It's one of the most common musical instruments, but where did it come from and how did we get here? John Banther and Linda Carducci go on a journey through time to trace the evolution of the piano and its various forms. Plus, why is it so fun to see pianos fall from high places??

Show Notes

Examples of different keyboard instruments (listen to the episode first!)


Hammered dulcimer







Grand piano

Dor Heled playing Bach on the Moog little phatty and Dave Smith Prophet Rev2.

Find more Bach, Chopin, and more on instruments like these: Dor Heled - YouTube

And finally, a piano being tossed out a window...


John Banther: I'm John Banther, and this is Classical Breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we are your guide to classical music.
In this episode, I'm joined by WETA Classical's Linda Carducci, and we are going on a thousand- year journey to explore the evolution of one of the most popular instruments today, the piano. We look at how the instrument's construction and sound changed over the centuries, how these changes affect how we play and write, and which composers demanded more and more from the instrument.
Today, Linda, we get to enjoy the piano in all of its forms. We get to play it at home, we hear it in the big concert hall, at airports, and at malls. And perhaps we see its best use in cartoons, falling onto people from high places.

Linda Carducci: When we think of piano, don't we think of the big grand piano? Fine, that's the modern- day piano. But we will go back to what the piano originally was and how it evolved.

John Banther: Yes. So before we shove the piano out the window ourselves, we're going to have to look at well, where it came from, and at the end, we'll try to answer the question, why is it so funny to drop pianos from high places?
So as you said, Linda, we need to go back in time here, so I've got my bags packed. Do you?

Linda Carducci: I sure do. Looking forward to it.

John Banther: All right, so we'll jump into our time machine, and we are going back farther than we ever have in this podcast. We're going back to the Middle Ages, the year 1000, the Middle East, maybe somewhere in Iraq.

Linda Carducci: You and I are always groundbreaking, John.

John Banther: Yes.

Linda Carducci: Yes, so we are going back now to the hammered dulcimer. The hammered dulcimer you may see once in a while at a fair or somewhere on display, but it is a stringed percussive instrument. So in that alone, the fact that it has strings and it has percussion, foreshadows the piano. Each of those elements are common throughout most forms of the piano over the years.
The strings are spread over a soundboard, and then the player will have it on a lap or a table right in front of him or her, they hold two mallets or hammers, and then they strike the strings and the strings are pitched.

John Banther: Yes. And to get an idea of maybe the size of this thing, it goes on a table or on your lap. It's like a really big extra- large pizza box with strings over it. I kind of think of it like that. It's that kind of size.
And the limitation is, yeah, you've got these two hammers that you're hitting the strings with, but you've only got two hands, so you're generally not playing more than two notes at the same time. And as you said, you do see them most commonly, I think, in the United States at renaissance fairs, and you also see it played professionally to its fullest extent in Indian classical music still today.

Linda Carducci: When you think back to the original players of the hammered dulcimer, or even the people who created it and developed into the first place, they were learning probably about pitch and stringing the pitch, so that when it's taut, it's going to have a different pitch than when it's loose or when it's a big string as opposed to a small string or thin string. These will produce different pitches. I think they were learning that with the hammered dulcimer.

John Banther: Yes. And the sound is, it's very nice, it's very characteristic, it's beautiful. And we can actually look at the name of it itself, the dulcimer, the etymology of it, and I know very little, next to nothing about etymology, so all of it with a grain of salt, I guess. But it's Latin for maybe dulce melos, sweet melody, and then eventually over time with old French becomes what we call dulcimer around the 14th century. So that's where the word comes from.
And the sound, it's pretty. There's a strong percussion aspect, as you mentioned, a very strong attack on the beginnings of notes.

Linda Carducci: But it's not too loud. It's a nice pleasing volume of sound. It wouldn't be played with an orchestra certainly, but it has a very nice pleasing sound, and I could see where it would provide a lot of entertainment, particularly maybe in early courts, like kings' courts or something.

John Banther: Yes. And as we explore the history of the piano, we're going to hear each of these instruments play the same passage to get an idea of how the sound evolves, and we'll do that with the first Invention in C by Johann Sebastian Bach. And it's Vince Conaway playing the dulcimer here, and I'll put a link to his YouTube channel on the show notes page. He's got a lot of videos on the dulcimer.
So speaking of the Renaissance, we can actually go to our next place now, the Renaissance, around the 14th century in what is now Germany, and we have an instrument called the clavichord.

Linda Carducci: Yes, we think of Renaissance, of course the word means rebirth. There was this regrowth now of knowledge, there was learning now of how things were put together, great advancements in science. And so we see now quite an advancement from this hammered dulcimer from the Middle Ages to now the clavichord of the Renaissance era.

John Banther: This is basically the oldest stringed keyboard that we know of and it's stayed in use for centuries. A big difference that you see and hear from it is that, well, now instead of hammers, we have a keyboard that we're playing.
And to describe how it looks, think of sitting at your desk with a shoebox in front of you, something that size, and then you stretch it to four- feet long, so it's on either side of you, but the keyboard itself doesn't go all the way down the instrument like the modern piano. You look at the piano in front of you, you see the keys go all the way down. This is smaller. It's like your computer keyboard almost on your desk, all that space on either side, but you're only working with the keys right there. And we don't have a lot. 35 keys instead of 88, so we're quite limited.

