The piano is a musical instrument played by means of a keyboard. It is widely known as one of the most popular instruments in the world. Widely used in Classical music for solo performances, ensemble use, chamber music, and accompaniment, the piano is also very popular as an aid to composing and rehearsal. Although not portable and often expensive, the piano's versatility and ubiquity have made it one of the world's most familiar musical instruments.
Pressing a key on the piano's keyboard causes a felt-covered hammer to strike steel strings. The hammers rebound, allowing the strings to continue vibrating at their resonant frequency. These vibrations are transmitted through a bridge to a sounding board that couples the acoustic energy to the air so that it can be heard as sound. When the key is released, a damper stops the string's vibration. See the article on Piano key frequencies for a picture of the piano keyboard and the location of middle-C. According to the Hornbostel-Sachs method of music classification, pianos are grouped with chordophones.
The word piano is a shortened form of the word pianoforte, which derives from the original Italian name for the instrument, clavicembalo [or gravicembalo] col piano e forte (literally harpsichord capable of playing at the normal level, and more strongly). The musical terms "piano" and "forte" are usually interpreted as "soft" and "loud", but this is not strictly what they mean in Italian. "Piano" means here a plane or level, suggesting the normal level of playing. "Forte" would mean a stronger, more powerful level of playing, effectively louder than usual. This refers to the instrument's responsiveness to keyboard touch, which allows the pianist to produce notes at different dynamic levels by controlling the speed with which the hammers hit the strings.
Grand piano by Louis Bas of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, France, 1781. Earliest French grand piano known to survive; includes an inverted wrestplank and action derived from the work of Bartolomeo Cristofori (ca. 1700) with ornately decorated soundboard.
Early piano replica by the modern builder Paul McNulty, after Walter & Sohn, 1805
The piano is founded on earlier technological innovations. The first string instruments with struck strings were the hammered dulcimers. During the Middle Ages, there were several attempts at creating stringed keyboard instruments with struck strings. By the 17th century, the mechanisms of keyboard instruments such as the clavichord and the harpsichord were well known. In a clavichord the strings are struck by tangents, while in a harpsichord they are plucked by quills. Centuries of work on the mechanism of the harpsichord in particular had shown the most effective ways to construct the case, soundboard, bridge, and keyboard.
The invention of the modern piano is credited to Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731) of Padua, Italy, who was employed by Ferdinando de' Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany, as the Keeper of the Instruments. He was an expert harpsichord maker and was well acquainted with the previous body of knowledge on stringed keyboard instruments. It is not known exactly when Cristofori first built a piano. An inventory made by his employers, the Medici family, indicates the existence of a piano by the year 1700; another document of doubtful authenticity indicates a date of 1698. A friend of the family by the name of Sebastian LeBlanc suggested the idea to switch the black and white keys The three Cristofori pianos that survive today date from the 1720s.
While the clavichord allowed expressive control of volume and sustain, it was too quiet for large performances. The harpsichord produced a sufficiently loud sound, but had little expressive control over each note. The piano was likely formed as an attempt to combine loudness with control, avoiding the trade-offs of available instruments.
Cristofori's great success was in solving, without any prior example, the fundamental mechanical problem of piano design: the hammer must strike the string, but not remain in contact with it (as a tangent remains in contact with a clavichord string) because this would damp the sound. Moreover, the hammer must return to its rest position without bouncing violently, and it must be possible to repeat a note rapidly. Cristofori's piano action served as a model for the many different approaches to piano actions that followed. While Cristofori's early instruments were made with thin strings and were much quieter than the modern piano, compared to the clavichord (the only previous keyboard instrument capable of minutely controlled dynamic nuance through the keyboard) they were considerably louder and had more sustaining power.
Cristofori's new instrument remained relatively unknown until an Italian writer, Scipione Maffei, wrote an enthusiastic article about it (1711), including a diagram of the mechanism. This article was widely distributed, and most of the next generation of piano builders started their work because of reading it. One of these builders was Gottfried Silbermann, better known as an organ builder. Silbermann's pianos were virtually direct copies of Cristofori's, with one important addition: Silbermann invented the forerunner of the modern damper pedal, which lifts all the dampers from the strings at once.
