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Tone on the Modern Piano

Updated: Jan 23

Understanding tone in relation to the modern piano begins with an understanding of how the pianoforte came into being and how the modern piano evolved from it.


The piano’s evolution began with the appearance of the first keyboard instrument. The hydraulicon (an organ powered by water) was invented in Italy by Archimedes (287-212 BCE) (Brauchli, 231). These organs (like their modern equivalents) produced pitched sound when a key from a keyboard was pressed. Consequently, the way in which the key is pressed had no impact on the note’s tone, which is not the case with the piano. Insofar as the keyboard was an integral feature of both organs and pianos, so the invention of the hydraulicon was important to the future development of the modern piano.


Harpsichords and clavichords appeared in the fourteenth century. They connected keyboards to a harp through a lever mechanism known as an action. The tone that the harpsichord produced was not affected by the manner in which the key was struck, similar to the organ. On the other hand, the clavichord allowed the keyboardist to affect the tone through the manipulation of dynamics and Bebung (a delicate vibrato) depending the keyboardist’s touch. This ability for the keyboardist to manipulate tone made the clavichord’s popular last into the nineteenth century (Warman, 38).


The invention of the hammer action brilliantly enabled keyboardists to manipulate the tone of the instrument and play both piano and forte, hence the name pianoforte. The pantalon, invented by Pantaleon Habenstreit (1667–1750) around 1690, was the first instrument to produce sound on a harp by striking its strings with hammers (Gerig 35). It was a large 200-string dulcimer-like instrument played with two hammers. While this instrument could produce a large dynamic range, it had no dampers and so all of the strings rang sympathetically with one another. Shortly after this, Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1732) fitted a harpsichord with a hammer action in Italy, 1709 (Britannica). This innovation enabled the instrument to produce a wide range of expressive dynamics featuring the damper system common to harpsichords and clavichords. Blueprints of Cristofori’s action spread around Europe through journals and its design became very popular in Germany. Around 1760, several German piano makers emigrated to England and took their pianoforte construction techniques with them (Colt 28). In this way, the pianoforte spread throughout Europe, taking its place alongside the harpsichord and clavichord in “peaceful coexistence” (Schott 29).

Cristofori Pianoforte

Pianoforte construction was not standardized across manufacturers. Carew notes that a lack of standardization of materials, tension, striking point, and number of strings per note resulted in pianos with tonal variety across registers. With respect to tone, Carew notes:

one of the most noticeable differences between the modern piano and (the fortepiano) was the latter’s respect for individuality of register, in that the preservation of a degree of timbral distinction between bass, middle and treble registers was a deliberate and desirable feature. (Carew 61).

These were the pianos of the classic period upon which was written the music of CPE Bach, Haydn, Mozart and young Beethoven (Good 55).


In the early 1800s, a schism evolved between English and Viennese pianofortes. The English pianos were characterized by a heavier action (associated with the Cristofori model) while the Viennese pianos became characterized by a feather-light action. The English style required greater technical efforts by the keyboardists but also produced richer tone, while the Viennese style required less from the keyboardist. Geographically speaking, the English action seemed to dominate the north and west while the Viennese action dominated the south and east of Europe (Colt 29).


In 1820, a French piano maker of German origin named Sébstian Érard developed the double-escapement action which enabled the player to repeat a note without having to allow the key to return to its full resting position. While this innovation allowed for repeated notes to be repeated more rapidly, it also increased the keyboardists ability to control the tone of the heavier instrument with their touch. During “Extracts from the Evidence taken on Oath before the Judicial Committee of His Majesty’s Privy Council on the Petition of PIERRE ERARD, on 15th December, 1835”, a transcription of Mr. Kiallmark’s examination of Mr. Peel makes this apparent:


You are a composer and musician professor? - Yes.
You of course know the grand pianoforte upon the old construction very well? - Very well.
What is your opinion of Mr. Erard’s instrument as compared with that? - I think it is very superior.
In what respect? - In the touch in the first place, and also in the brilliance and power of tone. …
To what do you attribute the excellence of the tone? - To the perfection of the action of the hammer. (Erard 10)

Erard's Action

The heavier English action was popular from 1785 to 1899, the lighter Viennese action which was popular until about 1910, and Érard’s double escapement action persisted into the modern piano. Colt hypothesizes that:

although there appears to be no visible mechanical trace of the Viennese action in say, a modern Steinway, the fact that by about I860 the English action became unbearably heavy, is because the Viennese action, up to at least 1850, was so feather-light that the later builders were induced to incorporate the best of the two actions into one, namely lightness of touch, quick repetition and great power in the attack. (Colt 29)

In this way, the optimization of the action positioned the keyboardist to play a key role in the manipulation of tone.