Linda Carducci: Yes, less than half. And the strings are to the right. Is that correct?

John Banther: I think so. Sometimes a keyboard is a little towards the center or mostly towards the left. And I think the average person, when looking at this instrument today, wouldn't call it a piano. " Oh, it's got a keyboard. It's something like a piano," but it's not what we would look at and think, " Oh, that's a piano."
And the etymology of this, the Latin clavis means key, and then Greek corda is a string, so clavichord. And this is a very beautiful sounding instrument, I think, but it's very uneven in its sound. Right? And it's not very loud. You wouldn't be playing this in a concert for a thousand people. That concept didn't even really exist yet.

Linda Carducci: That's right. This is definitely a solo instrument. It has a relatively small sound. When you listen to it by itself, and you can hear some videos of it being performed, it almost sounds like a banjo or a guitar. We have keys that are hitting strings of different lengths that will give you different pitches.

John Banther: So when you push a key down, the hammer hits the string, and then the string is kept open as long as, I guess, you keep your finger down on the keyboard. But this did not have a lot of dynamic range, like the modern piano. As you said, it's more of a private instrument, used more for maybe entertainment for yourself, maybe accompanying a small voice, something like that.

Linda Carducci: Yes. And we can look to some of the early composers who would use it to maybe compose something, to construct something that would then be, say, larger, maybe for a choir. But originally, the concept that they were creating was on this small clavichord.

John Banther: And there's a big difference here, and that is they have frets, frets like in a guitar. And these are also, I believe, they're moving up and down. And what this does is having frets on a clavichord, it enables the instrument to use fewer strings for more notes. So for example, maybe you play a C on the keyboard and the entire string is struck and it's ringing out. It's a beautiful C. But then maybe you want to play a C- sharp. Well, instead of having a whole nother string for a C- sharp, you can just use the same string that you used for C, but now along with the hammer, a little fret goes up to make contact with the string, making it shorter. Now you have C- sharp.

Linda Carducci: It's a great invention. Again, keeping in with the Renaissance. Again, the Renaissance was an era of discovery and scientific creation.

John Banther: And you might ask, " Well, does that mean you can't play C and C- sharp at the same time?" Yes, but that wasn't really a concern back then. They weren't doing some of these crunchy half- step intervals in the music.

Linda Carducci: Yes, right. Or chords, really.

John Banther: Now, the keys are also closer together than the modern- day piano. And this is a good point to mention, Linda, that just because one plays the piano, you play the piano, for instance, it doesn't mean you play all of these keyboard instruments just as well because the keys, the feelings of them, even the distance of them, it greatly affects the pianist. And these are smaller keys, I think, right?

Linda Carducci: Yeah, they're smaller and they're thinner. So as you said, and we'll see this with the harpsichord too, if a pianist is pretty much adjusted in their mind and in their muscles as to where they should place their fingers on the keys in order to reach certain keys, they have to greatly adjust that for the clavichord. Now, things have to go a little more scrunched inward because the keys are a little bit narrow. They're not quite as wide.
So you're definitely playing on a different sort of hand coordination than you would be on a modern- day piano.

John Banther: What I also find really interesting about this keyboard on the clavichord is that the layout is basically... It's the same as today, right? We basically figured out back then, we've got what we'll call just the white keys on the piano, and then the shorter black keys in between for sharps and flats. That was already in place and around the 1400s.

Linda Carducci: That's really kind of inventive, and it's remarkable too, back then, that they would make that kind of a leap from the hammered dulcimer to finding these keys and how these sharps would be activated by black keys, and the regular, the natural notes would be activated by white keys.

John Banther: And just computer keyboards themselves, they're not standardized today. They're different in different countries, so I think that's impressive that they figured this out with the piano so early.
It was great for playing personally, but also for composers, like you said, helping them in their compositional process. Also teaching, I imagine as well, because you're able to replicate notes and melodies right here and now easily and in a more standardized way where more people can then learn the instrument.

Linda Carducci: Yes, it wasn't a super large instrument, so people would have it in their homes, and composers like C. P. E. Bach, for example, who was a great proponent of the clavichord, for teaching purposes and for composing purposes. Same with Mozart. It was not an extraordinarily large instrument so that it could be easily put in any room.

John Banther: And we're back in our time machine, and we'll head off now to the 16th century, and we'll land in Italy where we see the harpsichord.
I love this instrument, Linda. I love the sound and how it's almost a cascading waterfall of noise at times. And I think this is the first time where we're getting to a point where the average person, they look at it and they might think, " Oh, that's some kind of piano." It's got a shape that's elongated, it's got a keyboard, but the sound here, it's so different.

