The Piano - All About Pianos

The piano is played by striking a set of keys called a keyboard that produces sounds by hitting strings with hammers. The hammers then rebound allowing the strings to continue vibrating These vibrations are then transmitted through the piano by way of a bridge which connects to a soundboard.
The full and correct word for piano is "pianoforte", which means literally "soft loud". So the piano is an instrument that plays both soft and loud, in contrast to its predecessor, the harpsichord, which was similar to a piano except the strings were plucked, not struck.
The piano is a large stringed musical instrument comprising of metal wires stretched across a frame, which when struck by felt-covered hammers controlled by a keyboard, produce soft and gentle melodious sound, using the principles of resonance.

Far and wide, the piano is used in Western music for solo performances and orchestras, apart from the purposes it serves in composing and rehearsal. Despite the fact that it is not transportable and is an exorbitant commodity, yet it is considered to be the best household musical instrument, owing to its adaptability and prevalence, and is casually referred to by interesting names such as "the ivory", "The Joanna", "The Eighty-eight", and "The Black(s) and White(s)", "The Little Joe(s)".

Technically speaking, piano is considered to be successor of the DULCIMER (struck zither) family, differing from its contradistinctive predecessor - the HARPSICHORD, which is played by plucking the strings with quills, and the CLAVICHORD, in which the strings are struck by tangents.


The initial period and the early evolution of the piano

Undoubtedly, the pianos have a rich and remarkable history. The word piano has been abbreviated from pianoforte, which originates from the Italian name for the instrument, clavicembalo or gravicembalo col piano e forte meaning harpsichord with soft and loud.

During the first decade of the 18th century, Bartolomeo Cristofori - harpsichord maker of Florence, Italy, installed an efficient hammer action into the case of a harpsichord, thus inventing an instrument what was to be called a gravicembalo col piano e forte. What made it differ slightly from a harpsichord was the ability to vary the loudness and softness of its tone, according to the stroke force used by the player. It was Cristofori who is generally accredited with the invention of piano. Quite interestingly, two of his pianos yet exist; one of them, dated 1720, lies in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City and the other, dated 1726, lies in a museum in Leipzig, Germany.

Owing to the passionate article written by Italian writer Scipione Maffei in 1711, discussing the minute details of Cristofori's new instrument alongwith an illustration of the mechanism, not much was known about it in general beforehand. This article was widely distributed, which consequently, lead to newer inventions being carried out by most of the succeeding generation of piano-makers, following Cristofori's piano action which served as a model for the requisite purpose. Among these makers, a name that holds much prominence is of Gottfried Silbermann - rather an organ builder - who invented the precursor of the modern damper pedal, which lifts all the dampers from the strings, simultaneously.

During the late 18th century, art of piano-making prospered when Johann Andreas Stein honed the so-called Viennese Action, which comprises of prying or snapping the hammer up against the string - a rather inexpensive approach to produce, apart from being much reliable and particularly sensitive to touch. This action, alongwith the gracefully constructed case of the Viennese piano, paved way of producing a perfect model for the mature keyboard works of Haydn, Mozart and their contemporaries.

Developments of the modern piano

It was around 1760, when Johannes Zumpe migrated to England escorted by a group of German piano-builders, where they popularized the primeval single action in which the hammer is tossed up against the string by means of a jack attached to the key this, after a series of development, became known as the English Action. With this action, it was possible to make powerful strokes, accompanied by the heavier stringing and framing of the late-18th century English piano which consequently, led to the invention of an instrument with rather greater volume and intensity of sound and sustaining power compared to the Viennese Action. Later on, piano makers set out on a journey to bring out further innovation in the then-existing piano. Endeavors to conjoin the qualities sustaining in the English instrument i.e., its power and cantabile (singing quality) of the alongwith the responsiveness and stability of the Viennese piano, thus successfully devised the repetition action, which was the brainchild of the French manufacturer Sbastien rard in 1823, that still sustains to be in general use. Subsequently, artisans in entire Western world instigated working to further hone the pianoforte. Various developments and innovations were carried out and infact, still continue in terms of the design and structure, most notably, Germany and the United States have stayed distinguished for making excellent pianos, conspicuously those created by the German firm founded by Karl Bechstein and the American firms of Baldwin, Mason & Hamlin, Steinway, and Chickering. The pianos of the Austrian Bsendorfer firm are also highly valued. The compass of the early piano was similar to that of the harpsichord, only four, or at most, five octaves.