Silbermann showed Johann Sebastian Bach one of his early instruments in the 1730s, but Bach did not like it at that time, claiming that the higher notes were too soft to allow a full dynamic range. Although this earned him some animosity from Silbermann, the criticism was apparently heeded. Bach did approve of a later instrument he saw in 1747, and even served as an agent in selling Silbermann's pianos.
Piano making flourished during the late 18th century in the Viennese school, which included Johann Andreas Stein (who worked in Augsburg, Germany) and the Viennese makers Nannette Streicher (daughter of Stein) and Anton Walter. Viennese-style pianos were built with wood frames, two strings per note, and had leather-covered hammers. Some of these Viennese pianos had the opposite coloring of modern-day pianos; the natural keys were black and the accidental keys white. It was for such instruments that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed his concertos and sonatas, and replicas of them are built today for use in authentic-instrument performance of his music. The pianos of Mozart's day had a softer, clearer tone than today's pianos or English pianos, with less sustaining power. The term fortepiano is nowadays often used to distinguish the 18th-century instrument from later pianos.
In the period lasting from about 1790 to 1860, the Mozart-era piano underwent tremendous changes that led to the modern form of the instrument. This revolution was in response to a consistent preference by composers and pianists for a more powerful, sustained piano sound, and made possible by the ongoing Industrial Revolution with technological resources such as high-quality steel, called piano wire, for strings, and precision casting for the production of iron frames. Over time, the tonal range of the piano was also increased from the five octaves of Mozart's day to the 7¼ or more octaves found on modern pianos.
Broadwood square action
Early technological progress owed much to the firm of Broadwood. John Broadwood joined with another Scot, Robert Stodart, and a Dutchman, Americus Backers, to design a piano in the harpsichord case—the origin of the "grand". They achieved this in about 1777. They quickly gained a reputation for the splendour and powerful tone of their instruments, with Broadwood constructing ones that were progressively larger, louder, and more robustly constructed. They sent pianos to both Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven, and were the first firm to build pianos with a range of more than five octaves: five octaves and a fifth during the 1790s, six octaves by 1810 (Beethoven used the extra notes in his later works), and seven octaves by 1820. The Viennese makers similarly followed these trends, however the two schools used different piano actions: Broadwoods were more robust, Viennese instruments were more sensitive.
Erard square action
By the 1820s, the center of innovation had shifted to Paris, where the Pleyel firm manufactured pianos used by Frédéric Chopin and the Érard firm manufactured those used by Franz Liszt. In 1821, Sébastien Érard invented the double escapement action, which incorporated a repetition lever (also called the balancier) that permitted a note to be repeated even if the key had not yet risen to its maximum vertical position. This facilitated rapid playing of repeated notes, and this musical device was pioneered by Liszt. When the invention became public, as revised by Henri Herz, the double escapement action gradually became standard in grand pianos, and is still incorporated into all grand pianos currently produced.
Other improvements of the mechanism included the use of felt hammer coverings instead of layered leather. Felt, which was first introduced by Henri Pape in 1826, was a more consistent material, permitting wider dynamic ranges as hammer weights and string tension increased. The sostenuto pedal (see below), invented in 1844 by Jean Louis Boisselot and improved by the Steinway firm in 1874, allowed a wider range of effects.
One of the major technical innovations that helped to create the sound of the modern piano was the use of a strong iron frame. Also called the "plate", the iron frame sits atop the soundboard, and serves as the primary bulwark against the force of string tension. The increased structural integrity of the iron frame allowed the use of thicker, tenser, and more numerous strings. In a modern grand the total string tension can exceed 20 tons. The single piece cast iron frame was patented in 1825 in Boston by Alpheus Babcock, combining the metal hitch pin plate (1821, claimed by Broadwood on behalf of Samuel Hervé) and resisting bars (Thom and Allen, 1820, but also claimed by Broadwood and Érard). Babcock later worked for the Chickering & Mackays firm who patented the first full iron frame for grand pianos in 1843. Composite forged metal frames were preferred by many European makers until the American system was fully adopted by the early 20th century.