Linda Carducci: It is. It has a slightly mechanical sound, slightly tinkly sort of sound, but it is such a charming sound and it blends so well in small ensembles.
You were talking about the size and the shape, and when we were talking about the clavichord, they could be very ornate, they could be decorated beautifully with painting, and a lot of times, and they usually had a lid that would open up, and so you would see the interior of the lid that would also be painted. And it was just a beautiful instrument, a beautiful piece of furniture, if you will.
Similar to the harpsichord, although as you said now, it's more in the shape of a piano, it has the tapered shape that goes back that we are familiar with the piano, but again, it typically is decorated and its lid is often open, again, painted in the interior so that when people were watching somebody playing that harpsichord, they could be greeted by some visual beauty too.

John Banther: Because these are being bought and played by very wealthy people, the royalty. It needs to be beautifully decorated as well. It can't just be this ugly thing. It's got to have some art on it as well.
And the range, we're increasing even more. Now we have 61 keys, we've got about four to five octaves, but the keys are still a little bit closer together, kind of scrunched a little compared to the modern piano. So it takes adjustment for a pianist to just go and play a harpsichord. It takes its own skill. It's usually a specialized thing today.

Linda Carducci: Yes, that's right. And similar to what we saw with the clavichord.

John Banther: And the etymology, late Latin, harpa like a harp. In fact, it's kind of shaped like a harp, the body of the instrument, just laying down, and then corda meaning string.
So the sound is so beautiful. It's so rich, it's so textured. I love it. The big difference here is we're not really a percussion instrument anymore, right? Because we're not using a hammer, but rather something like a pick, a plectrum that goes up and plucks these strings instead of hammering them.

Linda Carducci: Yes, this is a difference from the last two instruments we were just looking at, the hammered dulcimer and the clavichord, which are percussive instruments because there is a hammer that strikes a string to produce a sound. Right now, as you said though, this is not a percussive instrument. It is a plucked instrument.

John Banther: And you might think when you hit the key and it plucks the string as it goes up, when it comes back down, isn't it going to pluck the string again? But a lot of advancement here that we see, the plectrum or the pick, it can actually rotate on itself. So when it comes down, it actually just slides up over the string as opposed to plucking it again.
The strings, they are made of brass and a big development is that they also have a better soundboard. It's this thing inside the instrument that the strings are connected to via their bridge, and we'll put pictures on the show notes page. And it's this whole body that vibrates and amplifies the sound of these strings.

Linda Carducci: Yes. Again, a difference from the clavichord. It has a larger sound from what we were talking about with the clavichord.

John Banther: And it gives it a more even sound across all of the registers. And it's actually, it's similar to the violin, this concept. You have the hollow body. The bow makes a note on the string, but there's a carefully placed post inside of this body, and together with the wood, it amplifies the sound.
But because the string was plucked, Linda, this meant that the sound would be different because we have a sharp, fast attack, and now we have a big decay in the sound, and this must have influenced how composers wrote for it too.

Linda Carducci: Yes. I don't think that legato was something that was technically, that was usually used for harpsichords. You're right that there was an early decay of the sound.

John Banther: And this was widely used during the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Basically, all composers were including and writing for this in some way. And it was often the continuo, which you hear a lot when you listen to classical music on the radio, or even when we just talk about it, we mentioned continuo, and that's the accompaniment part. And that would be a big role for the harpsichord, but it also had soloistic aspects to it as well. Now it's moving from a private instrument to now there's concertos written for this instrument, like by Bach.

Linda Carducci: Oh, yes, yes. And just think of all of Bach's keyboard music. I mean, the Inventions and the Suites, the Keyboard Suites, and the Goldberg Variations, and The Well- Tempered Clavier, of course.

John Banther: Oh, yeah.

Linda Carducci: The Preludes and Fugues, those were done for harpsichord. And some of these harpsichords had dual manuals. That is, two keyboards. So the left hand might be playing on one keyboard, the right hand might be playing on a different keyboard. The second keyboard suspended just slightly above the lower keyboard and back a little ways. So in a modern- day piano, when we play those same pieces of music that Bach wrote for the harpsichord, we don't have two manuals to move our hands freely.

John Banther: Oh, okay. So if I'm hearing you right, it helps you do things easier in how it's written for the music because your hands are very closer, they're closer together. Is that what it is?

Linda Carducci: Well, for the harpsichord, it is quite easy to play notes with the left hand and right hand that are just practically on top of each other because you aren't physically on top of each other. Your hands are separated because they're on different keyboards. So even though Bach wants you to play, say for example, a C and a D, which is together on the keyboard, with one hand playing the C, the other hand playing the D, if you played that on a regular modern- day keyboard, you'd be sort of scrunching together. Or sometimes they're overlapping and then you're really scrunching your hands together. But if you have a separate manual, those two are on two different planes now. You aren't touching each other. You aren't scrunching each other.

John Banther: Okay. And this concept, you still see it in, I mean, every rock band from the '70s, '80s, and '90s, when they have the synthesizers and they've got two stacked on top of each other-

Linda Carducci: Yeah, exactly.

John Banther: ... that they're doing.

Linda Carducci: And by the way, that's a technical term, scrunch.

