In 1698 the Italian Bartolomeo Cristofori invented a keyboard instrument that would hammer, rather than pluck, strings, which would become the piano.
This method of sound production allowed players to have greater graduation of dynamics than in plucked keyboard instruments like the harpsichord or spinet, and the new instrument was consequently named the pianoforte, which means ‘soft-loud’ in Italian.
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The piano was seen as a symbol of gentility and wealth in the 18th and 19th centuries, and proficiency at the piano was regarded as an essential accomplishment for women of the upper classes. It reached its peak popularity at the end of the 19th century, after the industrial revolution made production far more affordable.
Five piano facts
- The term fortepiano is now used to refer to early piano models, without full iron frames.
- The modern piano has three pedals that can be used to alter the timbre of the instrument. The right releases the dampeners from the strings, allowing all strings to resonate. The middle pedal (called the sostenuto) sustains notes already held down, and the left pedal (called the una corda) mutes the sound by restricting the hammers to just one string.
- The modern concert piano has nearly 12,000 parts.
- Today, China produces half a million pianos every year.
- The most expensive piano ever sold at auction was, at $3.22m (£2.25m), the Heintzman Crystal piano played by Lang Lang at the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. At the other end of the scale, the fall in popularity of pianos in people's homes has led to a plummet in prices – it is easy to get hold of a secondhand upright for less than £100 (or even free) on sites such as Gumtree and Ebay.