Other important advances included changes to the way the piano was strung, such as the use of a "choir" of three strings rather than two for all but the lowest notes, and the implementation of an over-strung scale in which the strings are placed in two separate planes, each with its own bridge height. (This is also called "cross-stringing". Whereas earlier instruments' bass strings were a mere continuation of a single string plane, over-stringing placed the bass bridge behind and to the treble side of the tenor bridge area. This crossed the strings, with the bass strings in the higher plane.) This permitted a much narrower cabinet at the "nose" end of the piano, and optimized the transition from unwound tenor strings to the iron or copper-wrapped bass strings. Over-stringing was invented by Jean-Henri Pape during the 1820s, and first patented for use in grand pianos in the United States by Henry Steinway, Jr. in 1859.
Duplex scaling: Treble strings of a 182 cm. grand piano. From lower left to upper right: dampers, main sounding length of strings, treble bridge, duplex string length, duplex bridge (long bar perpendicular to strings), hitchpins
Duplex or aliquot scaling, patented in 1872 by Theodore Steinway, enhanced the voice of each note by using sympathetic vibration. Short lengths of non-speaking wire were bridged by the aliquot throughout much of upper range of the piano, always in locations that caused them to vibrate in conformity with their respective overtones--typically in octaves and twelfths. Similar systems developed by Blüthner (1872), as well as Taskin (1788), and Collard (1821) used more distinctly ringing, undamped vibrations to modify tone.
Some early pianos had shapes and designs that are no longer in use. The square piano (not truly square, but rectangular) was cross strung at an extremely acute angle above the hammers, with the keyboard set along the long side. This design is attributed to Gottfried Silbermann or Christian Ernst Friderici on the continent, and Johannes Zumpe or Harman Vietor in England, and it was improved by changes first introduced by Guillaume-Lebrecht Petzold in France and Alpheus Babcock in the United States. Square pianos were built in great numbers through the 1840s in Europe and the 1890s in America, and saw the most visible changes of any type of piano: the celebrated iron-framed, over-strung squares manufactured by Steinway & Sons were more than two-and-a-half times the size of Zumpe's wood-framed instruments from a century before. Their overwhelming popularity was due to inexpensive construction and price, although their performance and tone were often limited by simple actions and string spacing that made proper hammer alignment difficult.
The mechanism in upright pianos is perpendicular to the keys.
The tall, vertically strung upright grand was arranged like a grand set on end, with the soundboard and bridges above the keys, and tuning pins below them. The term was later revived by many manufacturers for advertising purposes. Giraffe, pyramid and lyre pianos were arranged in a somewhat similar fashion in evocatively shaped cases.
The very tall cabinet piano was introduced about 1805 and was built through the 1840s. It had strings arranged vertically on a continuous frame with bridges extended nearly to the floor, behind the keyboard and very large sticker action. The short cottage upright or pianino with vertical stringing, made popular by Robert Wornum around 1815, was built into the 20th century. They are informally called birdcage pianos because of their prominent damper mechanism. Pianinos were distinguished from the oblique, or diagonally strung upright made popular in France by Roller & Blanchet during the late 1820s. The tiny spinet upright was manufactured from the mid-1930s until recent times. The low position of the hammers required the use of a "drop action" to preserve a reasonable keyboard height.
Modern upright and grand pianos attained their present forms by the end of the 19th century. Improvements have been made in manufacturing processes, and many individual details of the instrument continue to receive attention.
In grand pianos, the frame and strings are horizontal, with the strings extending away from the keyboard. There are several sizes of grand piano. A rough generalization distinguishes the concert grand (between about 2.2 m and 3 m/9.84 feet long) from the parlor grand or boudoir grand (about 1.7 m to 2.2 m) and the smaller baby grand (around 1.5 m).