John Banther: Scrunch, yes.
So this instrument also had some limitations as well, dynamic limitations. It's louder. It projects more. It can be in front of an ensemble as a soloistic instrument, but the dynamics, they're not very deep. You can't play super soft. You can't play super loud. It's kind of this medium- medium loud sound. And the dynamics were different in the Baroque era, they weren't doing pianissimo to crescendo to fortissimo.

Linda Carducci: It wasn't the style.

John Banther: Right, right. So this was also applied to the harpsichord where things have a lot of contrast. It's forte and then it's piano, or it's piano and then it's forte. They're terraced.

Linda Carducci: That's right. Those are called terraced dynamics, T- E- R- R- A- C- E, or E- D with a D at the end, to imply that they are steps or terraces, like we have terraces on an apartment or something because we have two different volumes. We have terraces of volumes, either mezzo forte, or forte, or soft. And so when a modern- day pianist is playing something like that, playing something that was written during that era, and for the harpsichord, they will imitate that to play the terraced dynamics instead of, as you say, crescendos to a loud sound or decrescendos to a soft sound. That didn't come in until later and with a more modern piano.

John Banther: And we'll get closer to that now as we get back into our time machine. And from 16th century Italy, we're going to stay in the same place. We're going to have more mozzarella sticks and pizza, and we're going to go to the year 1698, and more broadly really, the 18th century. And that's where we get to the fortepiano.
Now we're getting closer to the modern piano, which everyone recognizes, invented, I think by Bartolomeo Cristofori, a harpsichord maker in Florence, Italy. And this is in 1698. And this is an instrument which it looks similar to the harpsichord, right? It's got that tapered body to it, the keyboard extends the whole way. One way you might be able to tell it's not a harpsichord is that it might not be painted ornately with a beautiful pastoral scene. It might actually just be lacquered wood as we move forward.

Linda Carducci: That's correct, yes. And the ornamentation is less. The style though, as you say, is similar to the harpsichord that it has that tapered body, it's on four legs, and it has a keyboard. So as you say, it may look like a harpsichord, but the sound will be different as well.

John Banther: And I said we'd hear a little bit of that Bach Invention for each of these instruments, but I had to lie a little bit because I could not find a single recording of that Invention on fortepiano. For musicians, that's not too surprising. Well, yeah. Why would someone play Bach on a fortepiano? And that's because we're moving beyond Bach, really, with the fortepiano. He did see one once or twice, but he didn't seem to be that impressed. He didn't like it that much.

Linda Carducci: No, no, no.

John Banther: So instead of that invention, I'll put something else by Bach that's similar. You have to use your imagination. I can't do all the work here. So use your imagination.

Linda Carducci: We will. As with the fortepiano, now this is pretty much a game- changer. This was a very respected harpsichord- maker, Cristofori, who had now come up with this new invention that was sort of a game- changer now in the world of keyboards. Again, this was a percussive instrument, as we saw with the clavichord.

John Banther: So we're going back to that. We're abandoning that harpsichord plucking idea.

Linda Carducci: Correct, yes. We're going now back to the striking. More keys, as you indicated, now 54 keys. So we're seeing an expansion of the keyboard, so more in the bass, more in the treble. And we're getting to the era of Haydn and Mozart who wrote for the keyboard. And so when they were writing for the keyboard, yes, they may have originally put their ideas down, their compositional ideas on a clavichord, but when it was performed, it was on this instrument that Cristofori came up with the fortepiano.

John Banther: Yes. And you can play all of Haydn's music, all of Mozart's music, and even Beethoven's music for the piano up to his middle period around 1800, you can play that on this instrument. It has all of the keys needed.
Now, the etymology of this, this is a simple one. Forte means loud, piano means soft. Together, it's fortepiano, and it tells you, well, a big difference in change here, and that is now we can play the full range of dynamics, forte to piano. And Linda, this is where I think we really fell short naming an instrument. Dulcimer, clavichord, harpsichord, so beautiful with these Latin and French origins. Now we have the loud- soft.

Linda Carducci: That's what it translates to.

John Banther: Hop in my fast- slow. We're going to go get something to eat. I mean, it works better in Italian, but I don't know. Fortepiano, it works, I guess.

Linda Carducci: Yeah, it does. One of the differences too, about the fortepiano from what we saw before, was the ability to do a range of dynamics. I think you touched on this earlier. When we were talking about the harpsichord, we talked about terraced dynamics, that you could sort of play loud and play soft and nothing in between.
Now, when Cristofori came up with this fortepiano, one of the reasons it's called a fortepiano is because it's loud- soft, but it has ranges also in between. So we're starting to see now crescendos, in other words, an increased in volume from one volume or one sound to something louder, and then the inverse, going from loud down to soft. That was really a very attractive feature for this particular fortepiano that Haydn and Mozart used, but certainly Beethoven.

John Banther: And at first, it was the royalty that had access to these things, and so it was still seen in those places more, but then as time goes on through Haydn and through Mozart and then into Beethoven, we start to see that become more common, I think.

Linda Carducci: Mm- hmm.

