Solving a specific problem with the “soft and loud keyboard instrument”
It’s easy to think of musical instruments as existing for their own beauty. That the sounds they produce were born outright, and were immediately appreciated and absorbed into the story we can now call ‘music history.’ When you think about it more closely, it becomes obvious that this can’t really be the case. Instruments are a form of technology, and have been developed and iterated on like any other tool humans have created. The piano, which now feels like a cornerstone of western music, was actually invented for a very specific purpose— to best the harpsichord and clavichord.
Pinned in by plucking
The problem with the harpsichord is that it’s too limiting to performers. As the keyboard it played, strings for each note are mechanically plucked. Many harpsichords were made with multiple choirs of strings and multiple keyboards, allowing for some of the rich chords and fugues of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. All this left room for composers to experiment, but musicians had little room to add their own expression to these sounds. Strings were either plucked or not, with no way to change the relative impact of each note.
Clavichords addressed this concern, but at a cost. Rather than pluck strings, small, blade-shaped pieces of metal, called tangents, struck strings as the keyboard was played. Depending on how hard or soft someone pressed the keyboard, they could produce more variation in the volume of each note. However, the sound would be immediately dampened when the key was released. Furthermore, the instrument was notoriously quiet, making it appropriate for intimate gatherings, but not larger performances.
So in 1709, Italian harpsichord maker Bartolomeo di Francesco Cristofori had a specific set of problems to solve for musicians. The gravicembalo col piano e forte (or “soft and loud keyboard instrument”) addressed the common issues with stringed keyboard instruments thanks to the percussive hammers it relied on. Each hammer in the pianoforte could strike a string with varying degrees of force, changing the volume of each note as the musician saw fit. The hammers would also retract without dampening sounds, allowing for rapid and complicated compositions to be played. However, it wasn’t an overnight success. While the new pianoforte was arguably a better product, it hadn’t captured people’s attention in the right way.
A diagram of the core mechanism was translated into German, where it was rebuilt by Gottfried Silbermann. Silbermann took his prototype for evaluation by none other than Johann Sebastian Bach, who gave some negative but constructive criticism about the device, particularly about the volume of the higher pitched notes. Silbermann revised the design further, and while Bach never fully embraced the instrument himself, he did at least value it enough to help sell pianos to other people.
Disruption and dominance
By the 18th century, pianos truly began to disrupt the keyboard instrument market. As the Viennese music schools adopted the piano, harpsichords and clavichords started to fade out of the limelight. Now many people think of pianos as a hallmark of classical music, even though they’re a relatively newer instrument and weren’t specifically written for for some time. Since Bach’s first criticisms, many of the instrument’s fundamental qualities have otherwise endured, with most updates aiming to simply improve tuning, durability, portability, and maybe a touch of automation. After 300 years, there doesn’t seem to be any fundamental issue begging for further disruption.
Source: History of the Piano, Piano.net