Also:       pianoforte      concert grand piano      grand piano      baby grand piano      upright piano      Disklavier      

Title: Frederic Rzewski—The People United Will Never Be Defeated; Ursula Oppens, piano. Label: Vanguard Classics. Format: CD. Catalogue#: OVC 8056. Track: 21.

Title: The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz Vol. 2—Too Marvelous for Words; Art Tatum, piano. Label: Smithsonian Collection. Format: CD. Catalogue#: RD 033. Track: 14.

Title: White Elephants and Golden Ducks, Enchanting Musical Treasures from Burma--Hlyat Pann Khway Nwe; U Yee Nwe, piano. Label: Shanachi. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 64087. Track: 9.

Contextual Associations

The piano is a struck box-zither chordophone of European origin with a mechanically elaborate key-driven mechanism provided for each string-course. Pictured in the gallery on this page are three common models of the piano as defined by their size (the approximate length of their casing), and their soundboard orientation: seen in the first image is a ‘concert grand’ or ‘9-foot’ piano with horizontal soundboard; in the second image a ‘baby grand’ or ‘7-foot’ piano with horizontal soundboard; and in the third and fourth images ‘upright’ pianos with vertical soundboards (the distinction between these two otherwise identical models is that the second can be performed conventionally, by a performer, or by itself, because it is equipped with a electromagnetic mechanism controlled by digitally-stored information on a computer disc). The piano is one of the most widely utilized instruments in western music. It has associated with it an immense and ever-growing solo and concerto repertoire of classical music (listen to first audio example), and classical music written for other keyboard instruments is often performed on it as well. Songs and choral music of many different stylistic varieties use the piano for accompaniment. Much chamber music literature, especially that for string instruments, includes the piano, and many symphony orchestra compositions from the 20th century include piano parts. The performance of this literature is today most concentrated in tertiary educational institutions around the world, which typically include in their faculty one or more professor of piano and offer degrees in piano performance at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. A few professional pianists in any generation attain international recognition and perform recitals and concerto engagements with symphony orchestras throughout the cosmopolitan world. The piano has long been a standard instrument in many jazz idioms, from solo performance (listen to the second audio clip on this page) to combos and big bands, and many genres of popular music. Playing the piano is an amateur pursuit for many individuals, and for much of the instrument’s history the taking of piano lessons in the home was considered a means to becoming a cultivated individual. Wherever the piano has been introduced around the world it is used to perform music that is Western in origin or local musical genres that are derived from Western styles of music. The piano has occasionally been appropriated by musicians to perform traditional musics that are not modeled on Western musical styles (listen to the third audio example of Burmese traditional music played on a piano).


In any size of grand piano, the plane of the strings is positioned horizontally, parallel to the ground, and encased in a wing-shaped wood frame, which accommodates longer string lengths towards one side of the instrument, and shorter ones toward the other. To gain several precious inches of length, bass notes are overstrung, meaning that they are strung at an angle to the other strings in a plane just a fraction of an inch above them (the lowest 20 strings on the 9-foot grand in the first picture are overstrung). Just below and parallel to the strings is a large, thin, wooden soundboard comprised of slats of wood glued together and reinforced on its bottom side by a number of parallel struts. A single curved bridge, 1.5 inches wide, is glued to the top face of the soundboard; the instrument’s strings press down on the top of the bridge, which facilitates the transference of the strings’ vibrational energy to the soundboard.  The strings themselves, made of metal and held at a high level of tension, are attached at both their ends to a heavy, wing-shaped iron frame that is bolted to the interior walls of the similarly shaped wooden casing, which has an open bottom. The end of each string that is closest to the keyboard is wound around a metal tuning pin that is imbedded in a wooden pin block that in turn is encased in the iron frame. The other end of each string is attached to or looped around a metal hitch pin on the curved side of the string carrier frame that is opposite its pin-block side. The actual speaking length of a string-course is determined by where it comes in firm contact with a bar, near its pin-block end, that is part of the string carrier frame, and where it comes into firm contact with the top of the soundboard bridge over which it passes. For the grand piano pictured in the first gallery image, the speaking length of the lowest-pitched course is 81 inches while that of the highest-pitched course is 1.9 inches. While 88 different pitches can be produced on a piano, the instrument uses many more strings (both wire and wire-wound wire) than that number implies. For the grand piano seen in the first gallery image, the string coursing and string designs are as follows: the eight lowest notes have single-course strings that have a steel wire core wound with heavy-gauge copper wire (the lowest string has a diameter of .18 inch); the next five notes have double-course strings that have a steel core wound with copper wire; the next seven notes have triple-course strings with steel cores wound with copper wire; and the remaining sixty-eight notes have triple-course steel strings (the highest-pitched strings are .03 inch in diameter). The strings are struck, as a result of the player depressing the keyboard keys, from below by felt-padded hammers. The intervening mechanism between a note’s key and its hammer (called its ‘action’) is quite complex, consisting of levers, springs, pads, bars, rods and dampers all engineered into a narrow structure that is .5 inch in width (see first detail image of the action for a single string; there are 88 such mechanisms, one for each key, lined up in a row inside a piano with as many keys--see the second detail image which shows the action of a piano removed from its case). The padding on the hammers attenuates the highest overtones of the heavy metal strings to produce a strong, yet not overly bright tone. Foot pedals control parameters of the instrument's sound such as the sustaining or dampening of sounding strings and their volume (as determined by, on multi-course strings, how many of the strings are actually struck by the hammer). The case of the instrument is topped off with a heavy hinged lid that can be left closed (somewhat muting the overall volume of the instrument) or in one or two positions of openness. For the upright piano with its vertically oriented soundboard the design of the action mechanism (third detail image), the shape of the metal string carrier, and how the strings are stretched over the frame (see fourth detail image) vary from the above description, but in principle the upright operates the same as a grand piano. The Disklavier is outfitted with sensors on its keys and pedals that record data about a performance by a musician and stores that data digitally on a MIDI disc. The instrument is also outfitted with electromagnetic solenoids that, when fed the stored data on the MIDI disc, play the piano as though the performer were present, reproducing all the nuances of touch and interpretation of the original performance.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The pianist sits on a bench facing the instrument’s keyboard and uses all the fingers of both hands to depress the keys individually, sequentially, or in combination with varying degrees of force. Both feet are used to operate the instrument’s three pedals. Within its seven-and-one-third octave range from A0 to C8 it is fully chromatic (88 discrete notes). Piano notation is written on the grand staff at pitch, although very low and very high passages can be transposed up and down an octave, respectively, to avoid excessive numbers of ledger lines. The piano action is very sensitive to the performer’s touch, and a wide range of dynamics is possible. An equally wide range of articulations is possible on the piano, from legato to rapid-fire re-articulations of the same note, scale passages, and arpeggiations.


