History of the Piano

 

Zither

 

The forerunners of the piano belong to the zither group of instruments. There were many forms of primitive zither - tube zither (made from bamboo cane), a bar zither, with strings made from hair, plant fibre, sinew or gut.  The first of the more advanced form of zither seem to have appeared in the Far East.  From these early zithers developed two main instruments, as follows:

 

Dulcimer

 

The struck zither or dulcimer seems to have evolved from the primitive zither but probably originated as a Persian instrument.  It can be traced back to the fifteenth century, but was probably in existence before then. 

 

It consisted of a flat case, trapezoidal in shape, the sides narrowing, as the strings grow shorter.  The strings run parallel to its base and pass over two bridges, which are fixed to the soundboard.  This instrument could be played resting on the player’s lap or on a table.  The strings were set in motion by being struck by small mallets, which were held in the player's hand. The dulcimer was used well into the nineteenth century when it gradually gave way to the modern piano.  It is often now used as a folk instrument.  The composer Kodaly wrote for the Hungarian version called a cymbalon.

 

Psaltery

 

This instrument was similar in shape to the dulcimer, although the strings were normally sounded by being plucked by the player’s fingers rather than struck.  There were also bowed versions.

 

Monochord and Polychord

 

The monochord was used by Pythagoras about 550 BC for experiments regarding the mathematical relationships of musical sounds. 

 

A monochord has a single string strung over a long rectangular base, with a bridge at either end to determine the speaking length.  Experiments can then be made by using a moveable bridge placed between the fixed bridges, proving what happens when the speaking length is changed - a shorter string producing a higher pitch.  The scientist Ptolemy replaced the single string of the monochord with a course of 15, and here we see the progression to a polychord.  As well as for experiment, this instrument was used in performance.  It was often used to give the starting note to church choirs at the beginning of a piece of music.

 

The Clavichord

 

The word clavichord (literally, “key/string”) first appeared in the year 1404, although early instruments were still often called momochordiums.  In appearance the clavichord is rectangular, with the keyboard cut out towards the end of one of its long sides.  The strings were usually made of brass or iron, running roughly parallel to the length of the keyboard.  The strings are sounded by being struck by small tangents (made usually of brass) fixed into the rear of the key.  When the key is pressed the tangent strikes the string, at the same time the point at which the tangent contacts the string forms one end of the speaking length.  The soundboard bridge determines the other end of the speaking length.  There are normally two strings per note, and the tuning pins are located towards the right hand side of the keyboard.

 

There were two types of clavichord.  Firstly, the fretted (gebunden) clavichord, where more than one key struck a pair of strings - each key giving a different note.  Secondly, the un-fretted (bundfrei) clavichord, where each pair of strings had its own key.  The first clavichord of this type was said to have been made by Daniel Faber in 1725.

 

In the fifteenth century the number of strings used increased and often different wires gauges were employed.  Instruments were usually bi-chord by this time.  The player had a limited control over dynamics (the volume of notes played); although the tone was soft, expressive powers were one of these instruments great advantages.  The clavichord was most commonly used in Germany.