How The Renaissance Time Period
Shaped The History Of The Piano

Renaissance Time Period

During the “cultural rebirth” of the European renaissance time period, classical forms of Greek and Latin literature were revitalized, Astronomy was conceived, and the land that would become known as America was discovered.
Dating from around the mid 1400’s to the mid 1600’s, innovations in science, philosophy, art, and especially music would transform European society and eventually shape the entire culture of the modern Western world.
Up until the start of the 15th century, the church organ was the first and only chromatic keyboard instrument the world had ever known.
This ancient ancestor of the modern piano had evolved from an even earlier keyboard instrument whose origins date back three centuries before the birth of Christ. However, the church organ was first to feature the black and white piano key layout the world is familiar with today.
But as the renaissance time period surged on, the wind-powered pipe organ would not be the only contributor to the design of the next generation of “stringed” keyboard instruments.
The First Stringed Instrument
Renaissance Time Period Music historians have long speculated that the first musical instruments were probably discovered by accident as early hunters used bows and arrows to catch their dinner.
Ancient man may have noticed the distinctive “tone” the string of his bow made each time he shot an arrow off.
Through regular maintenance of his hunting bow, the hunter would have realized that using strings of different lengths, thickness, and tension levels would produce a variety of different sounds, or “notes” each time the strings were plucked.

Renaissance Time Period

When recreation allowed for the attachment of two or more strings to the hunter’s bow, the very first harp instrument was born.

Harps have been documented in the hieroglyphic wall paintings of ancient Egyptians well over 5000 years ago, and are the mother of all stringed musical instruments!
Other well-known stringed instruments include the violin, voila, cello, and double bass.
All of which were developed in Italy during the 16th century of the renaissance time period.
But it was towards the end of the Middle Ages (around 1423), that musicians first came up with the unique idea of attaching a set of strings to the chromatic keyboard of a church organ.
The Harpsichord
The harpsichord was the first “plucked-string” keyboard instrument, and holds the distinction as the direct ancestor of the modern piano.
The exact date or origin as to where or who invented the harpsichord is not completely known. However, it is not unreasonable to speculate that the original harpsichord model may have been designed by 15th century harp players who where experimenting with new ways to pluck the strings of their instrument.

Renaissance Time Period

Like other well-known stringed instruments, the harpsichord was mainly manufactured in 16th century Italy during the renaissance time period.
Similar to today’s piano, the harpsichord used a system of wooden keys and an internal “harp-like” arrangement of strings to produce sound.
Whenever a key was played, a small hook (called a quill) would pluck the string and create a specific tone or “note”.
Despite the harpsichord’s lack of finger “touch sensitivity” or its inability to sustain the notes past the point of finger contact, it became an important instrument to many composers and musicians during the Baroque period in classical music.

Renaissance Time Period

The frame of a harpsichord was constructed entirely out of wood in the classic “wing-shape” design that is still used on grand pianos today.
However, for domestic use the lighter and more compact “virginal” harpsichord model or the “spinet” harpsichord model were much more space friendly and affordable for the average household during the renaissance time period.

Renaissance Time Period

The Clavichord
The clavichord is another distant relative of the modern acoustic piano. Although it co-existed along with the harpsichord during the 14th century, clavichord building didn’t really take off until the 16th century.
The clavichord was very simple in design and had a keyboard action that was more similar to the keyboard action of a modern piano.
Each wooden key was attached to a small brass “tangent” which would strike upwards against the strings (instead of plucking the strings).
During the renaissance time period, this unique striking mechanism could produce sounds with a better range of expressiveness and control than the plucking quills of a harpsichord.
Another innovative feature of the clavichord was that the brass tangents did not automatically retract after striking upwards against the strings. These levers could remain in contact with the strings after striking them as long as the keyboardist held the keys down.
Compared with the action of a harpsichord, this allowed for greater mechanical control over both the volume and the pitch variances of notes played.

Renaissance Time Period

One draw back of the clavichord design is that it played much too softly to be appreciated by larger audiences, and its small rectangular wooden frame meant that it was better suited for domestic use.
Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the clavichord was a very popular instrument in German speaking households, and could easily be placed upon a kitchen table or placed in a corner on legs.
Although clavichord building fell off in the 1840’s, today the clavichord is still played primarily by classical pianists and enthusiasts of “Baroque” music, which was composed during the renaissance time period.
The Pianoforte
At the dawn of the 18th century, an innovative Italian harpsichord maker named Bartolomeo de Francesco Cristofori (1655 – 1731) invented a musical instrument that combined the dynamic keyboarding action of a clavichord with the basic “wing-shaped” frame of a harpsichord model.