Further efforts aided in creating an ever-increasing fortification of the case before, with heavier wood framing and afterwards, with the addition of metal braces, resulting in the complete cast-iron frame, patented in 1825, by the American piano-maker namely Alpheus Babcock. With the passage of time, further innovations were introduced for the mechanism, including the use of felt hammer coverings in place of layered leather hammers. Felt hammers were initially introduced by Henri Pape in 1826, were a more consistent and reliable material to be used, since it was flexible enough to bear wider dynamic ranges as hammer weights and string tension increased. Later, in 1844, with the introduction of the sostenuto pedal by Jean Louis Boisselot, it led to further improvements laid down by the Steinway firm in 1874, permitting a wider range of effects.

In addition to these novel effects, other important technical improvements were carried out which also include alterations in the methods of stringing the piano, such as the use of a "choir" of three strings instead of two for all except the lower notes, and the use of different stringing methods. During the 1820s epoch, over stringing was invented by Jean-Henri Pape, and for use in grand pianos in the United States was first patented by Henry Steinway Jr. in 1859.

In 1872, after the introduction of duplexes or aliquot scales by Theodore Steinway, it was made possible to control various different components of string vibrations by tuning their secondary parts in octave relationships with the sounding lengths.

Previously, pianos possessed shapes and designs which no longer prevail to be in use, owing to ones comfort ability and convenience. The square piano had horizontal strings diagonally arranged across the rectangular case above the hammers, alongwith the keyboard set fixed in the long side. This design, which was laid down by Silbermann and Frederici was perfected by Petzold and Babcock. Constructed in ample quantity throughout the 1890s in the United States were the Steinway's celebrated iron framed over strung squares, which were infact, twice as huge and hefty, compared to the size of Zumpe's wood framed instruments which were given preference to, a century before, largely owing to its economical construction and cost, with performance and resonating frequency limited by simple actions and closely spaced strings.

The tall, vertically played upright grand was well-organized with the soundboard and bridges arranged perpendicularly with keys in such a way that the strings did not stretch out to the floor. The 19th centurys vertical grand Giraffe piano, alongwith pyramid and lyre pianos functioned on this principle, built in more emotively shaped cases and designed to save floor space.

The very tall cabinet piano patented by Southwell featured strings arranged perpendicularly on an incessant frame with bridges stretched out, reaching the floor, behind the keyboard. The short cottage upright with vertical stringing introduced by Robert Wornum in around 1815, make use of the damper mechanism owing to which it is often referred to as the birdcage pianos. Later arrived, the oblique or diagonally strung upright introduced in France by Roller & Blanchet during the late 1820s. The tiny spinet upright was built from the mid 1930s up to present times. The low position of the hammers adopted the use of a "drop action" to sustain a significant keyboard height.

The upright, grand, and concert grand pianos prevailing currently have acquired their existing appearance and configuration by the end of the 19th century. Additionally, various enhancements have been made in its creation process, which infact is a continuous progression.


Schematic depiction of a piano

A schematic depiction of structure of a piano.

Every piano consists of the following essential features:

  • case
  • soundboard
  • tailpiece
  • action
  • keyboard
  • pedals

The case is actually the framework of a piano its chassis, which adjusts in itself, all the strings and the devices which are responsible for produce cantabile sound. The frame is usually made of iron. At the rear end is attached the string plate, into which the strings are fastened. In the front is the wrest plank, into which the tuning pins are set. Around these is wound the other end of the strings, and by turning these pins the tension of the strings is regulated.

