I am writing my research paper on pianos, specifically the history of their development and their design and construction. I decided on researching this topic because this past year I have begun playing piano myself and have become much more interested in music, and this was the first topic that came to mind when this paper was assigned.
I have been fairly curious about the history of pianos and how they operate, but have never really researched much outside what I have discovered myself through playing and familiarizing myself with the instrument, so I saw this research paper as a good way to learn more about the instrument I play and share my interest.
I began researching for this paper with mostly just an interest in what was going on inside of a modern piano. I had previous knowledge about some of the history, and the basic idea of how a piano worked, but very soon after beginning my research, realized how little I really knew. I began my research by looking inside of a real piano and seeing how it reacted to the keys being pressed, pedals being pressed, and whatnot. After getting the basic idea of what was happening, I started looking on the internet to tell me what exactly I was looking at. I also began researching into the history of the piano, and other keyboard instruments that predated what we have today.
The direct precursor to the modern piano, the fortepiano, was first invented around the year 1700 by an Italian named Bartolomeo Cristofori. It was named this, with forte meaning loud, and piano meaning soft, because contrary to many previous keyboard instruments, such as the harpsichord or pipe organ, the piano was velocity sensitive, meaning the harder one would press the key, the louder the note would sound.
This led me to expand my research into what came before the fortepiano. Before the first piano was introduced, the harpsichord, its precursor, was very popular. The harpsichord was an instrument similar to a piano in that it produced a note when a key was pressed on the keyboard, but dissimilar to a piano is its action, where a note is produced when a string is plucked with a plectrum.
This instrument was limiting in that it did not allow for any variation in volume or dynamic range, as no matter how hard the keys were pressed, the note was produced at the same volume. This led Cristofori to creating the fortepiano, which had a different action which allowed for velocity sensitive keys, which meant that the harder the key was pressed, the louder the note would sound.
The piano went through many changes from when it was first introduced, only becoming what it is surprisingly recently. When the fortepiano was first introduced, it had a range of only about 49 keys, which gradually increased to the 88 keys seen on almost all pianos today. It also had hammers that were covered in leather, rather than the felt we use today, and thinner strings more similar to a harpsichord, giving it a much different sound than modern pianos.
I was surprised to learn that many famous composers, such as Mozart or Beethoven, whose works are still performed by many students of the instrument, such as myself, actually composed for this earlier form of piano, which is almost a completely different instrument.
This led me to watching videos of people playing these pieces on instruments from that time period or recreated the same as the fortepiano, and it has a completely different sound than what I was used to hearing. This was an interesting part of my research because I was able to hear what the instruments they played on hundreds of years ago would have sounded like.
The modern piano is a very complicated design, with up to 12,000 parts, and weighing up to 1,260 pounds. The main functional parts of a piano include the keyboard, hammers, dampers, strings, bridge, and soundboard. The action of a modern piano is very intricate; when you press a key on a piano, it causes a wooden lever with a felt covered hammer to strike the set of strings that correspond to that note.
At the same time, a damper that sits at rest on the string is lifted into the air. When the key is released, the damper settles back down on the strings, silencing the note. Interestingly, this action of a hammer striking the strings to produce a note not only classifies the piano as a stringed instrument, but also as a percussion instrument. There are also many other parts in the instrument designed to amplify the sound, such as the soundboard, a large piece of wood mounted beneath the strings that vibrates at the same frequency as the strings, amplifying the sound greatly, and in the case of a grand piano, the lid, which reflects the sound outward.
A piano with 88 keys has around 230 strings, with 3 strings for each treble and tenor note, and for the bass notes, decreasing from 3 to 2 to 1 string per note as it reaches the bottom of the keyboard. Each string has about 160 pounds of tension, resulting in over 35000 total pounds of tension from the strings in a modern grand piano. To keep all this tension from destroying the piano, there is a large cast-iron plate that sits above the soundboard and supports the string tension and reinforces the instrument.
On pianos, there are typically 3 pedals. The pedal all the way to the right, the sustain pedal, is the most commonly used pedal. This pedal raises the dampers off the strings, so while you are playing, the notes stay sustained for much longer. The pedal in the middle, the sostenuto pedal, has a similar function, but only raises the dampers for the specific notes you are playing at the moment you depress the pedal, only sustaining those notes. The third pedal, to the left, is the soft pedal, which shifts the entire action to the left, causing the hammers to only strike one or two of the strings for each note, as to make the piano quieter.
Before researching this topic, I knew mostly the basics on how pianos operated, but I did not know how they worked, and did not know much of what was on the inside
During my research, specifically of the history of the instrument, I often got carried away reading about other instruments that predated the modern piano, such as the pipe organ or harpsichord, and learned much about those as well. Also, many questions arose regarding the piano acoustics, meaning the physical properties that affect the sound, which will have to be researched more thoroughly later.
From doing this research project, I have learned a great deal about pianos, actually more than I was initially expecting I would. Almost all of the information in this paper I did not previously know, and I am glad to have expanded my knowledge of the instrument I play. This information might not be very relevant to everyone, as not everyone has any interest in this topic, but to those who like music or can find interest in just how much goes into making one of these instruments, they might get something out of this. After this research, I can honestly say I have a greater appreciation and respect for pianos since learning about them more and seeing what goes into making them.