Renaissance Time Period

This revolutionary keyboard instrument substituted the mechanical plucking system of the harpsichord with an internal network of hammers.
Each time a key was pressed the connecting hammer would strike up against the strings to produce either a soft or loud sound depending on how hard the keyboardist played.
Cristofori named his new keyboard invention: "Gravicembalo col piano e forte", which translates into English as “harpsichord with soft and loud”.
Unfortunately, the debut of the pianoforte was not met with the same enthusiasm as were its’ predecessors from the renaissance time period. Cristofori would go on to produce only twenty or so completed pianoforte models before returning to harpsichord making.
However, it wouldn’t be long before the descendant of the harpsichord slowly made its way across Europe and eventually across the rest of the music world known simply as “The Piano”.
Square Piano
In 1725, German keyboard builder, Gottfried Silberman (1683-1753) was reading a German-translated article about Bartolomeo Cristofori’s great invention, the pianoforte. The article was originally printed in Italian and published in 1711.
Intrigued by Cristofori’s bold new keyboard instrument, Silberman began to replicate the Cristofori keyboard instrument, and also added his own creation, the first “damper pedal”.
Soon two of Silberman’s apprentices, Christian Ernst Friederici, and Johannes Christoph Zumpe began putting their clavichord building skills to work and designed the first of a long line of “square pianos” in the mid 1700’s.

Renaissance Time Period

Part of the reason for the public’s initial lack of interest in the pianoforte was that it was too large, too heavy, and so expensive, only the rich could afford it.

Renaissance Time Period

But in 1761, Johannes Zumpe designed a square piano that was much more compact, affordable and light enough to be carried on the back of a single man.

His new “Zumpe” design of square piano caused quite a buzz in England, and ushered in the first major period of popularity for the pianoforte.
Following the renaissance time period, the square piano would go on to have many makers such as Jonas Chickering, Alpheus Babcock, Guillaume-Lebrecht Petzold, John Broadwood, and Steinway & Sons.
Ironically, as innovations to the construction of the square piano improved, so did its size. This would eventually be the undoing of the square piano.
The implementation of the newly patented cast iron frame meant that the once compact, lightweight and affordable square piano was beginning to defeat its original purpose - as a piano instrument for the middle class.
Piano makers, Robert Nunns and John Clark debuted a humongous seven-octave square piano in New York City in 1853. Its enormous rosewood frame was beautifully crafted with designs inspired from the renaissance time period.
The Nunns & Clark square piano was not only the latest achievement in quality production, it was also a gorgeous work of art. But unfortunately for the square piano, by the end of the 19th century it had become obsolete.
Upright Piano
As the era of the once “space friendly” square piano was beginning to run its course, the demand for a household alternative to the larger and more expensive “wing-shaped” piano design would come in the form of the upright piano.
Renaissance Time Period
Just as the “spinet” or “virginal” was the preferred harpsichord model for domestic use in the renaissance time period, the upright piano was and still is the most favorable piano for modern households today.
Upright or “vertical” pianos began to appear during the mid 18th century, however they were never as wildly popular as the famed square piano until its eventual decline.
The post renaissance time period upright would undergo an intriguing series of transformations before finally settling into its modern shape by the dawn of the 19th century.
One rare upright design called the “Giraffe” was a highly stylized Italian structure featuring a tall wave-shaped cabinet topped off with a scroll decoration. This unique vertical piano also featured up to seven individual pedals that could create an interesting array of sounds and effects.
The semi-elliptical shape of an “Oval” or “Demilune” piano allowed the instrument to be used as an optional side table when the lid was shut.
Probably the strangest of all the 18th century experiments in the lineage of upright pianos is the very short-lived “Harp Piano”.
With (literally) an entire harp instrument placed on top of its frame, this enigma could jokingly be described as: “The duck billed platypus of the piano world”
Grand Piano
The “wing shaped” design of the grand piano is the earliest form of the piano created by Bartolomeo Cristofori in the year 1700. The origin of its design lies in the preceding harpsichord model that was widely popular during the renaissance time period.
Over the last 300 years, Cristofori’s pianoforte has undergone an incredible transformation in direct response to the constant demands of the old piano masters who wanted more brilliance, color and sustaining power from the piano keys.

