Bartolomeo Cristofori - The Inventor of the Piano Have you ever wondered who the inventor of the piano was? The piano is such a popular instrument now, but have you ever stopped to think about who had the idea of creating it? Believe it or not, at one time if you wanted to play a keyboard instrument your choices were the harpsichord or the organ. While these instruments are great, they also have some drawbacks. The main one is this - no matter how hard or soft you press the keys, they don't play any louder or softer.
Bartolomeo Cristofori – The Inventor of the Piano
Have you ever wondered who the inventor of the piano was? The piano is such a popular instrument now, but have you ever stopped to think about who had the idea of creating it?
Believe it or not, at one time if you wanted to play a keyboard instrument your choices were the organ, the harpsichord or the clavichord (we won’t discuss clavichord in this post). While these instruments are great, they also have some drawbacks. The main one is this – no matter how hard or soft you press the keys, they don’t play any louder or softer.
An organ works by emitting air through pipes in order to create sound. You can choose how many and which pipes you want the air to flow from, but beyond that your fingers themselves can’t really control the volume.
The harpsichord works by a quill plucking the string when your fingers press down the key. On some harpsichords you can choose to have two strings plucked instead of one, but beyond that there is no dynamic control. As a harpsichordist your choice of dynamic has to be either loud or soft.
However, a man by the name of Barolomeo Cristofori di Francesco created something that changed all of that. Born in 1655 in Padua, Italy, he started out as a harpsichord maker but quickly began experimenting with how you could get dynamic changes based on with how much force you touch the key. Around 1700 he began work on a new instrument.
Instead of quills plucking the strings from above when the key was pressed as with a harpsichord, this new instrument used a hammer coming from below to strike the string. Using his new invention called the escapement mechanism, he created an instrument he titled the “harpsichord gravicembalo per suonare col forte e col piano”- which basically translates to “harpsichord that can play loud and soft.” Over the years this instrument’s name has been shortened, first to “fortepiano”, and finally to what we call it today the “piano.”
Incidentally, most musical terms for the piano are in Italian due to Cristofori. For example, “Forte” means loud. “Piano” means soft. So technically the first piano, the “Fortepiano” literally translated into the “Loud-Soft”. Our modern day piano is technically known as the “Pianoforte”, or the Soft-Loud”. But as a television is called a tv, the pianoforte is called the piano. So if you have played piano for awhile, then go visit Italy – you’ll be surprised at how much you can say in Italian! But back to Cristofori…
You’re probably thinking, ‘Wow! Cristofori invented the piano!?! He must have been famous!’ But sadly, no, he was not famous, at least not for his pianos. His new invention never really caught on during his lifetime.
The pianos he made weren’t as loud as the harpsichord so many people were reluctant to use it for that reason. Even J.S. Bach didn’t like the new instrument, saying that the higher notes were simply too soft to allow a full dynamic range. It wasn’t until the late 1700s, after Cristofori had already died, that the piano began to catch on.
Even though Cristofori invented what is perhaps now the most popular instrument in the world, he never got to see that popularity. I don’t know how he was feeling about his invention when he died in 1731, but I’d like to think he knew he had invented something special!