A variety of keyboard instruments existed before the piano. For instance, the hammered dulcimer was the first widely used stringed musical instrument. It holds the credit of being a forerunner of the later piano. It has appeared in the Middle East, Southwest Asia, China, Greece, and Rome, and dates back to around 500 BC.

However, it wouldn’t be until around 1700, when Bartolomeo Cristofori, a master harpsichord maker, invented the pianoforte in Florence. Cristofori was working for the Medici family at the time. The piano was groundbreaking because it was the first keyboard instrument capable of producing both loud and soft tones – the word pianoforte literally translates to “soft and strong” in Italian.

The late 18th century saw a boom in piano production in Europe, with designs including wooden frames, two or three strings per note, and leather-covered hammers. We know these early instruments now as “fortepianos,” a term that distinguishes them from later pianos.

This instrument underwent significant changes between 1790 and 1860, resulting in the structure we see nowadays. Composers and pianists’ desire for a more powerful and sustained sound, sparked these design revolutions.

During the 1880s and 1890s, notable additions to the earlier piano models included the invention of the sostenuto pedal, the patent of cross-stringing, the invention of duplex scaling, and the standardization of the 88-key format. Although most technological advancements had happened by 1900, piano manufacturers continued to experiment, refine designs and practices.  

Execution of the piano

A chain reaction occurs when striking a piano key. First, the key raises the “wippen” mechanism, which forces the jack against the hammer roller. The hammer roller then lifts the lever carrying the hammer. The key also raises the damper; and immediately after the hammer strikes the wire it falls back, allowing the wire to resonate and thus produce sound. The damper falls back onto the strings when releasing the key. This holds the wire from vibrating, and thus stops the sound.

The movements of the piano strings are not very loud. However, they transfer to the huge soundboard, which channels air and transforms that energy into sound.

Construction

A piano may have as many as 12,000 unique parts, including the keyboard, damper, bridge, soundboard, and strings. Manufacturers choose materials for their strength and endurance. The outer rim, for instance, often uses hard maple or beech for its design. Thick wooden posts, made of softwood, sit on the underside or back of the piano and stabilize the rim’s frame.

The production of piano strings, also known as piano wires, makes use of high carbon steel, which must withstand years of constant friction and heavy blows. Manufacturers strive for as little variation in diameter as possible since any deviation from uniformity causes tonal distortion.

A piano’s plate, harp, or metal case, is usually made of cast iron. It is desirable to have a massive plate since the strings vibrate at both ends of it. Thus, a plate with inadequate mass will consume too much vibrational energy. This energy should flow across the bridge to the soundboard.

Keys were usually made of sugar pine in the early days of piano production. Nowadays spruce or basswood, the latter especially in high-end pianos, replaced this material.

In the United States, most grand pianos have three pedals: the soft (una corda), sostenuto, and sustain pedals. On the other hand, in Europe, the norm is two pedals: soft and sustain.