Renaissance Time Period

With the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the mid 1800’s, piano manufacturers were able to take advantage of new technological advances to produce and obtain higher quality materials.
  • Improved steel production allowed piano makers to use heavier gauge strings to create a richer sound.
  • The added weight and tension of the new strings required a heavier cast iron piano frame.
  • In 1859 the Steinway piano company invented a cross stringing method that allows the strings to spread out and vibrate over a larger area, thereby producing a more resonant sound.
  • The piano key notes were given “double escape action” which allowed pianists to keep pressing a note repeatedly without needing to allow the key to lift all the way up first.
  • The piano keyboard itself expanded from the original four-octave layout of the renaissance time period to a total of 7 and 1/4 octaves (88 keys).
  • New felt coverings on the piano hammers produced a more vibrant tone as they struck the strings.
  • In 1874 the Steinway piano company perfects the “sostention” pedal (a variation of the “sustain” pedal originally created by Gottfried Silberman over a century earlier).
By the year 1900, the pianoforte had finally completed its incredible journey from the distant renaissance time period to its present-day form. While engineers continue to examine new innovations in piano manufacturing, the instrument has pretty much retained its form since the dawn of the 20th century.
The Piano In the 20th Century
The 1877 invention of the phonograph and the early 1920’s invention of the radio began to overshadow the entertainment value of the piano and sales began to decline. The Great Depression of the 1930’s dealt another severe blow to the instruments’ popularity and caused several piano manufacturers to go out of business.
However, the "boogie-woogie" piano would return and enjoy a brief comeback in the 1940’s with the early development of piano driven rock n’ roll. But as rock music progressed into the mid 1950’s, the piano faced stiff competition from a seemingly insurmountable rival: the electric guitar.
Many 50’s and 60’s rock n’ roll bands considered it “un-cool” to use an actual piano on stage, mainly preferring the use of their electric “axes” instead. And America’s growing fascination with the black and white television didn’t seem to help matters for the post renaissance time period pianoforte.
It wasn’t until the late 1960’s that one revolutionary device would catapult the once sidelined piano keyboard back into the spotlight of popular music...
The Digital Age of the Piano
Born in New York City, Dr. Robert Arthur Moog (1934 – 2005) was a celebrated graduate student of electrical engineering, the pioneer of electronic music, and the inventor of the synthesizer.

Renaissance Time Period

Using 1960’s cutting edge technology, Bob Moog developed the first modular electronic keyboard in the laboratories of Ivy League universities.

Not since the early renaissance time period would an innovation to a piano keyboard have such an enormous impact on the future of popular music.
In 1968, Wendy Carlos was the first musical artist to use a Moog synthesizer to produce the first album ever to be created with an electronic keyboard: “Switched-on Bach”.
The record was a Grammy-award winning smash and inspired a whole generation of musical groups, like The Monkees and The Beatles to begin incorporating the Moog synth into their music.
Bob Moog manufactured and sold a full line of music synthesizers, most notably his 1970’s Minimoog, which was a major contributor to the nostalgic sounds heard during the disco era.
Although the original Moog synths could only play one note at a time, it laid the groundwork for the development of polyphonic synthesizers, such as the Fairlight CMI in 1978, and the distinctive sounding Yamaha DX7 of the 1980’s.
With the development of digital sampling on keyboards, (such as the Fairlight CMI) musicians were able to make and play back realistic-sounding digital “samples” (recordings) of actual acoustic instruments, such as a piano, guitar or horn instrument.
Today, the majority of electronic and digital pianos make sounds by merely playing back a digital sample every time you press the keys, rather than producing or “synthesizing” sound the way the Moog synthesizers did.
In 1983, an electronic communications protocol called MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) was created to allow the growing number of electronic musical devices to synchronize and operate with one another in real time.
MIDI is the industry standard for connecting musical instruments to computers, and is widely used in the production of today’s music.
The Future of the Piano
One hundred years after the end of the renaissance time period, it was still common to find an upright piano in almost every moderately “well to do” English and American household.
Today, as living quarters have gotten smaller and computer technology continues to dominate the course of modern music, less people are opting for an acoustic version of the piano instrument.
In the 21st century, ownership of a genuine piano has become more of a specialized investment relegated primarily to hotels, school auditoriums, entertainment establishments, places of worship, recording studios and the individual piano enthusiast.
However, even in the digital age of dance music and computerized MIDI systems, today’s musicians and composers will always require a basic understanding and working knowledge of the standard piano note chart.
Since the dawn of the renaissance time period, history has consistently shown that no matter what the current trend in music may be, the pianoforte will always manage to find a place for itself in the hearts of music lovers.
How the Piano Note Chart Was First Conceived
Meet The Hydraulis: The First Keyboard Instrument Ever Made
Back to – The Complete History of the Piano

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Renaissance Time Period Shaped Piano History

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