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Piano Facts & Trivia – 100+ Facts About The Piano


The piano is not only one of the most popular instruments in the world, but also one of the most interesting (to me anyhow!) Here are some fascinating facts about the piano – there are around 100 to start off with, and lots more will be added over time!

Contents:

  1. Misc. Piano Facts

  2. Piano History
  3. Piano Types & Variations
  4. Piano Care & Maintenance
  5. Playing The Piano – Technique & Music
  6. Piano Brands & Manufacturers
  7. Structure & Mechanism – How The Piano Works

1. Misc. Piano Facts

  • The piano is among the most popular instruments in the world, and is used to play a wide variety of musical styles, and as both a solo and ensemble instrument.

  • The piano is classified as a chordophone. Chordophone instruments are those which make use of vibrating strings stretched between two fixed points to produce a sound.
  • The piano may be regarded as a keyboard instrument (since it obviously makes use a keyboard), but also as a percussion instrument (in that the sound is triggered by hammers striking the strings), and as a string instrument (vibrating strings produce the sound).
  • The piano is a relatively loud instrument, and its volume is the result of its sound board, which acts as a transducer, coupling the acoustic energy produced by the vibrating strings to the air. Without this sounding board, the piano would be much quieter, and be only as loud as the sound produced by the strings themselves.
  • The piano’s name is derived from the Italian clavicembalo [or gravicembalo] col piano e forte – which can be translated as ‘harpsichord capable of playing at the normal level, and more strongly’ [source]. This was shortened to pianoforte, and later just to piano.
  • A pianist can control the piano’s volume by pressing the keys with more or less force. This in turn controls how hard the hammers hit the strings, and thus the volume of the sound.
  • The normal range of a piano is seven octaves plus a minor third – or 88 keys. 52 of these keys are white, and 36 black.
  • In recent years, ‘street pianos‘ have appeared in various places around the world. These are pianos that have been deliberately left on the street, with signs encouraging passers by to play them, and have proved to be popular.
  • The millenium was also the 300th anniversary of the piano.
  • A piano bench usually measures about 2 feet in height and 3 feet in width. It is best to choose an adjustable bench, so you can maintain the best posture when playing.
  • Pianos can play a wider range of pitches than any other instrument.
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2. Piano History

  • The piano wasn’t the first keyboard instrument to work by striking the strings, or to offer the player control over the volume – the clavichord could do this – but it was the first instrument with these features that was loud enough to be used for large-scale performances.

  • The piano was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731), an Italian harpsichord maker in Padua, Italy. Although the exact date when the first piano was made is unknown, it was probably around the year 1700.
  • There are three Cristofori pianos surviving today, which date back to the 1720s.
  • Cristofori’s early pianos were very quiet by the standards of modern pianos. However, they offered a lot more volume and sustain than the clavichord, which was the only other keyboard instrument of the time that allowed the player fine control over the dynamics of the sound.
  • Cristofori’s pianos were not immediately popular – in fact they remained relatively unknown until publicised by an Italian writer in 1711. After that, other piano makers began making pianos following his plans, one of whom, Gottfried Silbermann, improved the instrument by adding a hand-operated mechanism that would later be developed into the modern damper pedal.
  • Although modern pianos have white natural note keys with black accidental keys, this wasn’t always the case; in the 18th century, Viennese pianos had white accidental keys and black natural keys.
  • Piano manufacture underwent a period of great innovation from around 1790-1860, and it was during this period that the modern piano emerged. The most notable changes were the development of a louder, more sustained sound, and an increased range, from five octaves to over seven. These developments were the result of the demands of players, combined with technological improvements that came from the Industrial Revolution.
  • The grand piano was first produced in 1777, by Broadwood, who developed a piano mechanism inside a harpsichord case. These pianos were popular for their powerful sound, and were played by such well-known musicians as Beethoven and Haydn.
  • The first six octave piano was produced in 1810, by the Broadwood company. Previous pianos were limited to five octaves, although Broadwood also produced an instrument with a range of 5 octaves and a fifth in the 1790s.
    Fortepiano replica by Paul McNulty