John Banther: The technology is really what made this instrument possible, how all of these things advanced. One of the big things, which still blows my mind, is the escapement mechanism. So you hit the key, the hammer hits the string, but once the hammer hits the string, automatically on its own, it falls right back down whether or not you've let go of the key or not. It's automatic, this escapement thing, and it lets you play fast passages because the hammer is ready to hit again.
When I was driving in today, Linda, I heard you on air playing Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, and in the finale, there's that moment where it's just impossibly fast.
It blows my mind. How did they figure this out? There's like milliseconds between this, but the hammer, it's hitting the string and it's back down immediately.

Linda Carducci: Yeah, that's amazing. And by the way, that allows the string to vibrate when there's nothing that's dampening it. And as long as the string is vibrating, we continue to hear the sound. Now yes, it is decaying a bit, but we can continue to hear the sound. It's not stopped.

John Banther: Yes, the decay is there, but it's not like the harpsichord. It's more... It's longer.

Linda Carducci: Yes.

John Banther: A big difference now is that we have pedals. Well, sort of. When you look at the modern piano, you'll often see those three pedals down by the feet that you can use to change some of the characteristics. These began as two levers, like on the bottom of the fortepiano that you would activate with your knees, like maybe if I have a silent alarm, I can hit with my knee if I'm in trouble or something like that. And you would hit one of the pedals. One of these levers would release a damper from the strings so that all the notes can ring and sustain. And then another lever, with the other knee presumably, it would insert a piece of felt between the strings and the hammer, giving it a softer attack, a more subdued kind of sotto voce tone.

Linda Carducci: It's a great innovation.

John Banther: I heard also a big advancement here is what they're putting on the hammers. They have a leather, but is it the smooth side or is it the fuzzy side of the deer leather that they're using? And that also affects the tone. So these instruments, they could sound pretty different from one town to another, I imagine.

Linda Carducci: Yes, I imagine, based on what's available and the wood also that's available from the trees in that particular area.

John Banther: And the pitch would also be different in a lot of places. A lot of towns back in the day, they would play A at one pitch, and then you go down the road a couple of hours, it might be slightly different. And that's why when you listen to some of these examples that we play, you kind of get whiplash from the intonation because it's much lower back then compared to now.

Linda Carducci: It wasn't standardized 440 maybe for-

John Banther: No, no, it was much lower. It was much lower. So I think when a composer or a performer finds one they like, they use it everywhere. Mozart, for example, had one that would be carried from his apartment in Vienna to all of his concert venues and then put back again. Imagine that.

Linda Carducci: Yeah, for him to perform?

John Banther: Yes.

Linda Carducci: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, he knew his piano. He liked the sound of it. He knew he was comfortable with how his fingers would play on the keyboard, and he went with that.

John Banther: And it sounds like Beethoven was also an influence in this time period as well because he wants to play bigger things on the piano. He wants more range, and he wants it to be able to play louder and heavier things, which it sounds like the fortepiano couldn't quite cope with. So there was that push from composers like Beethoven to make these more robust, bigger instruments too.

Linda Carducci: Yes. If you look at Beethoven's just composing philosophy, he was breaking the mold anyway. He wanted things that were bigger and that would sort of break our traditional sound and break our traditional structure of how things were composed. So yes, he did want a piano that had a larger sound that had a little bit more power. He always was expressing displeasure with pianos, from what I understand, because he wanted something that was powerful, but he didn't want the keys to be heavy to play.
Bach, we were talking about Johann Sebastian Bach had seen a fortepiano. Now, Bach, by this time, was a little bit getting on in years, and he was used to the harpsichord and probably the clavichord too. But he was visiting his son, C. P. E. Bach, when he was serving at the Court of King Frederick the Great of Prussia in modern- day Berlin. This was in the 18th century. And Bach looked at the keyboard there, and he improvised a fugue on one of the King's melodies, and he did it on a fortepiano that the King owned there. That melody eventually became incorporated into Bach's great collection called The Musical Offering.

John Banther: Yes. I also secretly hope, Linda, that there was a moment between Johann Sebastian Bach and his son, C. P. E. Bach, like J. S. Bach sees the fortepiano, " Ah, what is this? I don't like this." And then he wants the old way, the harpsichord, but C. P. E., he wants the fortepiano. And, " Why are you playing this? What are these kids doing?"
" The future is now, Dad!"

Linda Carducci: A generation gap.

John Banther: Yes.

Linda Carducci: Yeah. And by the way, speaking of Mozart carrying his piano with him, maybe that was novel at the time, but it's not novel anymore. I mean, Horowitz was known for taking his own particular Steinway with him wherever he went on tour.

John Banther: Like, on planes. They've shipped these for certain artists to do. And we'll get into where the fortepiano goes from here into the modern piano, right after this.
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Okay. From the fortepiano we go into our final push, our final evolution into the modern piano, and things moved really fast between 1790 to 1860. So through Beethoven and after, a lot of things happened to lead to the modern piano. And so we're going to go through 10 of them. And I think all of this is really set up by the Industrial Revolution, this ability to have processes more standardized and on a larger scale.