The piano came into existence in the latter half of the eighteenth century and has been evolving ever since. We will use the year of 1860 as a convenient dividing point between the early piano (called here the fortepiano) and the modern grand piano. It was around this year that a number of important design features became incorporated to produce a louder and more durable instrument. Some of these features had been invented prior to this date, others were new at that time. The use of a single-piece cast iron frame for the string carrier, introduced in 1825 for the square piano, had become perfected for the grand piano by 1860. This feature allowed for thicker strings to be used and for them to be held under much higher tension, therefore making them louder. The over-stringing of the bass-string courses was also introduced about this time. The bottom board of the piano’s case, crucial to the frame’s strength in pre-metal frame times, was eliminated, further opening up the sound of the piano. Finally, around 1860 pianos reached their full range of seven-and-one-third octaves. In 1860, a piano could be purchased with all these features. Although there would not have been many from which to choose, this combination of features would gradually become the standard for grand pianos. Many subsequent design improvements have been made to various components of the piano, but basically the modern piano was in existence by 1860. Various designs of pianos with vertical strings and soundboard have been around since the early 1800s, but the modern upright piano reached its familiar form only when makers began to apply the new design ideas described above to them in the 1860s and 1870s. The Disklavier was introduced in 1987 by the Japanese maker Yamaha. Up until about the 1880s pianos were luxury items affordable only to the upper class. By the 1880s new production technologies were being pursued by piano manufacturers that greatly increased the number of units produced and markedly lowered their price, especially for upright models. Pianos became affordable to the middle class at that time, and a golden age of production began that lasted up to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Only well after WWII was there a return to pre-Depression era production numbers, with Japanese and American makers now producing the greatest numbers. Since the 1980s, digital synthesizers with sampling capabilities have constituted a formidable challenge to the acoustic piano for the performance especially of popular music idioms, but in some jazz idioms as well.

Bibliographic Citations

Ripin, Edwin M., et. al. “Pianoforte [piano],” in Grove Music Online. Accessed December 15 2014: http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/21631?q=piano&search=quick&source=omo_gmo&pos=3&_start=1#firsthit

Fisher, Charles P. 1986. “Piano,” in The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Don Randel, ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, pp. 629-638.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Southern Europe

Nation: Italy

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

314.1-8 chordophone--true board zither (the plane of the strings is parallel with that of the string bearer); with keyboard

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: zither - board

String courses: single, double at unison, triple at unison

Vibrational length: pressure bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: friction pin

Method of sounding: striking (indirect)

Pitches per string course: one


108 in. length (first instrument) 59.4 in. width (of keyboard side, first instrument) 84 in length (second instrument) 55.6 in. width (of keyboard side, second instrument) 60 in. width (of keyboard side, third and fourth instruments)

Primary Materials

wood - laminated
string - wire
string - wire-wound wire




CD - K 2357

Entry Author

Roger Vetter