    Replica fortepiano by Paul McNulty
    Photo source

  • The double escapement action was first developed by French piano maker Sebastien Erard in 1821. This mechanism, which is now standard in grand pianos, enables the rapid repetition of the same note, by permitting the note to be repeated even if the key hasn’t fully returned to its normal vertical position. Erard pianos were used by Franz Liszt, who made use of this development in his playing.
  • Piano hammers were originally covered with leather; today felt is standard, a development introduced by Henri Pape in 1826.
  • The one-piece iron frame was patented in the US in 1825. These frames made the piano more robust, allowing for an increase in string tension – which in practice meant that pianos could be made with greater numbers of strings, and thicker strings – contributing to a more powerful sound.
  • The use of the sustain pedal didn’t become a normal part of playing the piano until the era of Romanticism in the 19th century; before this, it was used much more sparingly, as a special effect.
  • Most significant changes and developments in piano design were made during the 19th century; since that time, only relatively minor changes have been made in mainstream piano construction.
  • Grand pianos have traditionally had a more sensitive response to the player’s touch than uprights, but the modern manufacturer Fandrich & Sons has developed the ‘Fandrich piano action‘, which aims to give upright pianos the same advantage.
  • The fortepiano became obsolete following the development of the modern piano in the 19th century, but 20th century interest in authentic musical performance led to a revival, and it is now manufactured again by some specialist modern makers.
  • Cristofori worked under the patronage of the Medici family, and the first (reliable) record of a fortepiano is found in a Medici inventory of 1700.
  • The piano didn’t begin to gain mass popularity until the 1760s, many decades after its invention. It may have taken this long to become popular because it was expensive and complicated to manufacture at first, especially in comparison to the widely used harpsichord.
  • In the 1760s, the first piano music was published, and the first public performances were given on the instrument.
  • In the early decades of its existence, use of the piano was confined mainly to royalty, as it was too expensive to manufacture on a larger scale.
  • Mozart owned a piano made by his friend Anton Walter, a Viennese piano manufacturer whose instruments were known for their relatively powerful tone.
  • The ‘English grand action’ was developed in the 18th century by John Broadwood, Americus Backers and Robert Stodart, and their pianos had a louder, more powerful sound than their Viennese counterparts of the time.
  • The piano market in the 19th century was very profitable, especially in the US, where new American manufacturing techniques helped to bring the costs down. Pianos were found in homes of all income levels, and were available on installment plans – one of the first items to be sold in this way.
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3. Piano Brands & Manufacturers

  • Some Bosendorfer pianos have extra bass keys, which are sometimes covered up by a movable lid, or are reversed in colour (black natural and white accidental keys). This ‘disguise’ helps to avoid confusing players who aren’t familiar with extended-range pianos.

  • The Steinway & Sons piano company was founded in 1853 in New York. It is named after founder Heinrich Steinweg, who changed his name to Henry Steinway after emigrating to the US from Germany.
  • It has been estimated that over 90% of the concert grand pianos in the world are made by Steinway.
  • ‘Steinway Artists’ are well-known pianists in various musical fields who perform exclusively on Steinway pianos, and who own one of their own. No financial compensation is involved.
  • The Bosendorfer piano company was established in Austria in 1827 by Ignaz Bosendorfer. Today it is one of the most highly respected manufacturers of quality pianos, and was acquired by Yamaha in 2008.
    Bosendorfer grand piano

    Bosendorfer grand piano | Photo: Gryffindor

  • Bosendorfer’s Imperial Grand piano measures 9’6, and has 97 keys, making it one of the largest pianos in the world.
  • For its 175th anniversary in 2003, Bosendorfer produced three Swarovski Crystal grand pianos, each of which had a case covered with gold and Swarovski crystals. These are examples of the limited edition designer models that the company produces annually or for special occasions.
  • C. Bechstein is a high-end piano manufacturer that was founded in Germany in 1853 by Carl Bechstein. His pianos gained endorsements from performers such as Franz Liszt and Hans von Bülow, and Bechstein was also known for its elaborate art-case pianos, which are today found in museums and fetching high prices at auction.
  • The Fazioli F308 grand piano is unusual in that it has four pedals; the left-most pedal brings the hammers closer to the strings, in the same way as the una corda pedal works on upright pianos. This enables the player to obtain softer notes, but without any change in the piano’s tone.
  • The F308 from Fazioli is also the longest piano available, with a length of 3.08m (10’2), which weighs in at 691kg (in contrast, Steinway’s famous model D grand piano weighs 480kg).
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4. Piano Types & Variations

  • Modern piano makers still make instruments that replicate the structure and tone of early pianos; these are used in the performance of period music. They are often called fortepianos, and have a quieter tone than their modern counterparts.

