Keyboard History

A Brief History of the Modern Keyboard

The piano is actually an instrument made up of compromises due to the fact that it is not capable of playing the full “chromatic” scale as it can be played on say, a violin. The piano utilizes a tuning format called “just intonation”, a system whereby we are able to command the expression of all the sounds that are required to be heard within the compass of an octave in order that the degrees of each and every possible scale may be correctly and exactly rendered. In order to create “true diatonic” sounds required for the necessary intervals in all scales, there would have to be 66 notes to an octave!


Vitruvius, in his work on architecture (1st century A.D.) , describes an organ with balanced keys. Next we learn that Emperor Constantine sent a musical instrument having keys to King Pepin of France in 757 A.D.

The great musical genius, Guido of Arezzo, applied the keyboard to stringed instruments in the first part of the 11th century. Guido’s diatonic scale, eight full tones with seven intervals of which two were semitones, was used in the first claivchords, which had 20 keys. There are no reliable records in existence, as to who applied the chromatic scale first. Giuseppe Zarlino added the semitones to his instruments about 1548, but instruments of earlier date have the chromatic scale, as for instance the clavicymbala, some of which had 77 keys to a compass of four octaves.

After the 15th century nearly all the makers of key-stringed instruments used the chromatic scale practically as we find it in the modern piano. The semitones in most of those old instruments are elevated and of a different color than the full tones. Since the development of the piano many experiments have been made with so-called “chromatic” keyboards, in which the semitones were on a level with the full tones. A Dr. Krause of Eisenberg constructed a keyboard in 1811, in which the semitones were not raised and all keys were of the same color. About 1789, Neuhaus, a piano maker of Vienna, constructed a concave-formed keyboard for his pianos. He aimed to follow the inclination of the human arm to move in a semicircle. As you can see, the modern keyboard has gone through many changes, however, the basic concept of the key lay-out has been fairly consistent. This is a result of the order in which the whole tones and semi-tones are arranged, and has evolved over centuries.

(The first section was taken from “Theory & Practice of Piano Construction” by William White, the second section is from “Pianos and their Makers” by Alfred Dolge.


A Chronicle of the Piano
Part II

As the 18th century drew to a close, the piano was firmly established as a musical instrument. It then had a five-octave normal range and sixty-one keys not eighty-eight as it has today. Mostly, pedals were worked by the knees but the foot pedal introduced in England was catching on. The framing was still wooden; the iron frame had not yet been thought of. The strings and hammers often broke. The tone and action was very light. In about 1800, Joseph Smith of England made a complete frame of metal for resistance to strains. It is only fair to say it did not much resemble the modern conception of a metal plate. About 1820, various makers used sections of metal for hitch pins, resistance bars and pin plank reinforcements.In 1822, the most famous of all piano actions was patented by the Erard brothers: the double escapement action. The purpose of the mechanism was the same as that of 1808, but while showing its descent from the Cristofori – Silbermann action, the function of each of its separate parts was worked out with still greater insight and ingenuity. Again the hammer did not fall back completely after its initial escapement, but returned to rest simultaneously on a check piece and a sprung, oblique lever which retained the hammer close to the strings. If they key was then raised slightly, the check released the hammer and it could be propelled against the strings once more, the movement of the key being transmitted to the hammer not by the hopper, but via the oblique lever. The action was noted at once for its remarkable lightness, flexibility and reliability. Its significance cannot be exaggerated since, with only small modifications of detail, it became the action to be fitted to the modern grand piano.

In the history of the grand piano, the advantages of gravity-operated over dampers were not so clearly appreciated as the superiority of up striking to down striking hammer mechanisms. In his earliest pianos, Erard had chosen the conventional over dampers of the English piano, but in his action of 1822, he opted for an under damper which his firm continued to use even until near the end of the nineteenth century.Alpheus Babcock of Boston, in 1830, cast a square piano – the first one-piece frame. While it was crude in design, it was the first. The evolution from this simple frame by Babcock to the carefully designed powerful frame of the modern piano was gradual; but by about 1860, was essentially what it is today and was capable of withstanding any strain that might be imposed by the piano maker.