All else being equal, longer pianos with longer strings have larger, richer sound and lower inharmonicity of the strings. Inharmonicity is the degree to which the frequencies of overtones (known as partials, partial tones, or harmonics) depart from whole multiples of the fundamental frequency. Pianos with shorter and thicker strings (e.g., baby grands) have more inharmonicity. The longer strings of a concert grand vibrate more accurately than the shorter, thicker strings of a small grand, giving the concert grand's strings a truer harmonic balance than its smaller counterpart. With smaller pianos it is difficult to stretch octaves to account for their inharmonicity. Not so in a concert grand. In particular the "stretch" of octaves in a concert grand allows perfect fifths to remain virtually pure throughout the instrument's compass. This gives the instrument a brilliant, singing and sustaining tone quality. Full-size grands are usually used for public concerts, whereas smaller grands are often chosen for domestic use where space and cost are considerations.
Upright pianos, also called vertical pianos, are more compact because the frame and strings are vertical. The hammers move horizontally, and are returned to their resting position by springs, which are prone to wear and tear. Upright pianos with unusually tall frames and long strings are sometimes called upright grand pianos. Some authors classify modern pianos according to their height and to modifications of the action that are necessary to accommodate the height.
Studio pianos are around 42 to 45 inches tall. This is the shortest cabinet that can accommodate a full-sized action located above the keyboard.
Console pianos have a compact action (shorter hammers), and are a few inches shorter than studio models.
The top of a spinet model barely rises above the keyboard. The action is located below, operated by vertical wires that are attached to the backs of the keys.
Anything taller than a studio piano is called an upright.
Toy pianos began to be manufactured in the 19th century.
In 1863, Henri Fourneaux invented the player piano, which plays itself from a piano roll without the need for a pianist. A performance is recorded onto rolls of paper with perforations, and the player piano replays the performance using pneumatic devices. Modern equivalents of the player piano include the Bösendorfer CEUS and the Yamaha Disklavier, using solenoids and MIDI rather than pneumatics and rolls.
A silent piano is an acoustic piano having an option to silence the strings by means of an interposing hammer bar. They are designed for private silent practice.
The transposing piano was invented in 1801 by Edward Ryley. It has a lever under the keyboard used to move the keyboard relative to the strings so that a pianist can play in a familiar key while the music sounds in a different key.
The prepared piano, encountered in some contemporary art music, is a grand piano with objects placed inside it to alter its sound, or that has had its mechanism changed in some other way. The scores for music for prepared piano specify the modifications, for example instructing the pianist to insert pieces of rubber, or paper, or metal screws or washers, in between the strings. These either mute the strings or alter their timbre.
Available since the 1980s, digital pianos use digital sampling technology to reproduce the sound of each piano note. Digital pianos can be sophisticated, with features including working pedals, weighted keys, multiple voices, and MIDI interfaces. However, when the damper pedal (see below) is depressed on such an instrument, there are no strings to vibrate sympathetically. Physical models of sympathetic vibration are incorporated into the synthesis software of some higher end digital pianos, such as the Yamaha Clavinova series, or the KAWAI MP8 series.
With the advent of powerful desktop computers, highly realistic pianos have become available as affordable software modules. Some of these modules, such as Synthogy's Ivory released in 2004, use multi-gigabyte piano sample sets with as many as 90 recordings, each lasting many seconds, for each of the 88 (some have 81) keys under different conditions, augmented by additional samples to emulate sympathetic resonance, key release, the drop of the dampers, and simulations of piano techniques like re-pedaling. Some other software modules, such as Modartt's Pianoteq released in 2006, use no samples whatsoever and are a pure synthesis of all aspects of the physicalities that go into the creation of a real piano's sound.
In recent times, piano manufactures have superseded the old fashioned pianola or player piano with new innovative pianos that play themselves via a CD or MP3 Player. Similar in concept to a player piano, the PianoDisc or iQ systems installed in select pianos will 'play themselves' when prompted by a certain file format designed to be interpreted by software installed and connected to the piano. Such additions are quite expensive, often doubling the cost of a piano and are available in both upright and grand pianos.
Almost every modern piano has 36 black keys and 52 white keys for a total of 88 keys (seven octaves plus a minor third, from A0 to C8). Many older pianos only have 85 keys (seven octaves from A0 to A7), while some manufacturers extend the range further in one or both directions.