  • Modern fortepianos are sometimes sold as kits, for people who want to assemble their own period-style pianos.
  • A pedal piano is a piano that includes a pedal board, similar to that on an organ. This enables bass notes to be played with the feet – and these instruments are sometimes called bass pianos.
  • Electric pianos were first produced in the late 1920s, and were very popular from the 1950s – 1970s. These days, digital pianos that don’t rely on moving parts (and which can more accurately reproduce the sound of an acoustic piano) are more widely used.
  • Electronic pianos were first produced in the 1970s. Electronic pianos differ from electric pianos in that they produce their sound using oscillators (like synthesisers do), whereas electric pianos are mechanical in nature, and use pickups combined with reeds, strings or tuning forks that are struck (or in some cases, plucked).
  • A digital piano is an electronic instrument that features sounds digitally sampled from acoustic pianos. Most models offer a choice of piano sounds, as well as other instruments (organ, strings etc) as well. In general, the more expensive the digital piano, the more closely it replicates the sound and feel of an acoustic.
  • Over the years, pianos have been produced with various modifications, enabling them to produce special sounds and effects. One example is the Turkish stop, which was a pedal that let the player produce a bell or bass drum-like sound from the piano. Pianos with Turkish stops were made around the turn of the 19th century, when Turkish music with these types of accompaniment was very popular.
  • Baby grand pianos have cases measuring around 1.5m in length, in contrast to the concert grand, which measure from about 2.2m – 3m. In between is the so-called ‘parlour grand’, which measures from about 1.7 – 2.2m.
  • Upright pianos have a vertical frame, making them better suited to small spaces than grand pianos. However, you can get uprights with unusually tall frames and long strings; these are sometimes called ‘upright grands’.
    Square piano

    A square piano | Photo: Jan Mehlich

  • A studio piano is a type of upright piano which is relatively short in height – around 42-45 inches. These pianos have a full-sized action, unlike console pianos, which are a few inches shorter in height, and have a smaller action with reduced-size hammers.
  • Spinet pianos were small sized, low cost instruments that were manufactured on a large scale in the 1930s. They had a ‘drop action’, which allowed the case of the piano to be only slightly above keyboard level, making them good for homes without much space. Unfortunately, this downsizing led to a poor tone quality and other issues, and their niche has since been filled by digital pianos, although lots still exist.
  • The player piano, also known as the pianola, is a mechanical instrument that can play music automatically from rolls of perforated paper (or, occasionally, metal rolls). It was invented in the 1890s, and was extremely popular during the first three decades of the 20th century, until the advent of the gramophone and the onset of the Depression virtually halted sales. It underwent something of a revival in the 1960s, and today older instruments are restored by enthusiasts, and new instruments have been produced also.
  • Gig pianos are small upright pianos that can normally be lifted by two people, and are used by pianists who want an instrument that is easily transportable. They have a normal action and a relatively good tone, but have just 65 keys.
  • Schoenhut is a manufacturer of toy pianos who also produces both grand and upright models with 44 or 49 keys. These are scaled down real pianos with a smaller than usual distance between the keys and pedals, and are often used as a starter piano for children.
  • Transposing pianos were a rare type of piano that enabled the player to play in different keys while playing the same notes on the keyboard. These worked by shifting the position of the keyboard relative to the piano action. Two of these pianos were owned by Irving Berlin, who did not read music and always played in the same key.
  • A square piano – which is actually rectangular – is a small, horizontally strung instrument that originated in the 18th century. Later models were extremely popular in the US in the 19th century, thanks to its compact size and relative cheapness – in the 1860s, most Steinway pianos being produced were of the square variety.
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5. Piano Care & Maintenance

  • It’s generally recommended that a piano be tuned twice a year, although manufacturers of high end pianos sometimes recommend more frequent tuning.