The development of this plate was the greatest single invention in development of the modern piano with the exception of the Cristofore escapement. As it was with the development of the metal plate, so it was with the development of the action. There was more than one hundred years of continuous inventive genius put into it before Pierre Gerard came out with his so-called “double repeating action” for grand pianos in 1821. This action contained every essential of the modern grand action. It was the invention of the full metal plate that finally permitted makers to greatly increase diameters of strings as well as lengths and tensions which finally produced the modern piano tone. The iron frame was not developed in one swoop, but was a very gradual growth. The use of metal for added strength goes way back to the harpsichord.Until the early years of the nineteenth century, two types of piano appealed to professional pianists: the Viennese piano and the English piano. The action of the first was light, had little carrying power and needed very little pressure on the keys. The tone was round and flute like.

Compared to modern pianos, many of the earliest ones looked awkward. Most were like pieces of overwrought furniture thick-legged and heavily carved. It seemed unlikely that they could make delicate music. The designs were fancy and the outer-case decorations unbelievably elaborate. Some of the instruments were almost smothered by decoration – ivory and precious stones, silver and gold, colored glass and enamels. Many of the pianos had paintings and complicated inlay work inside their lids. The entire outside cases of some instruments were painted with fanciful designs in oils.Because the strings of many of these pianos were mounted vertically above and behind the keyboard, the instruments looked tall and top heavy. Some of these so-called pyramid pianos that were made in Prague even had clocks in their string towers. A similar skyscraper was a piano called the giraffe. The fanciest giraffes with the most ornate carving were made in Czechoslovakia. Another curious piano of those pioneer days was the metal pianoforte, made about 1815. It consisted of a normal piano with a keyboard for fingering, and a second legless instrument on which the first one stood. The keyboard of the lower piano was operated by the feet, like the pedals of an organ.

A Chronicle of the Piano
Part III

THE PIANO IN AMERICA The period of greatest development in piano construction lay between the years of 1760 and 1830 and then between 1835 and 1880. The first piano made in America was by John Behrent of Philadelphia in 1775

CHICKERING & SONS.Established in 1823, Chickering & Sons celebrated in 1923 the completion of a century of continuous manufacture of the Chickering pianos. This illustrious firm, the oldest piano house in the United States, has been at all times in the forefront and has received world-wide recognition for its part in developing the pianoforte on distinctive lines. Jonas Chickering, the founder, was born at Mason Village, New Hampshire, in April, 1796, where, after a sound schooling, he thoroughly learned the business of cabinet-making. Impelled by a restless ambition to seek a larger field, he went to Boston in his early twenties.

There he entered the factory of a well-known piano maker of those days and pursued a course of study in piano-making in its then primitive stage. It was not long before the genius of Jonas Chickering manifested itself, and he introduced a series of changes and improvements which have since become standard and which revolutionized the methods then prevailing. His name from the earliest times has been constantly linked with the Americanizing of the piano by methods of such importance and value that both America and Europe today admit their worth by universal adoption. To him must be ascribed the invention of the full iron plate for grand pianos recorded in 1837. This invention was accepted by the scientific world as one of far reaching importance; indeed, it proved to be the foundation of all modern piano construction, for without it the sonorous grands of today would not have been impossible. It successfully solved the problem of the proper support for the great strain of the strings and defined a new era in the history of piano-making.In 1843, Jonas Chickering invented a new deflection of the strings and in 1845 the first practical method for over stringing in square pianos, that is, instead of setting the strings side by side, substituting an arrangement of them in two banks, one over the other, not only saving space but bringing the powerful bass strings directly over the most resonant part of the sound-board, a principle which obtains to this day in the construction of all pianos, both grands and uprights. Until the year 1852, Jonas Chickering superintended each department of his business with his usual scrupulous care but was relieved of much of this responsibility upon his taking into partnership his three sons, all of whom had received under their father a practical training of the highest order. The genius of C. Frank Chickering as a “scale” draftsman soon became internationally know and acknowledged and to his extensive scientific research is to be attributed much of the renowned beauty of the Chickering tone. Not content with retaining this invaluable knowledge himself he imparted the secrets of his studies to those in the factory in whose gifts he had confidence, thus insuring their perpetuation. In addition to the many patents taken out by Jonas Chickering, his sons and their successors, various methods exclusive to themselves have also been employed and there are in constant use operations of an abstract character which may be described as mechanical subtleties possessing great value and which are an integral part of the Chickering system.