Steinway-System Frame

While the piano action was being optimized, many piano makers were experimenting with incorporating metals into the piano in order to support greater string tension and therefore volume. James Thom and William Allen patented a multi-piece iron frame for grand pianos in 1820 in England (Good 145). A single piece iron frame for square pianos was patented by Alpheus Babcock in 1825 in Boston.[2]In Paris, Henry Pape (1789-1875) developed a technique known as cross stringing where instead of having all of the strings run straight, the bass strings would diagonally cross over the treble strings in order to meet the space demands of more compact instruments such as upright pianos (Rowland 43). In New York in 1859, Henry Steinway (1797-1871) patented a single-piece cast iron frame for grand pianos which also incorporated cross-stringing. This system is what is used in the modern grand piano. The standardization of this element of the piano contributed to a flattening of the tone colour across registers (Carew 62).

The next innovation was the industrial production of hammers, which were originally handmade out of leather materials. In Paris in 1826, Henri Pape patented the use of felt for covering hammers (Good 145). The English manufacturers grew to favour felt hammers while the Viennese continued to favour those made of leather (Rowland 44). In America, Alfred Dolge (1848-1922) patented a machine that covered hammers with a single layer of felt (Ehrlich 81). Machine produced hammers soon became very popular on account of their consistency and price. The standardization of hammer production also contributed to a lessening of the tone colour across registers (Care 62).


Throughout this flurry of innovation, no single company had combined all the modern piano’s components into a single instrument. Instead, piano manufacturers experimented with the piano’s many components in both conservative and innovative ways. It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that the particular combination of features that defines the standardized modern piano became accepted and began to monopolize the piano market (Good 197). The selection of this combination of features had primarily to do with the aggressive advertising and marketing strategies employed by Steinway & Sons. Moreover, as more piano manufacturers in Europe and America began to outsource the production of machine made parts, the production of handmade ‘conservative’ parts became less cost-effective. In this way, industrialization and standardization changed the focus of piano innovation from one that prized tone colour and nuance to one that prized the economical and quality production of standard modern piano parts.

During the second half of the twentieth century, all the features of the modern piano were individually patented but not necessarily combined. The pianos of this time featured various combinations of both older and newer features, which we now refer to as conservative pianos. The conservative piano is a category of period keyboard instrument that have many modern features but maintain certain qualities of pianofortes, such as variant tone across registers. Due to the quantity of piano innovation, a variety of conservative pianos were available to nineteenth century composers. These pianos shaped their preferences even as the modern piano was taking its place.




The twentieth-century saw a monopoly of the modern piano which eclipsed pianofortes and conservative pianos. Industrialization and standardization contributed significantly to this shift. While the monopoly of the modern piano constituted progress on the level of technological development, Good notes that this does not necessarily constitute progress in the realm of aesthetics:


In some realm of technology, the only question to be asked is the question of improvement. If an airplane can be made that will safely transport more people greater distances at a higher speed and without damage to the environment, then it is likely that people will ask only whether anyone can afford to buy it when it is made. That the new design is an improvement no one doubts. In such a case, we can speak quite unambiguously of technological progress. The case is different with the technology of the arts… With piano technology, the innovations cut right to the centre of aesthetic considerations. Music is sound, and technology provides the means of production. Changes in piano technology affected the objective qualities of tone. On some grounds, one could argue that the changes were improvements, for example, in the increased tensile strength of steel string. But there is no arguing with the person who listens to music played on a piano made with new technology and says, “I prefer the sound of the older one.” Good 236.

In fact, many people preferred ‘the older one’. Rimbault indicates that in 1860, there was a feeling of displeasure on behalf of many European piano manufacturers concerning “the growing tendency to the use of too much metal in the construction of pianofortes (which was) injurious to the quality of the tone” (Rimbault 168). The evolution of the modern piano is an extraordinary example of how the economics of technological progress usurped aesthetic tastes, specifically with respect to tone production. This demonstrates that progress in technology does not equal progress in aesthetics.


This history of keyboard instruments positions the modern piano as an instrument that enables the keyboardist to have optimal control of tone through touch on an instrument that is consistent in tone colour across registers. While optimization of touch control was universally prized throughout the piano’s development on account of its contribution to the keyboardist’s ability to be expressive, the same cannot be said for the latter feature of the modern piano.


SOURCES


Brauchli, Bernard. The Clavichord. Cambridge: New York, 1998.


Carew, Derek. The Mechanical Muse: The Piano, Pianism, and Piano Music, c.1760-1850. London, UK: Routledge, 2016.


Colt, C. F. "Early Pianos: Their History and Character." Early Music 1, no. 1 (1973): 27-33. Cristofori, BartolomeoEncyclopædia Britannica Inc, 2018.


Ehrlich, Cyril. The Piano: A History. London: Dent, 1976.


Gerig, Reginald. Famous Pianists & their Technique.Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2007.


Good, Edwin M. Giraffes, Black Dragons, and Other Pianos: A Technological History from Cristofori to the Modern Concert Grand.2nd ed. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2001.


Rimbault, Edward F. The Pianoforte: Its Origin, Progress, and Construction. London: R. Cocks, 1860.


Rowland, David. The Cambridge Companion to the Piano. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.