  • Pianos used for professional performance and recording are tuned before each performance.
  • Piano regulation is an important part of piano maintenance, and involves mechanical adjustments that are made used to compensate for the wear and tear caused by regular use, as well as changes in humidity etc.
  • Pianos are both heavy and delicate, and if you need to move your piano, this should be done by professional piano movers with specialist equipment (particularly if the piano is being moved up or down stairs). DIY piano moving can be risky both for the people involved, for the piano, and for the surroundings.
  • Pianos go out of tune easily when they’re subject to environmental changes. You can help to keep the tuning of your piano more stable by ensuring a more or less constant humidity in the room where it’s kept. If the room is centrally heated, this can be improved by using a humidifier – you can even get special piano humidifiers/dehumidifiers which are installed inside the piano case.
    Piano tuner

    Piano tuner | Photo: Barbara Mürdter

  • Older pianos were often manufactured for sale in a particular climate – so the wood used in a piano made for a wet climate like England for example, would be weathered in a different way to an instrument made for a hot, dry country. This isn’t really an issue with modern pianos, but it’s something to bear in mind if you want to get an old one, as problems can arise if the piano is moved to a different type of environment.
  • Voicing involves working with the piano’s hammers to alter the tone quality. Usually, the hammers will become harder with wear, and the instrument’s tone will become brighter – and harsher – as a result. Voicing may involve pricking the felt of the hammers with special needles, to make them softer and give the instrument a more mellow tone. They can also be hardened if a brighter tone is preferred.
  • Piano restoration can give new life to an old or neglected instrument, by replacing many of the parts that have become worn out or damaged. Even very old pianos can be restored, providing the frame remains stable and in good condition.
  • A piano dolly is a special trolley consisting of a frame with casters attached, which is used for moving pianos. The wheels are designed not to damage flooring.
  • Just moving a piano doesn’t normally cause it to go out of tune, but it may do if the piano is being moved to a more or less humid environment. Covering up the instrument during the move and making use of a humidifier or dehumidifier as necessary in the new location can help to reduce tuning issues.
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6. Playing The Piano – Technique & Music

  • The first music that was composed especially for the piano was Lodovico Giustini’s Sonate da cimbalo di piano, of 1732.

  • Pianos are normally played by depressing the keys, with extra effects being added by use of the foot pedals. However, some pianists have explored other ways of getting sounds from the piano, including using the body as a percussion instrument, introducing other objects into the case to change the sound quality (prepared piano), or hitting the strings directly. This is known as ‘piano extended technique‘.
  • String piano‘ is a technique involve the direct manipulation of the piano’s strings with the hands or an object. The term was coined by US composer Henry Cowell, and is most often used in avant-garde music.
  • Some pianists play on pianos that are tuned using non-standard tunings. This lets them play harmonies and intervals (such as microtones – intervals smaller than a semitone) that aren’t achieved on a normally-tuned piano.
  • The piano came into widespread use in the second half of the 18th century; during this time music began to be written for the piano on a large scale, including works by such prominent composers as Mozart and Haydn.
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7. Structure & Mechanism – How The Piano Works

  • The string tension in a piano can be extremely high, with a modern grand piano having a combined string tension of around 30 tons.

  • The right hand pedal of the piano is called the sustain pedal, or the damper pedal. It raises the damper from all the strings at once, which causes all the strings to vibrate sympathetically when a key is struck, producing a very rich tone.
  • The sostenuto pedal enables the player to sustain particular notes – just those which are being played when the pedal is pressed, with notes played after the pedal is released being unaffected. This is in contrast to the damper (or sustain) pedal, which lifts the dampers on all the notes. The sostenuto pedal is usually the middle pedal of many three-pedal pianos.
  • A ‘practice pedal‘ is often found on upright pianos (usually the middle pedal). This pedal enables the player to practice more quietly, and works by lowering a piece of felt or other material between the strings and the hammers. It is sometimes known as a mute pedal or celeste pedal.
  • Piano actions are normally made from wood, but an alternative made from ABS styran and carbon composite has been developed by Japanese manufaturer Kawai. This material makes the action less vulnerable to changes in humidity and other issues faced by traditional wooden actions.
    Steinway piano frame

