The piano has been a symbol of class and elegance for centuries. From its humble beginnings to the many modern incarnations, the piano is an instrument that can do it all. Because of this, many people want to learn to play.
Everyone can remember plunking away at a piano as a child. Perhaps it was at your grandparents’ home. Maybe you learned to play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on an old upright piano. Or maybe there was a piano at church or at a community center that you got to play with. Maybe you even had some lessons growing up, but now you’re an adult, and you simply don’t remember much.
If that last one covers you, don’t worry. It’s still possible to learn! It just takes finding a good piano instructor. That’s a bit difficult, especially if you don’t know how to gauge “good instruction” regarding the piano. So here is a quick history lesson, followed by a few solid tips on where to go from here.
The Invention of the Piano
The piano was invented sometime around the year 1700 CE. The exact date is unknown, but it did emerge at the tail end of the Italian Renaissance. Whatever the exact date, it has since become a mainstay of modern music. The word “piano” itself is a shorted version of “pianoforte” which are musical terms in Italian. “Piano” is the Italian music term for soft, while “forte” is the Italian term for loud. In the context of the piano, this refers to the variations of volume with the musician using the piano, as each key makes a different volume depending on how hard or soft the pianist presses the keys.
How Pianos Work
As a bit of interesting trivia, the piano is not a string instrument. It does use strings, but to be considered a string instrument, those strings must be plucked to play. The piano keeps the strings taught and then uses a soft hammer to strike them. This action causes vibrations, which make the sounds. So technically, the piano is a percussion instrument!
The earliest pianos were a lot quieter and had a lower volume, as well as a shorter dynamic range of sounds. These were the pianos of the earliest piano composers. For context, this was around the time of Mozart. That said, the pianos Mozart worked on were somewhat different from the pianos we’re familiar with today. It’s possible that the earliest compositions in their original forms would be a bit unfamiliar to modern pianists.
Pianos During the Industrial Revolution
When the Industrial Revolution rolled around, the piano made a lot of advances. Mass production of high-quality piano wire gave these instruments more powerful sounds to make a bigger impact on listeners. Meanwhile, precision casting allowed for the creation and later on mass production of the huge iron frames that were capable of holding up against the massive tension of piano strings.
On top of that, different octaves were added to the piano. The original five-octave range of the days of Mozart eventually became the seven octaves of today’s pianos.
The Creation of the Grand Piano
In the late 18th century, a Scottish firm called Broadwood headed by John Broadwood joined up with Robert Stoddart, another Scot, and Americus Backers, a Dutchman, to build a piano inside a harpsichord case. This was the beginning of the grand piano, which reached full creation sometime around 1777, a year after the United States declared independence and a fairly turbulent time in Western history. During this period of unrest and development, the piano advanced quickly as well.
The Broadwood firm sent pianos to two luminaries of the era, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Joseph Haydn. By 1810, a sixth octave had been added to the piano, and in 1820, pianos soon came with seven octaves. At the same time, Viennese piano makers were following similar trends, though there were subtle nuances in the sensitivity of the keys between the Broadwood and Viennese pianos that created two divergent lines in the development of the modern piano.
Around the 1820s, the growth center of the piano shifted to Paris. Two competing firms, Pleyel and Erard manufactured different types of pianos. The Pleyel company created the pianos that would be used and composed on by Frederic Chopin, another innovator in the field. The Erard company created a device called a repetition lever that allowed a note to be easily repeated, creating further divisions in the advancement of the piano. Erard manufactured the pianos used by Franz Liszt. To this day, his music is known for exploiting the quick playing of repeated notes that became his style.
Innovations in the piano would continue to roll forward in the Victorian era, with arguably the most important being the development of duplex scaling. This technology allowed short lengths of wire to make sounds comparable to those of a grand piano. The compression of these wires allowed for much more compact pianos than the gargantuan grand pianos of old.
The Creation of the Upright Piano
Invented in London in 1826 by Robert Wornum, the upright piano proved to be an incredibly important innovation in the widespread usage of the piano among the larger ranks of society. When this innovation hit the market, it combined with the advent of mass production to create a musical instrument that could be used in private homes for personal or family usage, both to make music and practice one’s skills.
By the time these innovations sank in, the piano had come from an instrument of the upper classes to a musical instrument available to a wider range of customers. As time went on, these pianos spread across the world as a standard musical instrument. Many of these pianos found their way into the homes of the rapidly expanding middle class, where ordinary people could learn to play.
This also lead to the beginning of the cottage industry of piano lessons for both adults and children. More high-end drinking and dining establishments found themselves using pianos and piano players to entertain their guests. When vaudeville theater grew into its own, the piano had become an indispensable element of the twentieth century home.
Tips for Finding Quality Piano Instruction
When looking for the best piano teacher, you have a few options. Thanks to modern technology you no longer have to be physically present to receive instruction. If you have a piano or a keyboard of your own, you could sign up for online piano lessons. Cheap online piano lessons might offer access to basic video instruction and a help forum, while personal online piano lessons might offer real-time instruction over video chat as well as instructional videos.
However, not everyone learns well on their own. So the first thing you need to do is figure out if you’d rather have physical lessons or if you can learn to play piano online. It’s all a matter of personal preference and learning style.
What Will You Use To Practice?
One of the benefits of in-person piano instruction is that it’s often at the instructor’s home. You can use their piano to learn, and you won’t need one of your own. If you choose to learn piano at home, then you either need to get a piano or a keyboard.
Synthesizers often referred to as keyboards or electric pianos, are played the same as a normal piano. However, those are three different devices. A synthesizer can act as a piano, but it makes noises via electronics. Electric pianos create musical notes via a mechanical hammer, which means they are actual pianos. The electronic part is what converts the sound into electric signals and sends them to an amplifier.
Whatever you choose to practice with, make sure it’s the right size. You may be eyeing an attractive upright piano, but if you only have the space for a synthesizer, then you should stick with that. Just because it makes, electronic music doesn’t make it any less beautiful.
How Much Interaction Do You Need?
This is similar to whether you can do online piano lessons or in person piano lessons, but there is a difference. Online piano tutoring is hands-off as a matter of course. The instructor can offer you guidance, but they’re on the other side of a computer screen.
If you have in-person piano instruction, how much direct help do you need? Do you work better with someone who takes your hands and puts them in the right places? Or do you need someone who can show you what to do and then step back and let you make your mistakes?
Make sure you take some time to speak with any potential piano instructor about their teaching style. It’s information that you’ll need to make the right choice. The piano is such a beautiful instrument that it’s no wonder so many people want to learn how to play it. But you have to make sure you know what you’re looking for in an instructor.