Piano Info & Resources

History of Pianos

A brief overview of the development of the piano and illustrations of some of the most important pianos in history.

Pictures and text are copied with permission from Piano, A Photographic History of the World's Most Celebrated Instrument, by David Crombie.


The Cristofori Piano

Click here to view a Cristofori Piano.
Crisofori marks the beginning of the Piano, although there were many keyboard instruments before.

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Bartolomeo Cristofori, Florence, Italy, 1722

Two Cristofori instruments from 1722 survive: this piano, now in the Museo degli Strumenti Musicali in Rome, and a harpsichord in Leipzig. Both have a four-octave compass with the strings tuned in unison. This piano is the smallest of the surviving instruments. Like the 1726 instrument, it features an inverted pin block with the tuning pins driven right through. The strings are attached to the lower ends, which leaves more room for the action and also leads to increased tuning stability, as the action of the hammer is towards the nut rather than away from it.

Harpsichord manufacturers went to great lengths to try to produce a mechanism that would give them the desired dynamic response. But it was Bartolomeo Cristofali (Cristofori), of Padua, keeper of instruments in the court of Prince Ferdinand de Medici of Florence, who actually solved the problem.

The date of Cristofori's first 'piano' is unclear. The 1700 inventory of the musical instruments belonging to the Florentine court includes an "arpicembalo che fà il piano e il forte" (a harpsichord that can play quietly and loudly). Later writings suggest this was built in about 1698. This was probably Cristofori's first pianoforte, although it has been suggested that he made a prototype as early as 1694.

A piano's sound comes from striking a string held under tension with some form of hammer. The string and soundboard assembly had been in existence for many years prior to Cristofori's work, but Cristofori managed to develop an effective mechanism that took the downward pressure on a key and used it to 'project' a small hammer towards the strings. The 'action' of a piano is that mechanism. Cristofori's piano had only 54 keys.


The Viennese Piano

Sebastian Lengerer piano image

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Sebastian Lengerer, Kufstein 1793. Lengerer originally worked in Kufstein, but moved to Vienna at the end of the 18th century. This instrument is attractively decorated and the inside of the lid is covered by pre-printed patterned paper (though this probably isn't the original). Pianos like this, made by craftsmen in small towns away from metropolitan influences, were somewhat out of date. The cabinetry is in a style fashionable some two decades earlier. Early Viennese pianos had black naturals and white accidentals. Here the accidentals are probably made of beech, covered with bone, and the naturals made of ebony. The keys are slightly narrower that those found on English pianos of the period, and the modern instrument. Viennese manufacturers were also inclined to produce attractively styled keyboards.

Ferdinand Hofmann piano imageFerdinand Hofmann, Vienna c1800 An attractive Viennese instrument. The delicate square-tapered legs feature brass cuffs, and have medallions depicting classical female figures set at their tops. The nameboard incorporates gilt bronze decorations of birds and leaves in relief. The moderator stop is located directly above the nameplate. Hofmann lived in Vienna his whole life and in 1812 became keyboard instrument maker to the Royal Court. The white naturals with mahogany veneer are typical of the more luxurious Viennese instruments built after about 1785. These features show the influence of the English style in Vienna.

The sound made by a Viennese piano of this type is much lighter and more delicate than that of a modern instrument. The great Viennese composers, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and others, would have played the Viennese piano: to hear their compositions performed on such an instrument alters our perspective quite radically. The whole balance of the music changes, with the melody much emphasized. Only when the music is played in this way can the composers' intentions be accurately realized.

By the 1780s, the English and Viennese pianos had become two distinct types of instruments. The Viennese instrument is comparatively light in construction and is typically double strung, whereas the English piano is usually triple strung and of much sturdier build. The Viennese action is lighter and simpler, using a hammer mounted on the far end of the key. The English action is more complex, using a hammer mounted on a separate hammer rail on the piano body.

The way in which the hammer strikes the string has important effects on the instrument's sound. The hammers of the English instruments strike the strings in a direct manner whereas the hammers of the Viennese pianos tend so stroke the string as they hit it. This gives the Viennese piano a gentler sound than that of the more powerful English instrument. Curiously this difference is reflected in the actual shape and appearance of the instruments.


The English Piano

Collard Piano

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Collard & Collard, London, c 1835. From 1822 to 1832, the company Muzio Clementi had set up was known as Clementi, Collard & Collard. However, upon Clementi's death the name was changed to Collard & Collard. Rococo instruments such as this are adorned with shell-like flourishes. The style was prominent in Europe during the 18th century and was revived in the middle of the 19th. This piano is from the revival.

