A Brief History of the Piano

The modern piano we play on today went through many developments and innovations to become the instrument we know and love. Specifically, there were three dominant keyboard predecessors to the piano that were used in the Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical periods, not including the organ.

One of these is the clavichord, which was invented in the early fourteenth century. This instrument’s name comes from the latin word clavis meaning “key” and the Greek word chorda meaning “string.” The clavichord produces its sound by having small metal blades called tangents strike the strings. The modern piano’s range is over seven octaves while the clavichord’s range was usually between four and six.


Clavichord at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Related to the clavichord was one of the most popular keyboard instruments in the Renaissance and Baroque eras, the harpsichord. The harpsichord produces its sound by plucking the strings when the keys are pressed. In the Baroque period, solo harpsichord music became very popular with composers like Johann Sebastian Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, and Francois Couperin. These composers’ harpsichord works, like their dance suites, fantasias, fugues, and sonatas are still played today on the modern piano. Bach wrote some of the first concertos for a keyboard instrument when he wrote his harpsichord concertos — he even wrote one concerto for four harpsichords!

The modern piano’s closest relative is the fortepiano, which was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori around 1700. This instrument was most popular in the Classical period. Composers like Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven wrote keyboard works with this instrument in mind. The fortepiano’s big innovation was its ability to have dynamic control and play both loud and soft (forte and piano). The fortepiano was able to do this because the strings were struck by a hammer instead of being plucked like the harpsichord. There are terrific recordings of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven sonatas, concertos, and chamber music performed on fortepianos. Go and check them out!


Fortepiano at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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