they undertook cognitive tests seemed to demonstrate that they children obtained better scores, it seems whole volumes of academic research have been based on Mozart, because his music is apparently more organised and has benefits for developing spatial awareness and logic. Cows who were played Mozart's music produced more milk. Scientists have even claimed Mozart's music works as a pick-me-up than caffeine! Perhaps at some point others will do research on the music of the Romantic composer Chopin to show his music makes people more in touch with their feelings?

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