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1700’s tech: A piano story

It may not have been crafting nanocircuits on silicon but innovation and craftsmanship have legs in history. Here’s a good story of that: What Does the World Oldest Surviving Piano Sound Like?: Watch Pianist Give a Performance on a 1720 Cristofori Piano.

Imagine your favorite works for the piano—the delicate and haunting, the thundering and powerful. … Now imagine all of it never existing. A giant hole opens up in world culture. … The piano seems inevitable when we look back into music history. Its immediate predecessors, the clavichord and harpsichord, so resemble the modern piano that they must have evolved in just such a way, we think. But it needn’t have been so.

Other makers tried different mechanisms, but “Cristofori was an artful inventor,” the Met remarks, “creating such a sophisticated action for his pianos that, at the instrument’s inception, he solved many of the technical problems that continued to puzzle other piano designers for the next seventy-five years of its evolution.” These designers made shortcuts, since Cristofori’s “action was highly complex and thus expensive.” But nothing matched his design, and those features were “gradually reinvented and reincorporated in later decades.”

Though Baroque composers at the time, including Johann Sebastian Bach, “were aware of it,” most, like Bach, harbored doubts. “It was only with the compositions of Haydn and Mozart” decades later “that the piano found a firm place in music.” A place so firm, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the last 250 years of music without it.

The problem with earlier keyboard instruments was musician control of the loudness of notes played. That is the problem that the invention of the piano solved.

Besides dynamic range, there is a lot of other invention and innovation in the piano from soundboards and concert amplification capabilities to the user interface. A history of music technology teaches many lessons.