One of the most important of the French piano makers in London was Sébastien Erard. His most important innovation was the 'double escapement' (or repetition) action mechanism. This action allows a note to be replayed without the key being fully released. Erard's double escapement action works by holding the hammer close to the strings while the escapement mechanism re-engages itself ready for the next note. This means that the note can be quickly and easily re-played.

Early action of this type were rather too complex, and consequently unreliable. Erard patented his first repetition action in 1808, and a slightly modified version was patented in France a year later. But the action for which he is justly celebrated was developed and patented in England in 1821.

The English piano makers doubted the durability of this complex action which works through an elaborate system of levers. They failed to realize its potential and ignored it, to their disadvantage, for many decades. Nevertheless, in the early 19th century the English market for grand pianos was still dominated by Broadwood, and to some extent Clementi (renamed Collard & Collard after 1830) and Tompkinson. But the Erard company with its improved action and factories in both Paris and London, soon started to compete most effectively.


The Square Piano

Zumpe piano

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Johannes Zumpe & Gabriel Buntebart, London 1769. This square piano from Johannes Zumpe used his English single action with no escapement and no check, limiting its performance somewhat. This piano was typical of the basic, relatively low-cost instruments (around 15-20 pounds) with which Zumpe made his fortune. Zumpe and Gabriel Buntebart, a fellow German, were partners from 1768 to 1778. J.C. Bach, who was a friend of Buntebart's, used a similar instrument for the first public piano recital, in 1768. With the lid open the modifiers and their levers can be seen to the left side of the instrument. The dampers sit above the strings and are raised or lowered by the relevant lever. The right hand 'compartment' houses the single bridge and tuning pins.

Steinway SquareSteinway & Sons, New York, 1871. The way in which the square piano grew in size can be clearly seen in this powerful instrument from Steinway & Sons. Even the lid weighs more than those of most grand pianos. This design, with a full iron frame, is probably the most powerful type of square piano ever built. When the lid is raised, the sound is reflected directly at the player, further enhancing the power of the instrument--though not to the benefit of an audience, as with the lid of a grand.

The origins of the square piano can be traced directly to the clavichord, with which it shares a rectangular (not square) shape and basic layout of strings and soundboard. The keyboard is positioned along one of the broad sides, and the strings run horizontally at right angles to the keys.

Backers, who worked in London from 1763 to 1778, and Zumpe both took Cristofori's action as the starting point for their innovations. The early Zumpe pianos were crude. The action had no escapement, making it impossible to play the same note repeatedly, nor was there any form of hammer check, meaning that the hammer could easily bounce back and re-hit the string. Zumpe rectified some of these problems in the early 1780s with his double action, though it still had no escapement.

In 1825, an American, Alpheus Babcock, developed the first iron frame for the piano, which enabled far greater tension to be applied to the strings. Jonas Chickering took the design a stage further and most other manufacturers followed suit.

By the 1840s, the square piano was as wide as a medium sized grand piano, and heavier. In the concert hall, the square piano had one advantage over the grand piano: the direct line of view from the audience to the pianist. But for domestic use people wanted something smaller. European manufacturers had been experimenting with upright designs for many years, but the Americans persisted with the square format. The last commercial square pianos were built in England in around 1860, but in America production continued. As late as 1868, 80 percent of Steinway's output was still square pianos.


The Modern Piano

Modern SteinwayModern Steinway Grand Piano Model D

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The Steinway Model D is the piano that the majority of contemporary concert pianists use in performance. The first D-style grand piano was made in about 1857, but it took a further ten years for Steinway to develop its unique rim-bending process. This allowed the rim to be made from a single piece of laminated maple and is one of the features that helps to give the Steinway its particular sound and character. The first instruments were 7-octave, parallel-strung, the first overstrung Model D appeared in 1859 (serial number 2552).

The Model D is the largest 'production' piano that Steinway has ever made. The piano is a quarter of an inch less than nine feet in length: Steinway has never called it a nine-foot grand. The length of a grand piano is generally measured from the front, by the keyboard, to the overhang of the lid at the very back. Some manufacturers have been know to use a diagonal measurement which inflates the size of their grand pianos.

The Steinway Model D is made up of about 12,000 parts, most of which are in the action, which derives ultimately from that invented by Erard in 1821. The piano has 243 strings, or rather 'speaking lengths', since many of the strings are looped around the hitch pin to form in effect two strings.

Art Case

The Art Case Piano

The piano has always been a musical instrument first and foremost, but at the same time the need to win acceptance has meant its appearance has had to take account of its surroundings. So pianos have always reflected the furniture styles of their day. Once the internal layout of the piano, whether square, upright or grand, had become firmly established, the casework could be used to make an aesthetic statement. The true art-case piano is an art form in its own right.

