The invention of the piano

You like to play the piano, but you don’t really know who we have to thank for our favorite instrument? We’ll tell you!

In this article you will learn, among other things:

  • Who invented the piano
  • When the piano was invented
  • Why the piano was invented
Invention of the piano by Bartolomeo Cristofori

The piano is one of the most beautiful instruments we know. Therefore, we should not forget who we have to thank for the fact that we can live out our musical passion in such a great way.

Why did Bartolomeo Cristofori invent the piano?

The invention of the piano as we know it today goes back to a history of frustration. For in many contemporary testimonies we can read that the inventor of the piano, the Italian Bartolomeo Cristofori, was very dissatisfied with the way the harpsichord worked.

The harpsichord was the dominant keyboard instrument of its time and, from today’s perspective, can be considered the predecessor of the piano.

What didn’t he like about the harpsichord?

To put it succinctly, Bartolomeo Cristofori found the harpsichord too simplistic in its handling and function.

He criticized above all that with the harpsichord, and also with the clavichord related to it, it was not possible to regulate the volume of one’s own music playing.

Christofori no longer wanted to have to interpret all pieces of music at one and the same volume, but to be able to play loudly and softly and thus better express the character of the music played. Bartolomeo Cristofori’s goal was therefore to be able to convey emotions and moods more specifically through music.

Padua, the birthplace of the piano inventor Cristofori in northern Italy
Padua, the birthplace of Cristofori in northern Italy

Where and when was the piano invented?

Bartolomeo Cristofori came from Padua, Italy. Born in Padua in 1655, he died in Florence in 1731. He was considered one of the most talented instrument makers and instrument tuners of his time. Around 1690 Bartolomeo Cristofori was ordered from Padua to Florence to the court of the Medici. There he was employed as court harpsichord maker as well as curator of the musical instrument collection.

It is assumed that he was already busy at this time developing a new and more flexibly playable form of the harpsichord.

In 1694 Christofori built a first predecessor model of a modern piano in Florence.

He continued to develop this first example in the years that followed, until in 1709 he produced his first real piano, in which Bartolomeo Cristofori had completely replaced the plucking technique of the harpsichord with the hammer technique that would become common later.

The name that the builder himself chose for his instrument was

clavicembalo col piano e forte“.

If you translate this name literally from Italian into English, then this instrument was called:

“Harpsichord that can play both soft and loud notes.”

Over the years, this expansive product name was shortened further and further, until in the end only Piano remained, which can be translated into German as Klavier.

Was Bartolomeo Cristofori the only revolutionary of keyboard instruments?

Bartolomeo Cristofori was not the only representative of his time who desired more dynamic and flexible keyboard playing.

In addition to him, there were several other instrument makers who attempted to further develop the existing harpsichord and clavichord instruments and adapt them to the zeitgeist of the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

Bartolomeo Cristofori, however, was the first representative of his guild who succeeded in doing so. The other instrument makers who worked on Christofori’s theme are forgotten today.

Florence, where piano inventor Cristofori lived until his death
Florence, where Cristofori lived until his death

What did Cristofori’s piano look like?

Christofori’s first piano included four octaves. The hammers built into the piano were covered with fine leather. Furthermore, Bartolomeo Cristofori developed a functional technique in which the hammers were hurled against the strings stretched in the piano body in response to key pressure to produce sound, without subsequently falling back towards the strings again.

This allowed the strings to vibrate and produce sound freely and without restriction, and is still a strong reminder of how pianos and grand pianos work today. Furthermore, the piano inventor built his instrument so that when the key was released, the strings stopped vibrating again, so that the sound died away.

Bartolomeo Cristofori built small dampers into his piano for this purpose. The pedals, which were also built into the piano, could also be used to suspend this mechanism at the player’s request if he wanted the strings to continue to sound.

In order to be able to produce a higher sound volume, Christofori built double strings into his piano. This meant that two strings were available for each note.

What was the reaction to Cristofori’s innovation?

Bartolomeo Cristofori was probably a little ahead of his time. For among his contemporaries, his innovation found few takers or even supporters. Most musicians were happy to continue playing the harpsichord.

After Bartolomeo Cristofori had improved his prototype of the new type of piano over a period of several years, he stopped work on it again in 1726 and from then on built only harpsichords.

It is believed that the reason for this is that he felt he could not improve his instrument any further.

By this time he had built a total of 20 pianos, three of which still exist today. One of them is in the instrument collection of the University of Leipzig.