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The Art of Piano: What's in a Name?

Welcome everyone to the first of a series of articles entitled "The Art of the Piano." Within this series, I will be discussing various concepts and methods concerning the pedagogy and techniques involved in playing the piano, both in performance and practice.

I thought it might be interesting to begin this series with a discussion on something very basic: Where did the name of this instrument come from?

The word piano is Italian for "soft" or "quiet." So why on earth do we play an instrument called "the Soft?" The short answer is that the name "piano" is NOT the full name of the instrument. When the instrument we know in its modern form as "the piano" was invented around the turn of the 18th Century by the Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori, it was originally called gravicembalo col piano e forte, which translates from the Italian as "heavy-harpsichord with soft and loud." The name was later shortened to fortepiano, or "loud-soft."pianoforteSometime in the mid 18th Century the words were reversed and the

name became pianoforte, or "soft-loud."

Today we simply call it the piano, although the use of the term pianoforte is still considered proper when referring to the grand piano.

Prior to Cristofori's invention of the pianoforte, the two most common keyboard instruments were the clavichord, an instrument whichclavichord produced sound by striking brass or iron strings with small metal blades called tangents; and the harpsichord,harpsichord an instrument which produced sound by keys which, when pressed, caused quills to pluck the strings.

While the clavichord allowed expressive control of volume, it was much too quiet for large performance halls. The harpsichord produced a sufficiently loud sound, but gave the musician little expressive control over each note. Cristofori, wanting the best of both worlds, based his concept on the hammered dulcimer, and introduced an action which allowed for control over each note

via the force with which the keys were struck.

It is important to remember that, in this case, the terms soft and loud are very relative. The earliest pianofortes were nothing like the massive and powerful instruments of today. There were no metal frames or bracing, the hammers were covered with leather, not felt, and the strings were much thinner and lighter than those used today. The range was a great deal smaller as well; most early pianofortes had, at best, a five octave range, as compared to the eleven octave range of the modern piano. Cristofori's early instruments were made with harpsichord strings, and were much quieter than the modern piano; however, they were much louder than the clavichord – the only previous instrument capable of dynamic nuance – and were much more pleasing to large audiences and therefore much more suited to large performance halls.

As with all instruments and inventions, the pianoforte has evolved through the centuries into various forms. We have what we know as the grand piano, and let's not forget the player pianos which were very popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. As time went on electronic pianos were created, including portable keyboards for stage performances and electric grand pianos. However no matter what form this instrument takes in our modern age it started as the pianoforte, the term "piano" is just its modern nickname.

- Charles Michael Ayers

Michael Ayers has been an instructor at at Excel Music since 2008.

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