The piano is considered by many to be one of the most popular musical instruments ever invented or played not just because it is easy to learn how to play one but for its versatility as well. It has a wide range of notes available, and you can play the melody and accompaniment simultaneously. This means you can create music in any style that you want and play different genres of music, from jazz to rock ‘n’ roll.
It is classified as a string instrument because it produces sound through the vibration of strings. Because hammer action or striking the keys causes the strings to vibrate, it can very well be a percussion instrument also. This makes it similar to the dulcimer in which the hammer is used to strike the strings. Its roots can also be traced back to the clavichord in the 14th century, as it is part of the keyboard family. However, the one that closely resembles the piano the most in terms of its structure and mechanism is the harpsichord in the 1500s. Still, it is an instrument that doesn’t allow variation or control of volume.
Bartolomeo di Francesco Cristofori, an expert harpsichord maker who was also knowledgeable about stringed keyboard instruments, invented the piano in the 1700s in Italy. It was called “gravicembalo col piano e forte,” which means a harpsichord that can play soft and loud; it was shortened to pianoforte or fortepiano with “piano” meaning soft and “forte” meaning loud. Later on, it was called just the “piano.” This acoustic stringed instrument has gone through several variations in size, style, and design over the years.
Major Types of Piano
Basically, there are two major types of piano, namely the horizontal piano, which is commonly known as the grand piano; and the vertical piano, which is the upright piano. Variations in size and style of these two types are made depending on the manufacturer.
A grand piano commands attention even before you hear the sounds coming from it because of the way it is built. Its majestic and elegant frame lay horizontal with the strings strung the same way and extended away from a set of keys that one must strike to cause the strings to vibrate and produce sound. Having a larger frame means having a bigger soundboard and longer strings that can produce louder, fuller, and deeper sounds, especially when playing the low bass tones. It also offers varied tonality and rich resonance.
It usually has 88 keys comprised of 52 white keys and 36 black keys, providing a 7-octave range with each octave having 7 white and 5 black keys. Piano manufacturer, Steinway, is said to be responsible for making the 88-key piano that became the standard for pianos. The keys are touch-responsive, which allows a wide dynamic range from pianissimo (very soft) to fortissimo (very loud). The harder you press the keys, the harder the hammer will strike the strings to create a louder and bigger sound. When you do it gently, then you get a lighter sound. It has faster key repetition, which is around 14 times per second because the hammer returns to its rest position quickly under its own weight.
The use of the piano pedals such as the shift, sostenuto, and sustain or damper located at the base of the piano affects the tone in many ways. Most commonly used is the sustain pedal, which enables the player to create a more fluid sound as it sustains the played notes even if pressure is lifted off the keys.
Grand pianos come in multiple sizes such as the baby grand, which measures 4ft 11in (1.5m); the boudoir or parlor grand, which ranges from 5ft 7in to 7ft 3in (1.7 to 2.2m); and the concert grand, which ranges from 7ft 3in to 9ft 10in (2.2 to 3m). Some grand pianos are given different names depending on the manufacturer for marketing purposes, so do not be surprised if you see the following names: petite grand, medium grand, large grand, professional grand, studio grand, gallery grand, and ballroom grand.
If the grand piano is what you often see at concert halls, the baby grand piano is usually found in people’s homes. It has the same setup but smaller than the grand. Because of this, the soundboard is smaller, and the strings are shorter as well. It would still sound great but not as loud or as full, making it perfect for home use. It is still big, so you have to find adequate space for it.
An upright piano is so named for its vertical frame with the soundboard and strings positioned vertically, perpendicular to the keyboard. Its compact design was inspired by the clavicitherium in the 1800s, and the first upright piano that was successfully made was credited to an Englishman named John Isaac Hawkins, who was known as a piano maker in Philadelphia, the United States in the 1800s. It was said that Robert Wornum from London, England introduced one with diagonal strings as well as the springs that allow the keys to return to their resting position in 1811which made the quality of sound much better.
Several designs for the upright piano were patented from the late 1700s to the early 1800s, but the first upright piano on record was said to have been made in 1780 by Johann Schmidt, who was from Salzburg, Germany. Of note, vertically placed strings on the upright piano were said to have been done first by the Italian Engineer, Domenico Del Mela. However, the said strings started at the keyboard level going up, so the upright piano was called “Giraffenflugel” as it was said to be obscenely tall.
The upright became popular as it is considerably less expensive and took up less floor space than the grand. It also differs from the grand in such a way that when the keys are pressed, they return to the resting position not through gravity but via the spring mechanism. As a result, key repetition is limited to only as fast as seven times per second. The function of the pedals, particularly the left and middle pedal, differs from the grand as they reduce and mute the volume of the sound, respectively.
Variations in height and cabinet styling of the vertical piano were made, such as the spinet, console, and studio piano. They are all shorter than the upright that has a standard height of 50 inches tall.
It is so named because it is mostly used in studios as its sound quality is said to be comparable to some grand pianos. The reason for this is that its height ranges from 43 inches to 47 inches, which means it has a big enough soundboard that enables it to produce good quality sounds, making it ideal to use for music compositions. Although it has a smaller cabinet, it can still accommodate a full‑size, direct‑blow action.
It is smaller than the studio piano, and its height ranges from 40 to 44 inches tall. This is usually found in homes as it is most suitable for hobbyists. Having a much smaller frame means that the console action is more compressed as the hammer rides directly on top of the keys for a direct‑blow action.
The spinet piano is the smallest vertical piano with the height ranging from 36 to 40 inches tall, which means that the soundboard is smaller and the strings are shorter. Because of this, the quality of sound or tone is inferior. With the strings just starting near the level of keys, it can only accommodate the spinet action, also called drop action, below the keyboard level for an indirect blow action. Vertical metal rods called stickers are attached behind the keys that engage the action. This means that the keys are shortened to make room for them as well. Doing repairs on this type of piano is quite difficult and complicated because it would entail removing the action parts and mechanism, and this can be done by taking out the keys as well.
This type of vertical piano is said to be built to lower the cost. Reducing the size indeed made it cheaper, but the consequence is less than ideal because of the poor quality of the sound. It might suit those learning to play the instrument at that time, but in the end, musicians would want better quality because it would inspire them more, and learning would be more conducive as well.
A digital piano makes use of digital sampling technology instead of hammers and strings in order to produce the acoustic sound of the traditional piano. However, it is found lacking in the natural reverberation, harmonic tones, and continuous timbral changes that are associated with the acoustic piano. Aside from piano sounds, it can produce other instrument sounds such as the violin, guitar, percussion, electric piano, Hammond organ, and more, so playing would be even more exciting. It usually has a built-in amplifier and speaker to produce the sound. You can also connect headphones as you practice, learn a new song, or compose music so you would not be distracted or disturb others.
It is able to recreate the way it feels when playing the keyboard as it has the same 88 weighted keys that are velocity-sensitive or touch-sensitive with the use of analog sensors, so the volume and timbre are dependent on how soft or hard you pressed each key. The built-in pedals also have the same functions.
Other features that are commonly found on digital pianos include the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) output to enable connection to the computer for recording and editing purposes; polyphony that ranges from 32 to 64 notes or voices; sequencers for multi-track recording; and more depending on the model and brand. Beginners would find this a great tool for learning as it comes with a built-in metronome, accompaniment tracks, illuminated keys, and visual aid for the chords.
When it comes to maintenance, this one does not require tuning, so you need not worry about getting out of tune.