Some Bösendorfer pianos, for example, extend the normal range down to F0, with one other model going as far as a bottom C0, making a full eight octave range. These extra keys are sometimes hidden under a small hinged lid that can cover the keys to prevent visual disorientation for pianists unfamiliar with the extra keys. On others, the colors of the extra white keys are reversed (black instead of white).
The extra keys are added primarily for increased resonance from the associated strings; that is, they vibrate sympathetically with other strings whenever the damper pedal is depressed and thus give a fuller tone. Only a very small number of works composed for piano actually use these notes. More recently, the Stuart and Sons company has also manufactured extended-range pianos, with the first 102 key piano. On their instruments, the frequency range extends from C0 to F8, which is the widest practical range for the acoustic piano. The extra keys are the same as the other keys in appearance.
Small studio upright acoustical pianos with only 65 keys have been manufactured for use by roving pianists. Known as gig pianos and still containing a cast iron harp, these are comparatively lightweight and can be easily transported to and from engagements by only two people. As their harp is longer than that of a spinet or console piano, they have a stronger bass sound that to some pianists is well worth the trade-off in range that a reduced key-set offers.
The toy piano manufacturer Schoenhut started manufacturing both grands and uprights with only 44 or 49 keys, and shorter distance between the keyboard and the pedals. These pianos are true pianos with action and strings. The pianos were introduced to their product line in response to numerous requests in favor of it.
Pianos have had pedals, or some close equivalent, since the earliest days. (In the 18th century, some pianos used levers pressed upward by the player's knee instead of pedals.) Most grand pianos in the US have three pedals: the soft pedal (una corda), sostenuto, and sustain pedal (from left to right, respectively), while in Europe, the standard is two pedals: the soft pedal and the sustain pedal. Most modern upright pianos also have three pedals: soft pedal, practice pedal and sustain pedal, though older or cheaper models may lack the practice pedal. Again, in Europe the standard for upright pianos is two pedals: the soft and the sustain pedals.
The sustain pedal (or, damper pedal) is often simply called "the pedal", since it is the most frequently used. It is placed as the rightmost pedal in the group. It lifts the dampers from all keys, sustaining all played notes. In addition, it alters the overall tone by allowing all strings, even the ones not directly played, to reverberate.
The soft pedal or una corda pedal is placed leftmost in the row of pedals. In grand pianos it shifts the entire action/keyboard assembly to the right (a very few instruments have shifted left) so that the hammers hit two of the three strings for each note. In the earliest pianos whose unisons were bichords rather than trichords, the action shifted so that hammers hit a single string, hence the name una corda, or 'one string'. The effect is to soften the note as well as change the tone. In uprights this action is not possible; instead the pedal moves the hammers closer to the strings, allowing the hammers to strike with less kinetic energy. This produces a slightly softer sound, but no change in timbre.
On grand pianos, the middle pedal is a sostenuto pedal. This pedal keeps raised any damper already raised at the moment the pedal is depressed. This makes it possible to sustain selected notes (by depressing the sostenuto pedal before those notes are released) while the player's hands are free to play additional notes (which aren't sustained). This can be useful for musical passages with pedal points and other otherwise tricky or impossible situations.
On many upright pianos, there is a middle pedal called the "practice" or celeste pedal. This drops a piece of felt between the hammers and strings, greatly muting the sounds. Often this pedal can be shifted while depressed, into a "locking" position.
There are also non-standard variants. On some pianos (grands and verticals), the middle pedal can be a bass sustain pedal: that is, when it is depressed, the dampers lift off the strings only in the bass section. This pedal would be used only when a pianist needs to sustain a single bass note or chord over many measures, while playing the melody in the treble section. On the Stuart and Sons piano as well as the largest Fazioli piano, there is a fourth pedal to the left of the principal three. This fourth pedal works in the same way as the soft pedal of an upright piano, moving the hammers closer to the strings.
An upright pedal piano
The rare transposing piano, of which Irving Berlin possessed an example, has a middle pedal that functions as a clutch that disengages the keyboard from the mechanism, enabling the keyboard to be moved to the left or right with a lever. The entire action of the piano is thus shifted to allow the pianist to play music written in one key so that it sounds in a different key.