The soundboard is a thin piece of fine-grained spruce positioned beneath the strings which causes the tone to reinforce using sympathetic vibration. Generally, the soundboard is made from Sitka spruce of around 3/8" in thickness. The soundboard may be crowned or slightly curved upwards towards the strings in order to retain compression, making it vibrate more dynamically, and keeps it from collapsing due to the pressure from the strings.
The tailpiece comprises of the strings, the metal frame responsible for keeping them in tension, and the soundboard, made from hardwood, usually fir or beech. The purpose of the soundboard is to boost the vibration of the strings by resonance. The strings are made of steel. In the lower register, there is one string per note, and in the higher register, every note is composed by two and eventually three strings, struck concurrently by one hammer. The tension is the strings is present owing to a metal frame which is by and large, composed of iron. At one end, the strings are attached to the frame by means of small spikes, while, at the other end, they are attached to metal devices called pins. The pins are laminated in a hardwood plank, called the pinblock, positioned in the front part of the case. The piano is tuned by "moving" the pins with suitable keys, loosening or tightening the strings, which consequently, helps in adjusting the pitch of the sound.

The action is the entire mechanism attached to the keyboard which drives the hammer against the strings. It converts the downward force on the key into a hammer stroke, which results in an escapement or release of the hammer after it hits the strings

Mostly, every modern piano has 36 black keys and 52 white keys for a total of 88 keys i.e., seven octaves alongwith a minor third, from A0 to C8. Many primitive pianos possess only 85 keys i.e., seven octaves from A0 to A7, however, some piano-makers vary the range the range in one or both directions. The extra keys are pre-dominantly added for the purpose of increasing resonance from the associated strings, meaning, they gently vibrate alongwith other strings every time the damper pedal is depressed, thus producing a fuller tone. The extra keys are the same as the other keys in appearance.
Small studio upright acoustical pianos comprising of only 65 keys have been manufactured which is handy and are generally, useful for pianists always on a move.
Piano Pedals

Usually, a piano has two pedals, but nowadays most of the pianos come with three pedals: the damper pedal on the right, played with the right foot; the soft pedal on the left, played with the left foot; and the sostenuto pedal in the middle, played with the left foot. In all cases, the end of the pedal remains in contact with the ball of the foot in line with the big toe. The heel of the foot remains on the floor the whole time, and the foot should remain in contact with the pedal at all times.

1. Damper pedal

The damper pedal sometimes called the sustain pedal or loud pedal or even simply called "the pedal", is positionwise, the rightmost pedal in the group. The functioning for each note, except in the top two octaves, includes a damper positioned above the strings stop the strings from vibrating, thus, immediately stopping the sound on release of the key. Generally, the damper elevates from the strings whenever the key is pressed. Though, when the damper pedal is depressed, all the dampers on the piano are simultaneously lifted, which results in releasing all the strings from contact with dampers.

2. Soft pedal

The soft pedal or "una corda" pedal positioned on the leftmost in the row of pedals, is designed to lock in place, supporting the effect without the musicians constant pressure to the pedal. The soft pedal shifts the whole action alongwith the keyboard a little to the right, so that hammers that commonly strike all three of the strings for a note strike only two instead. Its primary function is to manipulate the sound quality.

3. Sostenuto pedal

The sostenuto pedal - or the middle pedal holds dampers in a raised position for keys which have been struck and held before activation of the pedal. The right pedal raises all the dampers, allowing the strings to resonate freely.

The use of these pedals result in producing subtle alterations in sound and tone quality.

How the Piano Operates

Basically, when a piano key is pressed down, its tail rotates upward and lifts a lever that strikes a hammer against the strings for that specific key's note. Simultaneously, a damper elevates from these strings, causing them to vibrate more freely. When the key is moderately released, the damper drops back onto the strings and quietens the note. When the key is fully released, all parts of the mechanism retreat back to their original positions gravity. As in the case of grand pianos, upright pianos do not depend on gravity for this purpose; instead, they possess various springs and small strips of cloth to pull some of the action parts back into place.
Pianos come is differing shapes, styles, designs, mostly appearing in two basic forms; vertical and horizontal. Basically, there are two major categories of pianos:

Acoustic pianos which include upright and grand pianos
Digital pianos which include electronic pianos

A standard acoustic piano operates manually with its components the vibrating the strings which results in producing a sound. Each key characterizes a different pitch. Hammers, keys, pedals and piano cabinet all function manually which make-up the construction of an acoustic piano. When the pianist strikes a key, the hammers strike the strings and the ensuing vibration within the cabinet produces the beautiful sound youve come to expect from an acoustic piano.

