Depending on how you want to draw a parallel to the piano, many instruments could be considered to be close cousins or distant relatives.
Let’s take a cold hard look at the characteristics of the piano from where perhaps we are more able to link it to other instruments.
Instruments That Similiar To A Piano
The piano has a huge compass of notes that cover seven and a quarter octaves, sometimes more. It has strings, a keyboard, pedals, and commonly, a wooden case.
At face value, then the piano matches quite nicely with its predecessors. These early examples of keyboards would include the Baroque mainstay, the harpsichord.
Also, it would be important to include the virginal or spinet and the clavichord. All of these keyboards dominated the music scene from the Renaissance through to the end of the Baroque Era.
They were not quite as robustly constructed as the contemporary piano and used a different note production method. Each had a keyboard, often with the white and black keys reversed when compared to the piano, with a similar shape to the piano.
As the method of tone production was not based around a hammer mechanism, the sound produced by the early keyboards was closer to a plucked guitar than today’s piano.
Another family of keyboard instruments close to the piano might include the organs. These instruments, at least the traditional ones, share the keyboard as a means of playing the instrument but use pipes to generate a sound.
Some of the organs have immense ranges with pipes as long as 64 feet that produce an almost inaudible note. Another key difference is that there is no sustain on an organ in the way there is on the piano.
Suppose you want an organ to hold a note for any length of time; you need to keep the key depressed. No sustain pedal exists.
The humble harmonium deserves mention. This instrument is a member of the keyboard family perhaps more related to the accordion than the piano.
It produces sound by having air blown through the instrument’s reeds whilst the keyboard selects the pitches. This instrument has been used to great effect in several contemporary film scores.
I’ll also include the oddly named hurdy-gurdy here. Strictly speaking, it’s a string instrument, but it uses a keyboard. The tones are formed by a rotating wheel that drags across the strings. It’s a haunting, ancient kind of sound that you won’t forget.
Hammond organs are another close relation to the piano. These are electronic keyboards that were known as tone-wheel organs.
Tiny dollar-sized wheels revolved in a bath of oil inside the Hammond organ producing tones through the potential difference they generated.
It sounds and indeed is unbelievably complex, but that may be because Mr. Hammond, a clock-maker, developed the instrument.
These organs were frequently twinned with a Leslie speaker that used a rotary speaker system that produced a unique sound intended to come close to that of a church organ.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, there were some incredible keyboard inventions. The Fender Rhodes pianos were amongst the most popular, notably with jazz and pop musicians.
Wurlitzer also made a successful range of electric pianos, as they became called. The principle of tone creation was by a hard-rubber hammer striking a metal bar.
This design made for a highly resonant tone that was close in sound to a vibraphone. The electric pianos were notorious for breaking as their mechanisms were quite delicate.
Sometimes over-enthusiastic musicians broke the pianos by using too much force to depress the keys.
I should not omit the toy piano. This is a genuine instrument, not merely a child’s plaything. They produce their tones using metal rods in most cases, so the sound is similar to an electric piano or celeste.
Just as a normal piano, these instruments come in a variety of shapes and sizes including the customary grand and upright versions. According to sources, the mid-19th century saw the manufacture of the first of these instruments.
If you’re still not convinced of the legitimacy of the toy piano, listen to John Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano and make up your mind.
As mentioned briefly in the previous paragraph, the orchestral celeste is another near relative to the piano. Its range is around six octaves, and it employs a keyboard to play the instrument.
It produces a sound similar to that of the electric piano and toy piano with a characteristically bell-like sonority. This beautiful instrument has been used in an orchestral setting since the late 19th century.
More recently, John Williams brought it to the forefront of our consciousness in his score for the Harry Potter films and Hedwig’s Theme. It’s a brilliant use of Celeste and is irreplaceable as the soundtrack for the film.
Following the electric pianos of the 1960s and 70s came the digital pianos of the 1980s. Some of the early examples didn’t sound particularly close to an acoustic piano, and the touch of the keyboards was not usually sensitive to pressure.
As time progressed, so did the quality of these digital pianos, to the point where there are almost indistinguishable in action and tonal qualities to an acoustic instrument.
Brands such as Nord, Roland, Kawai, Yamaha, and Korg make some of the best digital pianos on the market. The advantages are clear. They don’t go out of tune, are often portable, and have USB, Bluetooth, and MIDI connectivity alongside a range of additional sounds.
Here in a sense, is where there is another crossover. Synthesizers were being developed as far back as the 1930s.
Admittedly, these first synths took up entire rooms to create a sound, but once the digital era took hold chip technology allowed these keyboard instruments to become portable and produce a vast variety of sounds.
Each of these sounds has alterable, editable parameters, controllers, and other variants that make them flexible, exciting instruments to play.
It also means as the sound is created electronically, that almost an infinite number of sounds are possible to create. This suggests that the future of sound will be something that we may not yet fully be able to appreciate.