There were three piano companies to include extra pedals other than the standard two or three. Two of these companies offered a piano with four pedals (Crown and Schubert Piano Co.), and Wing and Son of New York offered a five pedal piano from approximately 1893 through the 1920s. There is no mention of the company past the 1930s. Labeled left to right the pedals are Mandolin, Orchestra, Expression, Soft, and Forte (Sustain). The Mandolin pedal produces a sound similar to a vibrato feel by bouncing a set of small hammers against the strings, enabling the piano to mimic a mandolin, guitar, banjo, zither and harp. The Orchestra (Orch) pedal used a similar approach, lowering a set of metal tipped felt strips in between the hammers and the strings. This extended the life of the hammers when the Orch pedal was used, a good idea for practicing, and created an echo-like sound that mimicked playing in an orchestral hall.
The pedalier piano, or pedal piano, is a rare type of piano that includes a pedalboard, enabling bass register notes to be played with the feet, as is standard on the organ. There are two types of pedal piano: the pedal board may be an integral part of the instrument, using the same strings and mechanism as the manual keyboard, or, less frequently, it may consist of two independent pianos (each with its separate mechanics and strings), which are placed one above the other, a regular piano played by the hands and a bass-register piano played by the feet.
Many parts of a piano are made of materials selected for sturdiness. In quality pianos, the outer rim of the piano is made of a hardwood, normally maple or beech. According to Harold A. Conklin, the purpose of a sturdy rim is so that "the vibrational energy will stay as much as possible in the soundboard instead of dissipating uselessly in the case parts, which are inefficient radiators of sound."
View from below of a 182-cm grand piano. In order of distance from viewer: softwood braces, tapered soundboard ribs, soundboard. The metal rod at lower right is a humidity control device.
The rim is normally made by laminating flexible strips of hardwood to the desired shape, a system that was developed by Theodore Steinway in 1880. The thick wooden braces at the bottom (grands) or back (uprights) of the piano are not as acoustically important as the rim, and even in high-end pianos are often made of softwood to save weight. The requirement of structural strength, fulfilled with stout hardwood and thick metal, makes a piano heavy; even a small upright can weigh 136 kg (300 lb), and the Steinway concert grand (Model D) weighs 480 kg (990 lb). The largest piano built, the Fazioli F308, weighs 691 kg (1520 lb).
The pinblock, which holds the tuning pins in place, is another area of the piano where toughness is important. It is made of hardwood, (often maple) and generally is laminated (built of multiple layers) for additional strength and gripping power. Piano strings (also called piano wire), which must endure years of extreme tension and hard blows, are made of high quality steel. They are manufactured to vary as little as possible in diameter, since all deviations from uniformity introduce tonal distortion. The bass strings of a piano are made of a steel core wrapped with copper wire, to increase their mass whilst retaining flexibility. If the strings in the treble section were only single, they would be quiet compared with the bass strings because of their smaller diameter, so they are doubled in higher and tripled in the highest octaves.
The plate, or metal frame, of a piano is usually made of cast iron. It is advantageous for the plate to be quite massive. Since the strings are attached to the plate at one end, any vibrations transmitted to the plate will result in loss of energy to the desired (efficient) channel of sound transmission, namely the bridge and the soundboard. Some manufacturers now use cast steel in their plates, for greater strength. The casting of the plate is a delicate art, since the dimensions are crucial and the iron shrinks by about one percent during cooling.
The inclusion in a piano of an extremely large piece of metal is potentially an aesthetic handicap, which piano makers overcome by polishing, painting and decorating the plate. Plates often include the manufacturer's ornamental medallion and can be strikingly attractive. In an effort to make pianos lighter, Alcoa worked with Winter and Company piano manufacturers to make pianos using an aluminum plate during the 1940s. The use of aluminum for piano plates, however, did not become widely accepted and was discontinued.