Grand Piano

The largest piano type, and undoubtedly, the most majestic and expensive one Grand Pianos are horizontally built soundboards, ranging from 45 to 9 in length, and is encased in a durable opening platform which lifts on the left in an upwards direction. Dampers lie on top of the strings, adjacent to the hammers which are also positioned horizontally. Internally, it is supported with form-holders, generally made of wood, together with the small equipped metal reinforcements. Keys are made of wood layered in ivory, or at times pure ivory, though varying according to the piano's makers and categories. The grand piano featured the standard 88 keys. Grand pianos appear in different sizes, including the "concert grand", which is about 2.2 m to 3 m long, the "parlor grand" which is about 1.7 m to 2.2 m and the smaller "baby grand".
Upright Piano

This is a piano whose strings are stretched vertically, perpendicular to the floor. This kind of piano can vary in height from 36 to 60 inches. Also called vertical pianos, these are rather compact in size owing to the frame and strings which are placed vertically, stretching out in both directions from the keyboard and hammers. Since the hammers strike outward or horizontally, they take slightly longer to return to resting position than the hammers of a grand. Uprights generally are less costly, though there are some may get pricey, depending on the model. Though, uprights often are considered low-grade in front of the grand pianos, however, a five-foot upright can rival a typical grand in terms of tone quality and loudness. Typically the keyboard is similar to that of the grand, but varies in material construction.

In general, upright pianos can be sorted out in four types, depending on the size and structure variations;

Full-size or Professional Upright Pianos the largest among all the vertical pianos - are usually available with a height varying from 47 - 60", and are preferred more rather professionally. This type of piano uses a full size direct blow action with added components called stickers. On top of the sticker, is present an adjustable a dowel. These parts extend from the key up to the bottom of a direct blow action.

Studio Pianos - which come in a range of 44 - 47" in height, use a direct blow action with the action resting directly on the back of the key. Studio pianos will generally have a better sound than either a console or spinet and touch will also generally be better. Because these pianos can have much better sound and touch because of their design, manufacturers also tend to spend more time on the quality aspects of these pianos.

Console Pianos - with a height ranging between 40 - 44" feature 3 different types of actions. They can have an indirect blow or drop action, a compressed action, or a full blow action.

Spinet Pianos - varying between 36 - 40" in height uses an indirect or drop action behind the keys and either partly or completely below the keys.

Other acoustic pianos include toy pianos, specifically made for kids which usually is no more than 50 cm in width, made out of wood and plastic and use the same musical scales as full-size pianos.


A digital piano is a modern electronic musical instrument built to be used as an alternative to a traditional piano, both in the way it feels to play and in the sound produces. Unlike acoustic pianos, they have no hammers, no strings and no soundboard to produce sound. Instead, they are high quality recorded samples of grand pianos.There are some digital pianos available which have been in the same fashion as an acoustic piano. Even though digital pianos might not seem to give the genuine feel in sound, however they have many advantages over normal pianos. Digital pianos have been in market since the 1980s. It functions on digital sampling technology in order to reproduce the sound of each piano note. The top digital pianos are very classy, with added features including working pedals, weighted keys, multiple voices, and MIDI interfaces.

Apart aforementioned, there are also other categories of pianos which include Electric Pianos, Rhodes Piano, and Stage Piano.

Electric Pianos, which made appearance in the 1960s, produce sounds mechanically which are converted into electronic signals by pickups. Rhodes Pianos is a brand of electric piano which also works on the principle of producing sound electromechanically. Due to the distinctiveness of the sound it reproduces, it is often utilized in thousands of songs of differing musical genres since 1965.

Stage Piano is also an electronic keyboard designed for serving professional musicians for various live onstage performances. Although stage pianos have built-in features similar to digital pianos designed for in-home use and electronic synthesizers, yet they include other features which makes them preferred over digital pianos, providing a small number of sounds including acoustic piano, electric piano, and Hammond organ.


Some of the popular names in piano manufacturers, particularly acoustic pianos include:

Steinway & Sons, Baldwin, Wurlitzer, Chickering, Mason and Rich, Cable, and Winter, belonging to United States;

Yamaha, Kawai, Pearl River, Samick, Young Chang, Nordiska, Carl Ebel, Richter, Daewoo, and Hyundai, belonging to Asia;

Germany/Austrian manufacturers namely Bechstein, Ibich, Blthner; Feurich, Pfeiffer, Hupfeld, Rnisch, Wilh. Steinberg, Steingraeber, Brckner, Solton; Stenmann, Haessler, Steinway Haus, Bsendorfer, Schimmel, and August Frster;

Petrof, Scholze, Rsler, Bohemia, and Rieger-Kloss of Czech Republic;

Pleyel, Gaveau, Rameau, and Erard of France;

Kemble, Chappell, Collard and Collard, Whelpdale, Knight, Bentley, Welmar, Marshal & Rose, Broadwood and Woodchester from UK.

