The piano is unique among keyboard instruments. Only the piano has hammers that strike tuned strings and rebound away from them, allowing the strings to vibrate and produce sustained musical tones. Each note has an escapement mechanism between the key and its hammer that releases the hammer from the key just before the hammer strikes the strings, allowing it to bounce away from the strings. The pianist may play softly or loudly by depressing the keys slowly or quickly, thus varying the intensity of the blows of the hammers on the strings. This is a brief history of piano’s and there development since the first practical piano which was built 300 years ago! This entire history and so much more can be found in Arthur A. Reblitz book: Piano servicing, tuning, and rebuilding.
Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) built the first practical piano that could be played either softly or loudly, with an escapement mechanism for the hammers, in the early 1700’s. The name piano is an abbreviation of Cristofori’s original name for the instrument piano et forte, or soft and loud. The dramatic expressive capabilities of the piano set it apart from other keyboard instruments of Cristofori’s time, including the harpsichord, in which the mechanism plucks the strings, and the clavichord, in which small brass “tangents” mounted directly on the back ends of the keys touch the strings lightly to produce a very soft, delicate tone. Because of its versatility, the piano has remained popular to this day as the fundamental keyboard instrument of both home and concert hall.
The period beginning with the invention of the piano in the 1700’s and ending in the late 1800’s saw much experimentation and frequent design change. Early pianos of one maker were radically different from those of another. By the late 1800’s, these early designs had evolved toward an instrument whose basic features were similar to those of the modern piano. It is unusual today to find a piano manufactured prior to the 1860’s or 1870’s outside of a museum.
By the late 1800’s, factories were mass producing pianos and retailing them at low enough prices that the public could afford to buy them. Piano cabinets of this period typically featured fancy carvings, fretwork, molding’s, and ornate veneers.
Today these instruments are known as “Victorian” pianos. Victorian pianos may be categorized into three main types: the upright, the square (also known as the square grand), and the grand. Most vertical pianos were uprights, with the strings and soundboard positioned vertically. Square pianos had a rectangular shape with the strings positioned horizontally and approximately parallel to the length of the keyboard. Grand pianos had the strings positioned horizontally, approximately at right angles to the length of the keyboard.
The best Victorian uprights and grands were excellent pianos. Square pianos, despite their massive, ornate cabinets, had small soundboard’s and hammers . Their appearance was more impressive than their musical capability even when they were new. Victorian pianos used mass produced , machine-made action parts, but replacement parts for many of these pianos have not been stocked by piano supply companies since the 1930’s. Of the many Victorian pianos still in existence , the best are well worth careful restoration and preservation.
Twentieth Century Pianos
By the early 1900’s the “Golden Age of the Piano” the development of the piano as we know it today was practically complete. Square pianos were nearly extinct. Grand and upright cabinets were streamlined, and “gingerbread” was eliminated. The mechanical design had progressed essentially to the point where it is today, incorporating high tensile strength steel wire strings strung on large heavy cast iron frames, with large hammers and large soundboard’s.
A common promotional trick in the early 1900 ‘s was to call an upright an “upright grand ” or “cabinet grand.” Because the public tends to think of a grand as being of higher quality than a vertical, these fancy labels are meant to suggest that the piano has qualities typical of grands not found in ordinary verticals. Upon careful examination, a piano with one of these names bears no more resemblance to a grand piano than any other vertical does.
The 1930’s marked the beginning of a trend toward smaller and smaller pianos. Large uprights evolved into smaller studio uprights, and baby grands less than 5’8″ (173 em .) in length became more popular. By the end of the 1940’s, manufacturers mass marketed small consoles and smaller spinets to consumers who didn’t have room for large, boxy uprights in their “modern” smaller apartments and homes.
The height of the cabinet and the placement of the piano action in relation to the keyboard determine whether a vertical piano is an upright, studio upright, console, or spinet. In an upright piano the action is located a distance above the keys, requiring extensions called stickers to connect the keys to the action. Twentieth century full sized uprights nearly always have stickers.
The studio upright and console are of medium height, and usually have the action mounted directly over the keys without stickers. This is called a direct blow action . The studio upright (also called the “professional upright” by many manufacturers) looks like a smaller version of a full sized upright with a slanted front . Most studio uprights made since the 1950 ‘s are high quality , durable pianos marketed mainly to schools , churches , and piano teachers. The console is slightly smaller than a studio upright , typically with the action made as short as possible while still able to sit on top of the keys. Most console pianos have fancier cabinets, for the home market .
The spinet is the smallest vertical, usually with the action partially or completely below the keys. Most spinets have drop actions with drop stickers extending downward from the keys to connect them to the action. The tone quality of spinet pianos is inherently poor in the bass, due to the short bass strings. Also, the spinet action doesn’t feel as solid as that of a console or upright because of the drop stickers . While higher priced spinets are assembled carefully from good quality materials, average spinets are manufactured to satisfy consumer demand for instruments that are as small and inexpensive as possible.
Exceptions to the drop action rule include a few spinets as short as 34″ (including some Currier models) that incorporate a direct blow compressed action, and certain consoles (including 40″- 41″ Baldwin and Brambach models made in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s) that have drop actions.
In summary, a modern piano (one made since the early 1900’s) is either a grand or a vertical. If a vertical, it is either an upright, a studio upright, a console, or a spinet. Most pianos made since the beginning of the 20th century use standardized action parts that are still available. A few, however, used experimental designs that are now obsolete. Millions of pianos made since the early 1900’s, from the cheapest to the very best, are still around today. If a good quality piano is in a moderately good state of preservation, then it is worth repairing or restoring.