Piano, an instrument created by the technical innovation of the thrown hammer. This separates the piano from its two immediate predecessors the clavichord, the favourite of Johann Sebastian Bach, and the harpsichord, favourite of G.F.Handel.

This technical innovation, as much as I am loathe to admit it, has permitted the creation of centuries of joy. Technical innovation precedes artistic inspiration.

There are some who think the piano has been overcomposed for, and there have been various attempts at new instruments, such as Theremin, and synthesizers or various types. Even before Robert Moog designed and built his synthesizer, there were compositional trys, such as atonality, tone row. Charles Rosen, in a recent New York Times Review of Books essay also discusses the development of a curious prejudice against working out music at the piano. But Rosen has put his finger on the real reason the piano will never cease to be played, though maybe it will fall out of favour as an instrument to be composed for.

We--I--find a curious oneness with the instrument at certain times. At certain times we--the piano and I, or keyboard and I--catch on fire in the pursuit of an improvisation. Rosen speaks of the connection with the instrument, though he is only speaking of the wood, metal, and used to be ivory, now mostly plastic thing we call a piano. Maybe, I am seeing more than he does.

But it is the connection through the instrument to themusic that is the fire that melts the Chains of Doom, and releases us for flight!

A piano has usually got 88 keys. When hit, they make little hammers made of wood and felt fly up and hit strings. These strings are made out of a special alloy and are then tightened. Very tightly tightened. This is why a piano's frame is made out of a special bronze alloy, too: The total pull of the strings is in the hundred kilonewton range. And don't think there's just one string per key. Some have three, some only one, some two. On average, there's more than two per key.

The mechanism that relays the keypress to the hammer is very cunning and complex. If you hit a key several times in a row very quickly, you'll notice that you can thus make the hammer bounce up and down without it or the key itself returning to a complete rest at any moment. It has taken the piano industry nearly 200 years to perfect this thing; it's called repetitive action. Experience some of it: listen to Billy Joel's Prelude.

Playing the piano seems easy. If you've never played one, it'll take you months before you get the first acceptable tone out of a violin. Yet, with a piano, even a brain-amputated clone serving as an organ depot could produce a seemingly perfect note by simply pressing a key. The problem is that piano music may require you to hit up to ten (sometimes more!) keys at once. And much piano music requires you to hit them in very intricate patterns, exactly on time; and many pieces by, say, Chopin require you to hit keys faster than a submachine gun fires. A piano is, however, not an assault weapon.

The secret for the piano's success is that it's expressive, i.e. unlike a harpsichord, it produces louder notes when you hit the keys harder, and there are pedals to control the dampers and such for more dynamic special effects. Another big selling point is that a piano is very rugged and durable. Most pianos barely need to be tuned every two years. A harpsichord must be tuned daily; a violin, every time you play it.

When playing the piano, every note should be perfect with respect to:

  • its volume
  • the speed, hardness and attitude of its attack (i.e. the initial hitting of the key)
  • its duration
  • the speed and attitude of the key's release
  • the exact position of the pedal that holds the dampers up
  • ...

Playing the piano is a lot like sex and martial arts combined. If you want to know what can be done with a piano, check out not only the abovementioned Prelude, but also some of Beethoven's sonatas and especially some etudes by Chopin.

In dynamics music notation, piano is abbreviated 'p' and indicates that the music from that point on should be played softly. The word simply means "quiet" in Italian.

When added to the staff, it looks something like this (complete with eighth notes):

---| /----------------------------------------------------
  /|              |         |         |         |         
|  |  |      |    |    |    |    |    |    |    |         
 \ |  |      |____|____|____|____|____|____|____|         
  \|         p

A Poem by D.H.Lawrence now in public domain


Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

D. H. Lawrence

From New Poems. London: Martin Secker, 1918

Pi*a"no (?), a. & adv. [It., even, smooth, soft, fr. L. planus even, level.] Mus.

Soft; -- a direction to the performer to execute a certain passage softly, and with diminished volume of tone. (Abbrev. p.)


© Webster 1913.

Pi*an"o (?), Pi*an"o*for`te (?), n. [It. piano soft (fr. L. planus even, smooth; see Plain, a.) + It. forte strong, fr. L. fortis (see Fort).] Mus.

A well-known musical instrument somewhat resembling the harpsichord, and consisting of a series of wires of graduated length, thickness, and tension, struck by hammers moved by keys.

Dumb piano. See Digitorium. -- Grand piano. See under Grand. -- Square piano, one with a horizontal frame and an oblong case. -- Upright piano, one with an upright frame and vertical wires.


© Webster 1913.

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