The Keys to Life


The first piano was invented in 1709 by a guy named Bartolomeo Cristofori, a harpsichord maker in Italy. It’s kind of ironic to learn that he actually wasn’t a very good musician himself. He is said to actually have been a poor player and more of a genius inventor even though he was a die-hard music lover.

The piano came about as an attempt to improve upon the design of certain instruments already in existence. The piano’s ‘father’, I suppose, is the Clavichord and it’s ‘grand-father’ could be said to be the Harpsichord. However, the genius of the piano is that, unlike the harpsichord or clavichord, it can be played loudly or softy by varying the application of force of the fingers. The clav and harpsichord can’t do this. The piano also has pedals that allow the player to vary the hold times and ambiance of the various passages of music. Notes can be forcefully sustained for long periods of time or dampened to whisper quiet levels. All of this is why it was originally called the ‘Pianoforte’ (which actually means ‘soft’ and ‘loud’ in Italian). Over time this name has simply shortened to the now commonly known ‘Piano’.

A German guy named Gottfried Silberman made great improvements to Cristofori’s design and greatly enhanced the hammer and dampening mechanisms of the instrument. He added a more complex system of key mechanisms where soft touches could produce clean, soft tones with hardly any finger pressure at all. He also refined the foot pedal design to shift the entire keyboard structure so that the player could play only a single or 2 strings instead of the normal 2 or 3, allowing greater flexibility in volume and mood. Also, the unique grand piano middle pedal function of being able to hold a sustained note(s) over top the continuing piece of music being played normally.

Silberman actually once made a piano especially for the great composer Bach but unfortunately Bach was an old man by this time, nearing the end of his life and he died before he had a chance to compose much music with it. This is why most of Bach’s music is organ based and the rest of it sounds very ‘harpsichord-like’ when played on the piano. During most of his lifetime the pianoforte wasn't very common yet so he composed largely on the instruments of his day and had very little chance to experiment and compose music especially suited to the piano before he passed on. I think that’s too bad. But later composers like Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, etc. certainly were all able to take the piano to incredible heights and create some of our world's greatest music with it.

In 1801 an American named John Hawkins created a version of the piano which had a design of placing the string frame in a vertical position instead of the traditional horizontal way of the grand piano design. He called this an ‘Upright Piano’ and it became a very popular version for many homes in Europe and America. It allowed people to have a piano in their homes without needing to have a lot of space to place it. Even though it didn’t have the full, rich sound of a grand piano but more of a ‘tinny’, ‘bar-room’ sound, it is still a cheaper, popular alternative for schools, churches, students and occasional players, even to this day.

The piano I learnt on as a young kid was one of these, purchased from a convent. It was a huge, heavy piano and over a hundred years old but it was a solid and steady instrument and I’ll always think fondly of it. For a while, it was the center of my little world.

(You'll sometimes see ads in papers trying to sell an 'upright grand piano' or 'vertical grand'. Don't be fooled. There is no such thing as a vertically designed grand piano. True grand pianos are always horizontal and have a recognizable, particularly distinctive tone style because of this design. If the string frame is vertical, that piano is simply an upright piano and will always have the other distinct tone associated to pianos of this style. But if thinking of their upright piano as a grand or great thing makes a person feel better, there's nothing wrong with that I guess. Just don't pay big bucks for it).

The 'action' of pianos (that's what all those hammers, keys, levers, felt pads, etc. are called) contains about 4000 parts for the total 88 keys of the instrument. The tension of the strings equals nearly 20 tons of force in total! The 'pin-block', where those nearly 230 tuning pegs of the strings are located, is made from clear, dense, ‘hardrock’ maple and even though is slightly prone to the effects of humidity, it is still the most stable wood that is known as far as resistance to atmospheric changes is concerned.

The hugely-important soundboard of the piano (its 'heart' — the surface that vibrates, resonates and pushes out the full, clean tone of the instrument), is always made from slow-grown spruce wood (christmas tree wood). This particular old-growth (meaning tight, tight growth-rings) type of wood is found in cool climates like Germany, Norway, Sweden, Canada and Russia. This wood has a unique characteristic of being very strong and stable in its structural composition but at the same time incredibly flexible in its ability to vibrate, oscillate and respond to impulses of tone and fluctuating sound waves.

Interestingly, violin or fiddle body fronts are actually also made from this same type of wood because it allows the vibration of the strings to transfer cleanly through the bridge, into this very resonant, responsive wood and then throughout the instrument, working in harmony with the other style of wood used to make the instrument, the hard maple back, which causes the sound to then reflect back strongly and outwardly to the air.

Pianos are quite an incredible instrument and inventive achievement when you sit back and consider the complexity of their purely mechanical design and how well it works with the physical anatomy and dexterity of human beings.

Each instrument, whether the 'grand' style or the 'upright' style, has its own particular tone, feel, nuances, and 'personality'. Each one is so unique from the other it's almost easy to believe they each have individual souls that seem to speak for them through their sounds.

In the end, it certainly is a small price to pay to have to periodically maintain their tuning a little bit now and again when weighed against the pleasure I get from playing and cranking out tunes on them...

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