The numerous grand parts and upright parts of a piano action are generally hardwood (e.g. maple, beech. hornbeam). However, since World War II, plastics have become available. Early plastics were incorporated into some pianos in the late 1940s and 1950s, but proved disastrous because they crystallized and lost their strength after only a few decades of use. The Steinway firm once incorporated Teflon, a synthetic material developed by DuPont, for some grand action parts in place of cloth, but ultimately abandoned the experiment due to an inherent "clicking" that invariably developed over time. (Teflon is "humidity stable" whereas the wood adjacent to the Teflon swells and shrinks with humidity changes, causing problems.) More recently, the Kawai firm has built pianos with action parts made of more modern materials such as carbon fiber reinforced plastic; these parts have thus far performed reasonably, but it will take some decades to know if their longevity and performance can match that of wood.
The part of the piano where materials probably matter more than anywhere else is the soundboard. In quality pianos, this is made of solid spruce (that is, spruce boards glued together at their edges). Spruce is chosen for its high ratio of strength to weight. The best piano makers use close-grained, quarter-sawn, defect-free spruce, and make sure that it has been carefully dried over a long period of time before making it into soundboards. In cheap pianos, the soundboard is often made of plywood.
In the early years of piano construction, keys were commonly made from sugar pine. Today they are likely to be made of spruce or basswood. Spruce is normally used in high-quality pianos. The black keys were traditionally made from ebony and the white keys were covered with strips of ivory, but since ivory-yielding species are now endangered and protected by treaty, plastics are now almost exclusively used. Also, ivory tends to chip more easily than plastic. Legal ivory can still be obtained in limited quantities. The Yamaha firm invented a plastic called "Ivorite" that they claim mimics the look and feel of ivory; it has since been imitated by other makers.
Pianos need regular tuning to keep them up to pitch, which is usually the internationally recognized standard concert pitch of A4 = 440 Hz. The hammers of pianos are voiced to compensate for gradual hardening, and other parts also need periodic regulation. Aged and worn pianos can be rebuilt or reconditioned. Often, by replacing a great number of their parts, they can be made to perform as well as new pianos. Older pianos are often more settled and produce a warmer tone.
Piano moving should be done by trained piano movers using adequate manpower and the correct equipment for any particular piano's size and weight. Pianos are heavy yet delicate instruments. Over the years, professional piano movers have developed special techniques for transporting both grands and uprights, which prevent damage to the case and to the piano's mechanics.
The relationship between two pitches, called an interval, is the ratio of their absolute frequencies. Two different intervals are perceived to be the same when the pairs of pitches involved share the same frequency ratio. The easiest intervals to identify, and the easiest intervals to tune, are those that are just — which have a simple whole-number ratio. The term temperament refers to a tuning system which tempers the just intervals (usually the perfect fifth which has the ratio 3:2) in order to satisfy another mathematical property; in equal temperament, a fifth would be tempered by narrowing it slightly, achieved by flattening its upper pitch slightly, or raising its lower pitch slightly. A system of temperament can also be known as a set of bearings.
Tempering an interval causes it to beat, which is a fluctuation in perceived sound intensity due to interference between close (but unequal) pitches. The rate of beating is equal to the frequency differences of any harmonics that are present for both pitches and that coincide or nearly coincide.
Piano tuning is the act of making minute adjustments to the tensions of the strings of a piano to properly align the intervals between their tones so that the instrument is in tune. The meaning of the term in tune in the context of piano tuning is not simply a particular fixed set of pitches. Fine piano tuning requires an assessment of the interaction between notes, which is different for every piano, thus in practice requiring slightly different pitches from any theoretical standard. Pianos are usually tuned to a modified version of the system called equal temperament (see Piano key frequencies for the theoretical piano tuning). In all systems of tuning, every pitch may be derived from its relationship to a chosen fixed pitch, which is usually A440.
When the key is struck, a chain reaction occurs to produce the sound. First, the key raises the wippen, which forces the jack against the hammer roller. The hammer roller then lifts the lever carrying the hammer. The key also raises the damper, and immediately after the hammer strikes the wire it falls back, allowing the wire to resonate. When the key is released the damper falls back on the wire, stopping the wire from vibrating. The vibrating piano string itself is not very loud. The vibrations are transmitted to the sound board via the bridge. The irregular shape and off-center placement of the bridge are designed so that the sound board will vibrate strongly at all frequencies. (See Piano action for a diagram and detailed description of piano parts.)
