A Complete History of the Piano

Charmaine Li  /  Articles / Mar 29

March 29, 2022 is Piano Day! Started by experimental pianist Nils Frahm, Piano Day happens on the 88th day of the year to honor the piano’s 88 keys. This year, we’ll take this opportunity to explore the history of the piano. From the medieval dulcimer to the Fender Rhodes, the piano has come a long way. And it didn’t always have 88 keys.

1. Hammered Dulcimer

Present since antiquity, the dulcimer is one of the earliest ancestors of the piano. It’s a box-shaped instrument with strings that are played with hammers. Which is the same mechanism as a piano, only lower-tech.

However, the dulcimer’s notes are arranged very differently from a piano’s. While pianos have all twelve tones of an octave in a row, dulcimers have sections of strings that correspond to different keys. But, unlike on clavichords and harpsichords, dulcimer players can play nuanced dynamics using hammering techniques.

History of the piano - hammered dulcimer played up close outside.
How notes are arranged on a hammered dulcimer.
Performance of “Scarborough Fair” on a hammered dulcimer.
🎹 🛒 IN THE MARKET FOR A NEW PIANO? Such a big purchase can be stressful! Make sure to read our complete guide on how to buy a new piano. Learn the differences between uprights and grands, digitals and hybrids, and whether one is truly better than the other.

2. Clavichord

Fretted clavichord with painting of ships under the lid in a museum.
A fretted clavichord (Photo by Gérard Janot CC BY-SA 3.0)

The clavichord is a small, boxy keyboard instrument. It’s rather quiet and doesn’t have a lot of keys. Yet it provided entertainment to households from the 1400s all the way to the 1800s.

One disadvantage of fretted clavichords is that sometimes, several keys share the same string, so you can’t play certain notes together. But the advantage of this is that there are fewer strings to tune.

Unlike harpsichords and virginals, clavichord strings are struck by a brass tangent, not plucked. So, like a piano, they can play some dynamics. The clavichord can also emit a mild vibrato effect called bebung.

How a fretted clavichord works.
Bach’s Goldberg Variations played on a clavichord.
🎹 SPINETS AND VIRGINALS: Spinets and virginals can be thought of as harpsichords on a smaller scale. Spinets have strings that run diagonal to the keyboard, while virginals have strings that run parallel. Both usually have just one string per note.

3. Harpsichord

Harpsichords are more familiar to many of us because they look very similar to pianos. Many have a grand piano shape, and you’ve probably heard this instrument in recordings of Bach and Vivaldi if you enjoy Baroque music.

The biggest difference between the harpsichord and the piano is that the strings of the harpsichord are plucked, not hammered. Each hammer has a plectrum attached, which is like a guitar pick. Some harpsichords have two keyboards; one keyboard will have a slightly fuller sound and the other will be softer.

Different nations designed their harpsichords in different ways. For example, Italian harpsichords are more percussive and German harpsichords have a more lyrical sound.

Harpsichords were the instrument of choice for playing continuo (accompaniment) in Baroque chamber music.

History of the piano - ornamental golden harpsichord with open lid and two rows of keyboards.
A harpsichord with two keyboards. (Photo by Gérard Janot – CC BY-SA 3.0)
An introduction to harpsichords.
Harpsichordist Jean Rondeau plays Bach’s Concerto No. 1 in D Minor.

4. Fortepiano

The fortepiano is the direct ancestor of the modern piano. Invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori circa 1700, it was revolutionary in its ability to play loud and soft tones based on the pianist’s touch. “Fortepiano” literally translates to “loud-soft.” 

Instead of pedals, fortepianos typically have levers under the keyboard that the player manipulates with their knee. The levers work like the una corda and sustain pedals; there was also a lever that adds a more percussive, buzzy sound.

One of Cristofori’s most important innovations was escapement. Escapement allows a hammer to return to its place of rest after it strikes a string. Fortepianos are quieter than modern ones, but they were powerful enough to perform piano concertos when they were popular.

Composers in the classical era, such as Mozart and Beethoven, would have used a piano like this.

Wooden fortepiano.
A fortepiano from 1775 similar to the one Mozart may have played. (Photo by Gérard Janot – CC BY 3.0)
The different mechanisms of a Mozart-era fortepiano.
Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata performed on a fortepiano.

5. Modern Piano

Woodne modern piano

While Mozart’s fortepiano had 58 keys, the modern piano has 88. Compared to fortepianos, modern pianos have more string tension, so they tend to use cast-iron frames. Modern pianos also use felt-tipped hammers instead of leather-tipped ones.

Grand pianos are often seen as superior because hammers fall back from strings due to gravity. Meanwhile, in upright pianos, a spring mechanism is required to move the hammer back to its place of rest. This difference allows pianists to play faster trills and repeated notes on a grand piano.

But grand pianos aren’t always superior. Some baby grand pianos have smaller soundboards than large uprights. So, sometimes, high-quality uprights have better sound quality than some grands.

Comparison of a fortepiano and modern piano side by side.

Why does the world need a Piano Day? For many reasons. But mostly, because it doesn’t hurt to celebrate the piano and everything around it: performers, composers, piano builders, tuners, movers and most important, the listener.

Niels Frahm
Young man with slight beard smiling while playing piano on stage.
Niels Frahm (Source: Smial – Own work, FAL)

6. Digital Pianos

Not too long ago, learning on a digital piano was frowned upon. But digital piano technology has improved significantly within the last 20 years.