BösendorferBösendorfer, Vienna 1867.This instrument is one of the world's most famous pianos, and is known as the 'Emperess Eugénie' Bösendorfer. It was designed by Viennese craftsman Hans Makart. The casework is mahogany, inlaid with kingwood, and the legs and the cherubs on the end-cheeks are hollow cast bronze.

BroadwoodBroadwood, London 1879. In 1879 the painter Edward Burne-Jones was asked by a friend, William Graham, to design a piano which he could give as a wedding present to his daughter Frances. Burne-Jones commissioned Broadwood to build a grand piano with a traditional harpsichord-like shape, supported by a trestle stand, that would be in keeping with the Arts and Crafts movement he was establishing with the craftsman and poet William Morris. Burne-Jones himself painted the lid, which shows mother earth.

SteinwaySteinway, New York, circa 1877.This is one of the finest examples of the art-case piano. It is based on the7 1/4 octave Model D, and is made of burred walnut and satinwood. Known as a 'Centennial Grand', it was built in 1876, 100 years after the American Declaration of Independence.


The Avant-Garde Piano

Bosendorfer designed by HolleinClick on image to get larger picture

Bösendorfer, Vienna 1990. Designed for Bösendorfer by the world-renowned Austrian architect Hans Hollein, this piano employs a modern style based on strong color and extensive use of brass. The design is not a 'one-off' for a particular location, but was produced as a limited edition over several years. Hollein has headed a master-class in architecture at the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna since 1979, and has designed many important buildings in Austria and Germany. Architects are quite often hired to design special casework. They are thought to combine a detailed knowledge of materials with artistic flair. Note that this piano has no prop stick for the lid. It has an electric lid opener!

Since the middle of the 20th century, the impact of technology on the traditional 'acoustic' piano has show itself most clearly in the casework. The extraordinary art-case pianos of the turn of the century were unique individual creations. Now, however, improvements in materials and manufacturing technology have made it possible for visually stunning designs to be produced in greater numbers and on commercial production lines.

In the past it was neither economical nor practical to use these esoteric pianos as the basis for production instruments. Nowadays, however, new materials and computer-controlled machining techniques have made it possible to produce unusual designs in small numbers without costs reaching astronomical levels such as the Hollein piano here demonstrates.


The Upright Piano

Unknown Piano

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Unknown, probably Vienna c1835, giraffe piano. The giraffe piano was invented in Vienna and first appeared around 1798. This instrument could have been made by Schlimbach, Seuffert, Ehrlich or possibly Wachtl, all keen exponents of the giraffe piano. The hanging Viennese (or hanging German) action is developed from the basic Viennese action, but with the hammers suspended below the level of the keys, enabling it to respond to a very light touch. This instrument once belonged to Dr. Helmholtz, the eminent physicist and physiologist.

Sauer UprightLeopold Sauer, Prague c1805, pyramid piano. Built in Prague by Leopold Sauer, this pyramid piano is fairly typical of the genre, although it is somewhat unusual to find a clock mounted in the upper casework. This instrument marks a revival in the pyramid shape, which originated with Christian Ernst Friederici and his fellow piano makers in the first half of the 18th century, and which died out around 1760. The piano uses a 'hanging German' action, which makes it comparatively light to the touch, although this instrument is no longer in a playable condition. Sauer primarily made only pyramid and upright grand pianos and this is one of the very few of his instruments to have survived.

The Upright grand piano has strings that run vertically. In effect it is a grand piano with the strings, soundboard and frame assembly raised up to the vertical and the action adapted accordingly. Early upright grand pianos had the strings rising straight up from the keyboard. From the end of the 18th century, however, manufacturers started to bring the whole broad end of the grand almost down to the ground. In some instances, as in the case of certain giraffe and lyre pianos, the strings ran obliquely rather than vertically.

There are four main types of upright grand piano. One of the earliest was the 'pyramid' piano (Pyramidenflügel), with a triangular case that tapered to a flat top. Another approach was represented by the 'bookcase' piano. These are extremely tall, rectangular instruments. The strings run vertically up from the keyboard, and the empty space on the treble side would often be filled with shelves. The 'giraffe' piano (Giraffenflügel) has its strings perpendicular to the keyboard. Its case slopes down elegantly from an extremely tall left side to the short treble side. The fourth type of upright grand piano is the 'lyre' piano (Lyraflügel). This evolved from the pyramid, and was built almost exclusively by Berlin piano makers in the second quarter of the 19th century.


History of Pianos Fact Sheet

For even more great information on the history of pianos, also check out:

For links to pipe and organ harpsichord manufacturers:


The pictures and text in the Virtual Piano Museum are copied with permission from Piano by David Crombie, published by Backbeat Books. Available here.

Photos Copyright 1995 Balafon, used by permission. All rights reserved