Linda Carducci: Yes, industry producing mechanisms now, things that were being produced on a large scale in industry, rather than just having individual people doing them maybe on their own, or certainly we're moving away from the agricultural community too to manufacturing community.
And so when we have people like Beethoven during this era that we're talking about who were out there and well- known, there were many piano- builders who were eager to continue with the evolution and the development of the piano to appeal to these composers.

John Banther: And I'll take the first big improvement, and that is the increase in pitch, the increase in range. The keyboard gains now up to seven octaves. We have 88 keys: 52 white ones, 32 shorter black ones. In general, we're going to say 88. And now we have this full length, which covers basically all of the repertoire that we have.

Linda Carducci: I imagine Beethoven would've been delighted, absolutely delighted.

John Banther: Oh my gosh.

Linda Carducci: He was doing breakthrough things anyway. He was innovative. He wanted to stretch our ears. He wanted to stretch the sound and the structures. And when he saw a larger keyboard, he just probably thought he was in heaven.

John Banther: Oh, he would've loved a big, nine- foot Steinway.
So what's the second one, Linda?

Linda Carducci: The second one is that when we were talking about leather or cotton that was on the tip of the hammer when it strikes the string, now we become a little bit more standardized with the use of felt. As you were talking about leather, there was the decision about which side of the leather should be used because that could produce a different sound depending on what side of the leather was used. Well, now we have a little bit more standardization with felt. Felt allowed and more even attack and a tone through the registers. Felt is what is used nowadays.

John Banther: Yes, no deer need to be harmed.
The third one is the hammer weight was increased, but while doing this, the sensitivity is also kept. And again, I'll put some more links and pictures on the show notes page because the inside of the piano, it seems so complicated. There's so many parts that just go into just one key pushing the hammer. So the hammer is heavier and it can do heavier strikes, bigger sounds and dynamics and all of that stuff, but the sensitivity was kept. That sounds like a big win because it sounds like you have even more sensitivity now than the fortepiano, even though you have a bigger, heavier hammer.

Linda Carducci: It allowed more expression, it allowed more of a dynamic range.

John Banther: And what's number four?

Linda Carducci: The next one is heavier steel strings and a greater quantity of strings per key. The heavier steel strings allow the strings to be sustained much longer. So we were talking about how when you don't have a damper and things are not dampened or damped, these strings can continue to vibrate, and then that propels the sound. Now, granted, they are decaying, but they're still going on. These steel strings were very advantageous for that.
Also, there was an increase in the quantity of strings per key. So usually, there are three strings per key. When you get down to the bass, there's just two or one because those are thicker and heavier. But now, in this modern piano, we are seeing a greater quantity of strings per key.

John Banther: And the strings are also, for number five here, our fifth point, they are cross- stringed. They're over- stringed, meaning we have two layers of string. So if you just peek your head into a grand piano, you'll see the middle register and the upper register taking up a lot of the space, and then stretched over those almost diagonally, you see the more copper- looking, wound, heavier bass strings. So it lets you have these strings and these long, long notes within a smaller space, a more manageable space of an instrument.

Linda Carducci: Yes, they're at two different heights. One is above the other.

John Banther: And the sixth point, actually, you already mentioned it a little bit, Linda, and that is we get a lot more strings. We have 88 keys, but 230 strings usually. That was a surprise to me. I didn't realize it was 230.

Linda Carducci: It's a lot.

John Banther: It's a lot. At first, I thought, " Is this just a racket for piano tuners?" Like, " Oh, yeah, the new model is 300 strings. You know what? A dollar a string for you, I'll tune it." But these keys will have three strings.
So what's happening there? Why would you have three strings? If one's a little out of tune, or maybe it's supposed to be a little out of tune with itself. I don't know. What's going on with multiple strings?

Linda Carducci: You know, a greater sound, more resonance now because instead of having one string that is vibrating, now you've got three strings that are vibrating. Again, they are decaying but eventually, but they're still there, they're still vibrating. So that adds a little bit of resonance and power to the sound. And they also have a bit of a more brilliant sound when we have multiple strings.

John Banther: And I think that's because they aren't tuned, like 101, 010% exactly in tune. It's a little bit off, kind of on purpose, and it adds a texture to the sound.

Linda Carducci: Yes, it does.

John Banther: And we're not talking super out of tune, but just very, very, very tiny, minute differences.

Linda Carducci: Yes. It's almost like the tempering that was going on during Bach's time.

John Banther: The tempering, that's with the pitch?

Linda Carducci: Yes.

John Banther: So that's a whole nother thing that I probably didn't even do well in school on, equal and these different temperaments of tuning. That's another story for another day, but we've got a ton of strings with a much more brilliant sound that rings out for longer.

Linda Carducci: Mm- hmm. The next one now is that we have a cast iron or metal frame. Can you imagine how heavier that is than the harpsichord, for example? The harpsichord was wood. We're talking now cast iron, which is very heavy or metal. So this was instead of wood, and this allowed thicker strings, this allowed the body of the piano, in cast iron or metal, to hold larger and tenser strings now that was necessary for what we're talking about, for that larger power, for that more vibrance of sound.
So the modern piano, a metal plate supports 30 tons of pressure with the strings under tension.