A Chronicle of the Piano
Part IV

The outline of the significant importance of the Chickering system will appeal to the practical minded but to those who would know more of the romance and charm which the Chickering story holds for the student of America’s musical development. The significance and historic value of the Chickering in the development of the pianoforte in America is seen in the preservation at the Ford Museum at Dearborn of several important Chickerings including the very first instrument made by Jonas Chickering in 1823. Others are: the first Chickering upright made in 1830 and the first Chickering grand completed prior to 1850. Chickering & Sons have received upwards of 200 first medals and awards. These have been received from States and sovereigns, international expositions and learned societies in all parts of the world embracing every known method of honoring distinguished merit. C. Frank Chickering was personally vested with the Imperial Cross of the Legion of Honor at the hands of Napoleon 111. The significance of this high honor is the more appreciated because of its extreme rarity, very few such honors having been bestowed for accomplishments in the fine arts. In 1923 Chickering & Sons were the recipients of a remarkable tribute from musicians and persons of prominence in all walks of life who united in celebrating the Hundredth Anniversary of the founding of Jonas Chickering’s epoch making enterprises. A committee headed by the Hun. Calvin Coolidge (then Vice-President of the United States) carried to a successful and brilliant conclusion what was termed the Jonas Chickering Centennial Celebration, culminating in a banquet held at the Copley Plaza, Boston, at which Mr. Coolidge was the chief speaker. It marked in a most significant manner a century of musical achievement that is without parallel in the history of American piano making. The most famous virtuosi including pianists, singers and instrumentalists have exhausted superlatives in expressing their high admiration of the Chickering. The Handel and Haydn Society of Boston the world’s foremost oratory group, established 1815, has used the Chickering exclusively for more than a century. His name from the earliest times has been constantly linked with the Americanizing of the piano by methods of such importance and value that both America and Europe today admit their worth by universal adoption.


The Square piano was inspired by the desire to produce a piano taking up less space than those instruments then in use. In its early stage the Square Grand, as with all stringed instruments built previous to it , had a weak wooden frame. This meant that thin wires at low tension could only be used.

In 1825 Alphaeus Babcock of Boston invented the one piece full cast iron frame or plate as it is now called. This allowed pianos to be built with heavier wire at higher tension which caused the instrument to have a much fuller singing resonant tone than had heretofore been possible. This was one of the most important of piano inventions. Near the end of the 18th century, square grand pianos became widely used. Measuring 3-1/2 by 7 feet, in a rectangular case. The square piano would be replaced as the dominant piano for the home by the upright piano which gained increasing popularity during the second half of the 19th century.

The modern, streamlined vertical that hugs the wall of today’s compact apartment may be a far cry, socially and culturally, from the ornate upright that graced the parlor in 1900, but the piano remains above all instruments the one most worthy of esteem. As Busoni pointed out in his preface to the 1910 edition of Gottfried Galston’s Studienbuch, for all its “obvious, great and irremediable” disadvantages, “the piano’s excellencies and prerogatives are little miracles.”

No small credit for making these “little miracles” possible is due Henry Engelhard Steinway.

What’s in a name? Everything its possessor has been and done goes into whatever evaluation others may place upon his name. At birth, a name may be no more than an identification tag, or it may be something to live up to-or live down, but that is not important. What matters is that each of us is given a name, in trust, for a lifetime to pass on to the future, embellished, or tarnished, or unchanged.

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