    Steinway piano frame
    Photo: Kassander der Minoer

  • Most pianos have 88 keys in total, although some models offer more; both Bosendorfer and Stuart and Sons manufacture 8 octave or 97 key pianos.
  • Pianos are usually tuned using the equal temperament system, which means that the ratio between the frequencies of adjacent notes is the same. Or at least this is the case in theory – in practice, adjustments are made to compensate for factors such as the inharmonicity of piano strings, which means that the harmonics produced by the strings are sharper than they theoretically should be, because of the strings’ stiffness. So pianos are actually tuned using a modifed version of the equal temperament system.
  • Pianos normally have either two or three pedals. While the right hand pedal is usually a sustain pedal, and the left hand one the ‘soft’ pedal, the function of the middle pedal on three-pedal pianos varies.
  • On a standard piano, the first note on the keyboard is A0. Some extended-range pianos go down to F0 or even C0.
  • The lower pitched strings of a piano are wrapped with copper or iron wire to increase their mass. If this wasn’t done, they would have to be extremely long (around 25 feet at the low end) to produce a note of the same pitch, which obviously wouldn’t be practical.
  • The white piano keys are covered with plastic. Originally these keys were made with ivory veneers, which is where the expression ‘tickle the ivories’ comes from, but it’s no longer used as the species from which it was obtained are now protected. Yamaha have invented an ivory-substitute plastic, which is called ivorine or ivorite. As well as being more animal-friendly, plastic-covered keys are more durable and less prone to chipping than those made with ivory.
  • The piano action is the mechanism which makes the hammers strike the strings when a key is depressed. The action is a complex mechanism, with around 7,500 parts.
  • Pianos typically have one or two strings for each bass note, and three strings per note at higher pitches. More strings are needed for the treble notes to balance the volume – the bass strings are louder, so fewer strings are needed.
  • Piano keys are normally made from spruce or basswood, with spruce being more common in expensive pianos.
  • Pianos are normally tuned to standard concert pitch, where A4 has a frequency of 440Hz.
  • The piano’s soundboard has a major influence on the instrument’s tone. Spruce soundboards are regarded as the best, although some species and grades of spruce are valued more highly than others. Low cost pianos may have cheaper soundboards, sometimes made from plywood.
  • In a grand piano, there are over 35 points at which each note can be adjusted – and over 3,000 in the piano as a whole.
  • The left hand pedal on most pianos is the una corda, or ‘soft’ pedal. On upright pianos, it moves the hammers closer to the string, so they strike with less force. On grand pianos, it moves the hammers horizontally, so just two of the three strings are struck. In both cases, a softer tone is produced, which is why this is also sometimes called the ‘quiet pedal’.
  • The left or una corda pedal is so named because in early pianos, there were just two strings for each note, rather than the current three, and when this pedal was used, just one of the two strings would be struck (una corda means ‘one string’ in Italian).
  • There are some piano models where the middle pedal sustains the bass notes only. By lifting the dampers from the strings in the lower register, it enables the pianist to play music that requires a bass note (or chord) sustained over several bars while continuing to play in the upper registers. These pianos are relatively rare, however.
  • The outer rim of a piano is usually designed to be extremely stable, so the energy of the soundboard doesn’t dissipate into the case. Hardwoods such as maple are commonly used.
    Upright piano mechanism

    Upright piano mechanism | Photo: Pko

  • Pianos feature a metal frame, called the plate. Most are made from cast iron, although some are made from cast steel.
  • Attempts have been made to include plastic parts in piano manufacture, in an effort to reduce the weight, or improve performance or durability. So far however, these efforts haven’t met with much long-term success.
  • The range of most modern pianos is 7 1/3 octaves, from A0 to C7. Older pianos may have fewer keys and a reduced range.
  • Pianos have over 200 strings, since most of the keys are associated with more than one string. This feature accounts for the piano’s rich tone – multiple strings vibrate in sympathy when one note is struck, adding to the harmonic mix of the sound (which is one reason why digital pianos don’t replicate the sound of an acoustic with complete accuracy).
  • Both grand pianos and upright pianos have lids, but only in the grand piano is the lid opened to produce a more resonant tone – opening the lid on an upright doesn’t make much difference to how the piano sounds.
  • Piano strings are constructed from a special type of wire, called piano wire. It is made from ‘spring steel’, a type of high carbon steel that can withstand the demands – the high tension, need for stable tuning and longevity etc – that are made of piano strings.
  • The thickness of piano strings varies widely, from about .85mm for the highest treble strings, down to 8.5mm in the bass.

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