The piano has been an established musical instrument in homes and concert halls around the world for decades. It is popular because of its accessibility and its musical possibilities. In this article, I am going to explore some of the facts and stats that surround our favourite keyboard instrument. In the United States alone it is estimated that there are over 18 million amateur pianists.
Interesting Piano Facts
The origins of the piano are often a source of heated debate. It is agreed by many that the ‘inventor’ of the piano was an Italian gentleman called Bartolomeo Cristofori. He is thought to have created the first example of a piano around 1700 although the precise year is not certain.
The difference between the piano and the harpsichord was the hammer action that Cristofori designed and built. This keyboard evolution created an entirely new repertoire of music. It is perhaps important to realise that the name pianoforte, which we now shorten to piano literally means soft-loud when translated from the Italian. This is because the instrument was capable of easily producing a range of dynamics from soft to loud.
The modern piano has a total of 88 keys and a range of seven and a quarter octave making it one of the instruments with the widest musical ranges available. Earlier examples of the piano would have had a considerably smaller range of between four and five octaves.
As the demands and ambitions of the composers grew so did the range of the piano. It is claimed that the world’s largest piano is a grand made by the company, Challen. This monstrous instrument is eleven feet in length and weighs an impressive ton. A New Zealand piano tuner also has a claim on the largest piano ever made. Adrian Mann took four years to construct his own colossus with a weight of 1.4 tons and a length of 5.7 meters. The Italian piano manufacturers Fazoli also make an impressively large grand piano. They produce a grand that is ten feet and two inches long and over 1500 pounds in weight.
Some pianos are made with extended ranges. One of the most well respected is by the manufacturer Bosendorfer, whose Imperial Grand Pianos have a span that stretches to 97 keys. The claim is that the resonance of the instrument is improved.
The cost of pianos can vary immensely. A second-hand upright piano could cost very little indeed whereas a new Steinway Concert Grand will cost thousands of pounds. At the famous auction house of Christie’s in London, a Victorian Grand piano manufactured by Steinway is reported to have sold for a sum of $1.2 million.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the celebrity pianist Lang Lang played a most unusual instrument. This piano, created by the Canadian piano maker, Heintzman was made from crystal. Curiously, the crystal piano was only played a single time at the event then purchased for a cool $3.22 million, making it the most expensive piano ever sold.
Next, to the organ, the piano is the largest musical instrument. An average piano has 230 strings in it with each string having a tension of around 165 pounds. If you added together with the combined pull of all the strings in a piano, it is estimated to reach eighteen tons. In a concert grand piano, that figure rises to nearly thirty tons.
In spite of the number of piano players some never take a moment to look inside as the mechanics behind the music. On average, the piano has some 12,000 parts with 10,000 of these parts being moving ones. It is an extraordinarily complex instrument and well worth a glance under the hood.
Once piano keys were made from natural materials like rosewood, hickory, spruce, ebony and oak. They were often referred to as the ‘ivories’ because the keys were also made from the tusks of elephants, a practice that has rightly been banned for many years.
In the United States today there are only four recognised piano manufacturers who produce somewhere around 5,000 piano every year. The picture was very different in 1911 which was often referred to as the ‘ragtime boom’ year. In this year alone some 364,000 piano was made and sold in the US which roughly means that for every 255 people one piano was purchased. This in itself is a testament to the popularity of the piano as when they were first made they were so costly that only the very wealthy could afford to buy them.
The Presidents of the United States have since the very first inauguration had a keyboard in the White House. George Washington is supposed to have had a Longman and Broderip harpsichord and a Schoen and Vinsen Pianoforte. Roosevelt enjoyed a Steinway Grand whilst Truman had both a Baldwin and Steinway pianos. The 44th President, Barack Obama had his own Steinway shipped to the White House during his term in office.
One curious fact is that Steinway pianos may not have been called Steinway at all. Henry Steinway decided to change his name from Engelhard Steinweg on arriving to settle in the United States and start his own company.
Electronic pianos have been in production for many years now, but in the 1980s the invention of the digital piano had a severe impact on the sales of conventional instruments. The advantages of the digital piano are clear as they need no tuning, are often portable and have connectivity that acoustic pianos do not. It also means that students of the instrument can practice with headphones on and not disturb anyone.
Is a piano a string or a percussion instrument? The debate will no doubt rattle on for many years to come, but even though the piano makes its sound by hammers hitting its strings, it is classed as a percussion instrument when placed in an orchestral setting. The Hungarian composer Bela Bartok captures the percussive nature of the piano in his magnificent piece simply titled, ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste’ as well as his Piano Concertos.