Today, you can find digital pianos that behave very similarly to acoustic ones. And they’re often at a fraction of the price and come with tech benefits like headphone jacks, MIDI compatibility, and multiple sound effects.

Angled view of Roland V-Piano keyboard in studio.
The Pianote studio piano is a digital piano in a grand piano cabinet.

The sound of digital pianos comes from either sampling or modeling. Sampling is when technicians record the sound of acoustic pianos at different volumes and touch velocity layers. This enables touch-sensitive keys to play with nuance. Meanwhile, modeling is when sounds are built from scratch. Most digital pianos use a combination of sampling and modeling, but some higher-end levels only use modeling.

A comparison of digital pianos are different price points.
A review of popular beginner digital pianos.
🎹 🛒 HOW TO BUY A DIGITAL PIANO: For starters, look for weighted, touch-sensitive keys and try your best to get a full-sized 88-key keyboard. Learn more about purchasing a digital piano with our buying guide and product reviews.

7. Synthesizers

Synthesizers look like high tech digital pianos, but they can be regarded as totally different instruments.

History of the piano - Minimoog - synthesizer with vertical panel in wooden cabinet.
The Minimoog, an iconic synthesizer.
History of the piano - Roland Jupiter-4 synthesizer.
The Roland Jupiter series is another beloved line of synthesizers.

Synthesis is the creation of sound through manipulating its fundamental aspects, such as amplitude, frequency, and wavelength. Synthesis technology has made it possible to create nearly any sound imaginable.

While synthesizer precursors like the Teleharmonium existed at the turn of the 20th century, the first true synthesizer is likely the Minimoog. Developed by Robert Moog in the 1970s, this instrument became iconic. You can hear it in the work of mainstream artists like Rush, Michael Jackson, Herbie Hancock, Bob Marley, and more. 

An overview of the Minimoog’s history.
Recreating iconic 80s synth riffs.

8. Hybrid Pianos

Hybrid pianos are the best of the acoustic and digital worlds. They have an acoustic action mechanism but generate sound digitally. So, hybrid pianos often combine the touch authenticity of an acoustic piano and the modern conveniences of a digital instrument (headphone jack, multiple effects, recording ability, etc.).

Behind view of man playing hybrid piano with speakers under the lid.
The Yamaha Avant Grand (photo source)

Hybrid pianos usually aren’t small, but they don’t take up as much space as a concert grand either, so they are perfect for advanced, demanding musicians who live in small spaces. These pianos are incredible feats of engineering, but they tend to be very expensive and there aren’t that many models on the market.

Hybrid pianos explained.
A demonstration and review of the Kawai NOVUS.

9. Iconic and Unique Pianos

Since the days of Cristofori, numerous innovators have tried to make newer and better pianos. Here are some unique highlights:

Klavins 450

A tall, vertical instrument that looks more like a loft than a piano, the Klavins Model 450 was created for the first Piano Day in 2015. Nils Frahm then improvised eight motifs on the 450 that would later form the basis of his album Solo.

Fender Rhodes

The Fender Rhodes is a pop music icon. Its sound can be found on the recordings of world-class artists like Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and the Doors. Originally designed for World War I veterans by Harold Rhodes, this early electric piano uses pick-ups like an electric guitar to generate its unique sound.

Wurlitzer Pianos (The “Wurli”)

The other big name in 20th-century electric pianos was Wurlitzer. The Wurlitzer company had previous experience building acoustic pianos, so its action was a little more sophisticated than the Rhodes’. Artists associated with the Wurli sound include Supertramp, Ray Charles, and Marvin Gaye. Whereas the Rhodes piano uses tines to produce sound, the Wurlitzer uses reeds.

Wurlitzer piano

Bösendorfer Imperial

Bösendorfer is a pre-eminent piano brand, and its very expensive Imperial is a unique instrument on its own. The 290 model features 97 keys instead of the standard 88 along with a uniquely resonant bass sound.

Bosendorfer Imperial grand piano
Bösendorfer Imperial (Source: reinhold möller, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Klavins Una Corda

Created by the same people as the 450, the Una Corda has just one string per note. This creates a uniquely soft, dreamy sound. The piano also has no cabinet, allowing players and audiences to see what goes on inside the instrument’s body.

Fazioli Pianos

The Fazioli company is a relatively new one, having come about in the 1970s. It has since become one of the world’s top piano brands alongside Steinway and Yamaha, which is an incredible feat considering how established and historical those brands are.

Woman with short platinum hair in black dress playing white flowy piano.
The Fazioli Butterfly

Fazioli is famous for its uniquely designed pianos custom built for architectural spaces. The Pianote team was lucky to try a few during our Showcase Pianos visit.

🎹 Happy Piano Day!

We hope you had fun nerding out on the history of pianos this Piano Day. To learn more about this awesome instrument, check out performances of the piano’s ancestors to get the full experience of each instrument. Here are some things to explore:

  • The Orchestra in the Age of Enlightenment performs classical music with era-appropriate instruments. They also make videos that explain uncommon instruments from bygone eras.
  • The Metropolitan Museum produces videos about their oldest and most fascinating instruments, including fortepianos.
  • The Netherlands Bach Society posts high-quality performances of Bach classics using authentic instruments for free on YouTube.

Happy listening, learning, and practicing!

Charmaine Li is a Vancouver writer who has played piano for over 20 years. She holds an Associate diploma (ARCT) from the Royal Conservatory of Music and loves writing about the ways in which music—and music learning—affects the human experience. Charmaine manages The Note.

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