John Banther: Wow. And that's why, when they fall from a high place, they basically explode because it's 30 tons of tension and pressure that just implodes on itself.

Linda Carducci: So when it falls out of the window, which we have seen in cartoons, for example.

John Banther: Yeah, and in real life, I'll put a video up too. But when it hits the ground, it goes into a million pieces because I think the pressure of all these strings just coming undone at the same time, it's so much energy, 30 tons. And these are heavier to move. You would not be taking a grand piano from your apartment usually to the concert hall, like Mozart would do. These take teams of people. I just had a piano moved and you hire specific piano people to do it.

Linda Carducci: Yeah, I have a grand piano, a large grand piano, and we had to find special piano movers and they had to come in at a special way to put it in the house.

John Banther: Oh, gosh.

Linda Carducci: Yeah.

John Banther: The eighth point here is that there's more use of foot pedals. In fact, we have three pedals instead of two. And maybe, Linda, you can walk us through this one because my piano playing is so rudimentary. I know one makes them all sustained, I know one makes the sound a little bit softer, and I know one makes certain notes sustain, but not others. I have no idea how it works.

Linda Carducci: That's the mystery pedal. There's a mystery pedal that is still sort of mysterious to everybody.
Yeah, the first one is a sustaining pedal, so that removes the damper from the strings. In other words, it doesn't clamp down on the strings. It opens the strings. It's open, so the strings continue to vibrate.

John Banther: All of the strings, right?

Linda Carducci: All of the strings, that's right. So after I press that key, if I have the sustaining pedal on, that sound is going to continue to go. It amplifies the sound. It brings things together a little bit more, I think, too. It's a little less of a clipped sound when you have the sustaining pedal. It allows things to sort of meld, the sound to meld together a little bit. That's the first pedal.
The second one is the una corda, which in Italian, means one string. And sometimes people call that the soft pedal because what that does is that shifts the keyboard. So you actually see a shift in the keyboard, just minute, but it's there when you hit the una corda pedal, so that only one or two strings rather than three play, therefore reducing the sound.

John Banther: And that third pedal, that's that mystery one where if I hit three keys down, and I push that pedal down, those three notes will continue to ring. But then if I noodle around elsewhere with just short notes, those will remain short.

Linda Carducci: Correct.

John Banther: I don't know how it works.

Linda Carducci: You explained it!

John Banther: Well, okay.

Linda Carducci: You cracked the mystery, John. It's called sometimes selective sustain, and it's only used for, say, usually one key, and usually in the bass, by the way. So let's say I want the bass to ring through while I'm playing something else on an upper register of the piano, but I don't want that upper register, the notes that I'm playing, to be sustained and muddy. I want those to be clipped and staccato, say for example, or not meld into each other, but I do want that bass note to continue to sustain.
Then what I do is I play the bass note and almost simultaneously, almost simultaneously play that sostenuto, the middle pedal. And then that allows that to continue to play and continue to vibrate while I play other parts of the piano.

John Banther: Wow. So much development here is what makes all this possible.
The ninth point, and I love this one, we move away from using an animal source like ivory for keys to now pretty much plastic or some kind of wood with resin or plastic coating on it. It's no longer usually an animal product. It is like plastic on wood or something. And these are heavy. The keys are weighted compared to a harpsichord, which takes little pressure to push down.

Linda Carducci: Yes. And plastic in this case does not mean cheap or anything negative.

John Banther: Right.

Linda Carducci: Right. Yeah, these are nice notes. They do have a little bit of a shiny coating on them. They're plastic, but they aren't like a cheap, thin, lightweight plastic.

John Banther: And the 10th point, we didn't really come up with the 10th one, did we? Maybe it's passion. It's the extraordinary. It's that little extra percent. I don't know. But we came up with nine.

Linda Carducci: That's right. That's right.

John Banther: All of this leads to what the piano is today, the modern piano. And we know there's different versions. There's the grand piano, which is really long. You see that on stage before an orchestra. There are upright pianos. I have one of those. You see those in practice rooms in every conservatory in the world. And those are nice at home. They're light and they take up less space. A lot happens here.
But how does this change us, Linda, the musicians? Do we play music of Bach and Mozart and Haydn differently or the same or do we make different adjustments? How do we do all of that with such a different sounding instrument today, the piano?

Linda Carducci: And there are many philosophies on that, different points of view. If we take a look at Bach, for example, and we talked about how he wrote for harpsichord, and there were terraced dynamics when he was writing for harpsichord because the harpsichord could not do the intermediary ranges of dynamics or crescendos or decrescendos, only two, pretty much two volumes.
So when we play Bach now on the modern keyboard, the question becomes, well, do we try to imitate what Bach wrote? Do we try to be as faithful as possible to what Bach heard and what he intended to be the sound of that, say for example, that Well- Tempered Clavier, or do we adjust what Bach wrote for the modern- day piano?
When I was in college, my piano teacher was very strict about being extremely faithful to the composer, so we definitely didn't play Mozart as we would play Chopin or W. C. When we played Bach, it was strictly with terraced dynamics because we tried to imitate the harpsichord as much as possible because that's what Bach wrote for.
One time, I performed Bach that way, and this was a judge at a competition who came up to me afterwards and he said, " Why did you play Bach that way?" And I said, " Well, because that's how I was instructed to play terraced dynamics because that was Bach's intention." And he said, " No, you're playing on a modern- day piano. You adjust Bach for what the modern- day piano can allow." So for example, decrescendos, crescendos, all the ranges in between. That was his philosophy.

