SO YOU THINK you know everything about the piano? You’ve seen what it looks like, heard what it sounds like and probably know there are 88 keys altogether in black and white. So, how many black keys are there? Gotcha! Before we give you the answer, read on to discover 8 interesting things about the instrument’s past, present and maybe even future that are bound to raise your eyebrows at least a minor third from where they sit right now.
So let’s start at the very beginning, like…Do Re Mi, how did the piano come to be?
1.The First Ever Piano Ever Invented
Before the piano was the harpsichord, a stringed instrument with a keyboard much like the piano only smaller and a lot harder to convey expression with. Yes, the harpsichord only had one volume no matter how hard you hit the keys. It was invented in the 15th century. Before that was the clavichord, the gravicembalo, the clavecin, the virginal, and the spinet of the 14th century which, in turn, were the successors of the dulcimer, the earliest closed box instrument with stretched wires struck with wooden hammers.
Fast forward to the 15th century and the frustration of being unable to control the loudness and tone of the harpsichord with the force of the fingers led directly to the invention of the piano.
One day, in 1698, in the shop of the expert harpsichord maker of Padua, Italy, Bartolomeo di Francesco Cristofori decided to tweak the keyboard he was making into an instrument that could provide fuller expression through touch and sound. Employed at the time by Ferdinando de’ Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany as the Keeper of the Instruments, he had specialist knowledge on stringed keyboard instruments, so modifying something he knew so well wasn’t a problem. In 1709, Cristofori hit paydirt and voila! The piano was born. All of Italy was agog with the invention and this ‘game-changer to how music was produced at the time’ was exhibited in Florence in the same year. His earliest surviving instrument dating back to 1720 is still on display today in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Cristofori died a famous man in 1731 at the ripe old age of 76.
2.The Piano is a Shortform of a Much Longer Name
The piano was first called gravicembalo col piano e forte (meaning soft and loud keyboard instrument) but the name was such a mouthful. Because of the tongue twisting required just to pronounce its name, it was shortened to fortepiano or pianoforte and eventually, just piano. Not only did the piano have an extravagant name, it also had an extravagant price tag and for well over a century, the instrument was found only in the homes of aristocrats and royalty. But as with the forces of economics and the law of supply and demand, the piano eventually came down in price and became a lot more affordable to the general public in later years.
3.A Grandiose Symphony of Working Parts and Taut Strings
Did you know that a piano has 7500 working parts that have to work perfectly in order to produce the sound you need? At the heart of the piano is the soundboard, the most important component of the piano. The soundboard typically has 220-230 steel strings that are pulled so tight, each string pulls around 168 pounds of tension bringing the total tension of most pianos to around 18 to 20 tons. Some of the largest grand pianos hold a whopping 30 tons of pressure! On top of pressure is weight. A concert grand is 8ft 11inches long and weighs 1400lbs! You need a crane to move this thing! But that’s why they come with wheels.
4.Ebony and Ivory…Not
Tinkling on the ivories? Neh. Piano keys are no longer made out of ivory since 1960 because of the treaty to protect the elephants. Now piano keys are made out of plastic. Acrylic plastic to be exact. Or cellulose plastic. Either way, you can rest assured, no animal is harmed in the making of today’s pianos.
Note: Piano keys are actually made out of wood and covered with a thin veneer of plastic.
5.Which Will Run Faster? When Vertical or Horizontal?
If you answered Vertical….Braap! Wrong. You can play faster and a lot smoother on a grand piano lying horizontal than an upright standing vertical because of the action of the repetition lever. Also called a balancier, the action of the repetition lever allows a pianist on a grand piano to repeat the notes when the key is only half way up. On an upright, vertical action requires the key to go all the way up to reset it, thereby slowing down the movement of the fingers.
6.The Most Expensive Pianos in the World
Now we get to the fun part with videos and all. Speaking of expensive, you’ve got to see this video. Featured inside is the Galaxy Piano built in the…you guessed it…United Arab Emirates by a company called Galaxy Instruments that specialises in crafting out-of-this-world super luxury items that only Sheiks can afford. The piano is unusual-looking to say the least. Some say it’s beautiful. The parts are all imported from Germany, the body is 24-carat gold-plated fiberglass and the lid is automatic along with curved keys. It’s the only piano in the word to feature curved keys by the way. There are no videos of its sound but then again, sound may not be the most important criteria when it comes to an Arab choosing the Galaxy Piano.
The 10 most expensive pianos in the world
The MOST expensive piano, however, sold at an auction for $3.22 million is hands-down the Crystal Piano, designed by Canadian manufacturer Heintzman Pianos, played on by celebrated Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang in the opening ceremony, in front of a worldwide audience, of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. The 9ft concert grand is completely transparent. That is why it is called the Crystal Piano.
The Most Expensive Piano Ever Sold in History Video
7.Size Matters. And He’s Got the Biggest One
Hands down ─ The record goes to Adrian Mann of New Zealand for making a piano that’s 5.7m (18ft 9 inches) long and weighing 1.4tonnes to boot. Now this one definitely needs a crane to haul around!
A piano tuner by profession, Mann took four years to build the piano in his neighbour’s garage. He didn’t have space in his. Working with a large allen key and a 12mm socket, Mann was only 12 when he tuned his first piano. When he hit 16, he decided to build the largest and the longest grand piano in the world ─ entirely by hand. No kidding. And you know what? He did it! No wonder he’s called the Piano Mann of New Zealand!
Watch his story here.
8.There’s Even a Movie called ‘The Piano’
Written and directed by Jane Campion, this is a 1993 New Zealand film that stars Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, and Anna Paquin in her first acting role. The film’s score for the piano by Michael Nyman became a best-selling soundtrack album, and Hunter played her own piano pieces for the film.
Listen to The Piano Soundtrack here
Set during the mid-19th century in a rainy, muddy frontier backwater town on the west coast of New Zealand, the story revolves around the pianist’s passion for playing the piano and her efforts to regain her piano after it is sold.
If You Haven’t Seen the Film, Here’s the Trailer
Winner of several Academy Awards including Best Actress for Holly Hunter and Best Supporting Actress for Anna Pacquin, the film also won 11 AACTA Awards and Cannes Film Festival Awards.
Come to think of it, there’s even made a film about The Pianist starring Adrien Brody, but that’s another story.
And with that, we hope you’ve enjoyed your piano lesson for today. Watch this space for more revelations in the weeks to come and to answer the first trivia question in the opening salvo of this article: There are 36 black keys and 52 white ones making up a total of 88 keys for 7 octaves and a minor third. Lowest note is A0 and highest note is C8. And there you have it. Now haven’t you learnt something interesting today?
If you liked this story, click on the link for Part 2 of the continuing saga of the 88, called….11 Oddest-Looking, Most Unusual Pianos Ever