There are three factors that influence the pitch of a vibrating wire. 1. The length: all other factors the same, the shorter the wire, the higher the pitch. 2. The thickness: other factors the same, the thinner the wire, the higher the pitch. 3. The tension: other factors the same, the tighter the wire, the higher the pitch. The stiffness is a combination of the other factors. Other factors the same, the stiffer the wire, the higher the pitch. Only certain pitches sound good together, and these make up the musical scale to which the strings of a piano are tuned.
A vibrating wire subdivides itself into many parts vibrating at the same time. Each part produces a pitch of its own, called a partial. A vibrating string has one fundamental and a series of partials. The most pure combination of two pitches is when one is double the frequency of the other.
For a repeating wave, the velocity, v, equals the wavelength, λ, times the frequency, f.
v = λf
On the piano string, waves reflect from both ends. The superposition of reflecting waves results in a standing wave pattern, but only for wavelengths λ = 2L, L, L/2, … = 2L/n, where L is the length of the string. Therefore the only frequencies produced on a single string are f = nv/(2L). Timbre is largely determined by the content of these harmonics. Different instruments have different harmonic content for the same pitch. A real string vibrates at harmonics that are not perfect multiples of the fundamental. This results in a little in-harmonicity, which gives richness to the tone and covers up slight de-tunings of different notes in a chord.
Striking the piano key with greater force increases the amplitude of the waves and therefore the volume. From pianissimo (pp) to fortissimo (ff) the hammer velocity changes by almost a factor of one- hundred. The hammer contact time with the string shortens from 4 ms at pp to less than 2 ms at ff. If two wires adjusted to the same pitch are struck at the same time, the sound produced by one reinforces the other, and a louder combined sound is produced. If one wire vibrates out of synchronization with the other, then they subtract from each other and produce a softer tone.
The piano is a crucial instrument in Western classical music, jazz, film, television, and most other complex western musical genres. A large number of composers are proficient pianists—and because the piano keyboard offers an easy means of complex melodic and harmonic interplay—the piano is often used as a tool for composition.
Pianos were, and still are, popular instruments for private household ownership. Hence, pianos have gained a place in the popular consciousness, and are sometimes referred to by nicknames including: "the ivories", "the joanna", "the eighty-eight", "the black(s) and white(s)", and "the little joe(s)". Playing the piano is sometimes referred to as "tickling the ivories".
^Palmieri, Bob & Meg (May 2003). "The Piano: An Encyclopedia". Taylor & Francis. ISBN9780415937962.. "Instrument: piano et forte genandt" [was] an expression Bach also used when acting as Silbermann's agent in 1749."
^ Macaulay, David. The New How Things Work. From Levers to Lasers, Windmills to Web Sites, A Visual guide to the World of Machines. Houghton Mifflin Company. United States. 1998. ISBN 0395938473. pp. 26-27.
^ Reblitz, Arthur A. Piano Servicing, Tuning, and Rebuilding. For the Professional, the student, and the Hobbyist. Vestal Press, Lanham Maryland. 1993. ISBN 1879511037 Pp. 203-215. Piano Servicing, Tuning, and Rebuilding. For the Professional, the student, and the Hobbyist.
The Encyclopædia Britannica (available online by subscription) also includes much information on the piano. In the 1988 edition, the primary article can be found in "Musical Instruments".
The Piano Book by Larry Fine (4th ed. Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts: Brookside Press, 2001; ISBN 1-929145-01-2) gives the basics of how pianos work, and a thorough evaluative survey of current pianos and their manufacturers. It also includes advice on buying and owning pianos.
Giraffes, black dragons, and other pianos: a technological history from Cristofori to the modern concert grand by Edwin M. Good (1982, second ed., 2001, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press) is a standard reference on the history of the piano.
The Early Pianoforte by Stewart Pollens (1995, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) is an authoritative work covering the ancestry of the piano, its invention by Cristofori, and the early stages of its subsequent evolution.