John Banther: There's so much that goes into it, and you pointed out something so perfectly. If I play Bach, don't come up to me and talk about how I did my dynamics. Keep that to yourself. And I say that in tongue- in- cheek. People have very strong opinions about this. How do you play Bach on a modern instrument or on an instrument that didn't even exist when he was around?
I think you can do both. I think there's room for both ideas, a romanticized version of people want that, or the terraced version as well.

Linda Carducci: Exactly. And let's say we were to ask Mozart today, and we were to show him a modern- day piano and say, " Would you like me to play your Piano Sonata the way it would've sounded on your fortepiano, or do you want me to take advantage of this modern- day piano and all the power and dynamics it has?" I think Mozart would say, " Play it in the new way. Play it with the modern- day piano."

John Banther: Right. Think of someone who built a car 50 years ago. We don't drive 50 miles an hour because that's what they were doing with the car, right? I mean, no, we drive faster now.

Linda Carducci: Good point.

John Banther: So as we've learned, and as we've really just scraped the surface here, the tip of the iceberg on all of these, there is so much happening underneath these keys. There's so much happening historically as well that's brought us to the modern piano. So there's a couple of different modern pianos we can mention.
There is the player piano, the one that plays automatically from a piano roll. I think Wild West, in a saloon or something. And we also have the synthesizer, which I mean, think of the last 50 years. What's happened with that? This generates the waveform itself. It's generating the sound form and it's altering it using filters, and it's altering the waveform itself as opposed to playing just a recording of a note. It's generating the note itself.

Linda Carducci: Yes, it can come up with different sounds. Candid, I mean, if you want something to sound like strings maybe or a clarinet.

John Banther: Oh, yes, you can do all kinds of things.
We also have the prepared piano, and that's kind of funny. " Well, what's the piano preparing for? Should we be worried?" And that is actually basically, honestly, just imagine what if you left a 6- year- old with a toolbox and a piano alone for five minutes, what would happen? You're sticking bolts and nails and things and paper, you do things to the actual piano to adjust how it sounds. John Cage was a big proponent and composer for this. Very different, but I wonder what Bach would've said about that too.
So actually, with that, with all of this, let's hear all of these keyboard instruments stitched together on that Bach Invention that I mentioned before. Again, the fortepiano doesn't have it. You have to use your imagination.

Linda Carducci: Bach works on just about every instrument, doesn't he?

John Banther: Absolutely. I think Bach would've absolutely loved that. And again, you get whiplash from the different intonation and everything, but it's just so amazing and we're so lucky to be able to hear it like this, a thousand years in just a minute or so.

Linda Carducci: Yeah, it's very impressive, the developments.

John Banther: Okay, now we've got to get to the most important part of this, Linda, and that is why is the urge so strong to shove a piano from a high place onto anything unsuspecting below? Why is that?

Linda Carducci: Is it the sheer surprise of something coming out of a window like that?

Video: A charter flight carrying the London Symphony Orchestra has been forced to jettison some of the musical instruments.

John Banther: I think so. I mean, I wonder if you think back 100, 125 years ago, maybe the biggest thing that you had or saw would be a piano. And when someone would move, it's quite a spectacle. Even today, not really in the United States, but in different parts of Europe and in cities where you cannot get a piano upstairs, it just cannot happen. They have a hoist that literally lifts it up into the air. I've seen it. You'll see at the top of what we would call townhouses, giant hooks on where people live. And that's to hoist things up there.
And so I imagine you also saw this thing hoisted up there 100 years ago. Oh my gosh. And I imagine one fell because there wasn't OSHA or something. It was just, " Is this rope strong enough? I don't know."
And I think also, it's just because it's this massive 1, 000- pound work of art that is priceless. And as humans, we have that urge. Set it on fire. What happens if we fill it with water?

Linda Carducci: Yeah, that's right. And think too, when it does fall, that sound that it makes, we were talking about vibrating strings.

Video: Two, one! Woo!

Linda Carducci: Strings go crazy. There's sound that it creates.

John Banther: That's why I think it's funnier when it goes down the stairs as opposed to all at once from a big height because it just explodes. But when it goes down the stairs, it sounds really hilarious.
But Well, I love it. I'll put some videos of cartoon pianos falling from the sky. And thank you so much, Linda, for joining me for all of this and the evolution of the piano.

Linda Carducci: Thank you, John. This was fun.

John Banther: Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music. For more information on this episode, visit the show notes page at ClassicalBreakdown. org. You can send me comments and episode ideas to classicalbreakdown@ WETA. org. And if you enjoyed this episode, leave a review in your podcast app.
I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.