In addition, Alesis, Casio, Daewoo, Bohm, Ensonio, Farfisa, Gem, Hammond, Kawai, Korg, Kurzweil, Orla, Roland, Solton, Suzuki, Technics, Viscount, Wersi, and Yamaha are some existing manufacturers who excel in making digital pianos.

Major Piano Brands:

Baldwin was established in 1862 is America's largest piano manufacturers, which produces excellent acoustic and digital pianos in both upright and grand cabinets.

Bechstein was founded by Carl Bechstein in 1826 and is included among the great German piano manufacturers in the entire world. Bosendorfer
Bosendorfer is an Austrian company, set up in 1828 in Vienna, making finest quality of pianos ever since its inception.

Casio was responsible for manufacturing the world's first home keyboard back in 1981 and currently, produces a wide array of digital pianos and keyboards of affordable prices.

Japanese piano-makers Kawai, was established in year 1927 and is considered among Japan's second largest company, in production of both acoustic and digital pianos.

Roland manufactures a diverse range of home keyboards, digital pianos, and other electronic musical instruments comprising of synthesizers, guitar products, electronic percussion kits, digital recording equipment, amplifiers and audio processing devices.

Steinway pianos the top-notch manufacturers, show no compromise in terms of are both quality and cost and are often enlisted amongst the premium names in pianos-makers. Steinway & Sons manufactures pianos in the United States.

Ever since 1900, when the founder Torakusu Yamaha built Japan's first piano, Yamaha has built up quite a reputation in manufacturing finest quality of acoustic, digital pianos and acoustic/digital pianos.

Pianos need proper care and maintenance. For that, following instructions would be fruitful for you and your piano:

Cleaning the Keys
For cleaning the keys, REMEMBER, never to use rubbing alcohol, bleach or other similar cleaning products, since these products consist of certain constituents which dry out the essential oils present in your piano's ivory keys. Its better to wipe off the keys with a damp cloth and a cleaning agent particularly meant for pianos, for further help, you can consult your dealer or piano technician for your brand. Remember to wipe only the key tops and avoid letting the sides of the keys to moisturize. In some cases, the dye used on the black keys might come off, so it is advisable to use different cloths for the white and black keys. Incase of plastic keys, you can use a damp cloth and a gentle soap.

Cleaning the Cabinet

Cabinet - the body of the piano is generally made from different types of wood, grains and finishes and since we know, that wood furniture needs extra care and protection, from dust, dirt and specially termites. Usually, a soft cloth does well in removing dust and dirt. There are some products available conveniently for cleaning the piano cabinet.

Cleaning the Soundboard

Usually, it is slight tough to clean the soundboard, compared to other components of a piano. Dust and debris and strange enough sometimes accidentally paper clips, buttons and other small articles get stuck in this part of the piano. The best way to clean it up is using a vacuum, without coming in contact with the strings or anything in the soundboard. If the debris is wedged tightly inside, DO NOT use any sharp object to try removing it. If still no success with it, you can hire the services of a technician.

Humidity and Temperature

Humidity and temperature may greatly affect the sound quality and performance of a piano. High Humidity causes keys to stick or become sluggish and cause strings and tuning pins to rust. Low humidity affects the sound of the keys, resulting in loosening them and causing cracks in the soundboards. A humidity range of 35-55% is bearable for the piano. To protect your piano from humidity, place it in a humid-free environment and also, using a humidifier and dehumidifier will be effective. A temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit is endurable, and thus, a piano should be kept away from heat or fireplaces and avoid placing it near windows where direct sun rays flow in.

Piano Tuning
It is advisable to tune your piano at least twice a year and it is preferred to seek out help from a registered tuner-technician who is an expert in his work.

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Copyright © 2014 | Author: Duane Shinn