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Who Invented the Piano?

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The piano is derived from the dulcimer, an instrument that was popular during the Middle Ages.

The dulcimer is played by striking its strings with small leather-covered hammers. The two stringed keyboard instruments that directly preceded the piano were the harpsichord and the clavichord, both of which were popular during the 17th and 18th centuries.

An Italian harpsichord maker, Bartolomeo Cristofori, is believed to have designed the first pianos in about 1709. In his instruments he wanted to combine the loud and brilliant tone of th~ harpsichord, produced by plucking the strings with quills, with the soft and delicate sound of the clavichord, whose strings are stroked by tangents. To assimilate these qualities in one instrument, he used hammers that struck against the strings of the piano. Loudness and softness were determined by the pressure exerted on the keys of the keyboard by the pianist. Cristofori's pianos have the winged shape characteristic of the harpsichord.

Interest in the piano was stimulated during the 1760's, when the German pianist Johann Christian Bach gave a series of concerts in London, England.

It was at this time that the square pianos of Johann Zumpe, a German craftsman living in England, became highly popular as domestic instruments.

During the late 18th century the German instrument maker Johann Andreas Stein developed a system of levers, later known as the Viennese action, and also a device for shifting the hammers by a foot pedal. This early version of the soft pedal, as well as the Viennese action, were used in pianos made by Stein and later by his son-in-law Johann Andreas Streicher.

The Viennese action pianos were characterized by the lightness of their tone.

However, Beethoven and many composers of the 19th century preferred the richer, more powerful tone of the English grand pianos. One of the best-known English piano manufacturers was John Broadwood, who introduced the damper pedal. His pianos also had heavier cases, capable of sustaining greater string tension and thereby providing a stronger tone. The efforts of piano manufacturers to produce even richer and more full-sounding instruments led to the use of larger, softer hammers and thicker wire strings. To accommodate these changes stronger frames were needed, and in 1825 the American piano maker Alphaeus Babcock invented the all cast-iron frame.

However, with the achievement of greater sonority some of the brilliance and color of the earlier instruments was lost. An important contribution to the development of the modern piano was the device of double escapement, invented in 1821 by the instrument maker Sebastien Erard. With one exception, the standard keyboard, the basic structure of the modern piano was established by the middle of the 19th century.

A standard keyboard was established by the mid-20th century.

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