History of the Piano

The Piano – The Early Years

Egyptian Harps

The earliest stringed instruments were plucked. The first of this type was the harp.  The varied lengths of strings form a curve which dictates the shape of the harp’s frame.  The modern piano broadly follows the shape of a harp.

The monochord is simply a sound box with a single string stretched over a movable bridge, which is shifted to each marking to produce a different note. It also was a plucked instrument.

The hammer dulcimer is an ancient instrument dating to the time of Christ.  It appears to have originated in Persia.  The word dulcimer derives from the Latin dulcis (sweet) and the Greek melos (song).

Hammer Dulcimer

The psaltery was common in the 14th and 15th centuries. It is a shallow closed box where strings are stretched and sounded by plucking with the fingers or plectra.

The dulcimer and the psaltery may look alike, but they are played differently. Small wooden hammers are used on the strings of the dulcimer to set the strings vibrating, much as the hammers do on the piano’s strings.  The strings of the psaltery are plucked with the fingers or with a feather quill, as are the strings on the harpsichord. The psaltery can be considered a forerunner of the harpsichord, since the strings are plucked, just as the dulcimer can be considered a forerunner of the piano, since its strings are struck.

History of the Piano

Since about 1450, keyboards have virtually remained the same. The organ was the first keyboard instrument and the weight of the keys has varied greatly since the earliest examples, whose keys were so heavy that the players were called “Organ Beaters.”



Today’s arrangement was found as long ago as 1361, as demonstrated by paintings of the time. The first member of the harpsichord family was the virginal. The strings on this instrument are plucked by plectra and the shape is similar to that of the clavichord. The spinet followed the clavichord and then came the more elaborate harpsichord.

Tuning often followed the meantone system where major thirds were tuned precisely and other intervals tempered. This created some very wild intervals and the howling sound resulted in them being called “wolves” or the “wolf interval.” If a series of fifths is tuned from the bottom A upwards, when the top A is reached it will be a quarter of a semitone sharp if all are tuned in pure intervals, and this is called the Pythagorean comma.

The spinet could have received its name from a possible Italian inventor, Giovanni Spinette, or from the connection with spine thorns, which were used for plucking the strings.

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