We often don’t question why things are called what they are: a table is a table, a plate is a plate, and a piano is a piano. Something you might be surprised to learn is that a piano is not actually called “piano.”
The word “Piano” means something very specific and essential to understanding how the instrument works. In a way, the name of the instrument describes the innovation that gave birth to pianos as a type of musical instrument!
Keyboard instruments date as far back as the 3rd century B.C.E in Ancient Greece, when pipe organs were invented. Pipe organs continued to develop throughout many centuries and are still in use today!
The pipe organ introduced the concept of the keyboard: each key produces a separate pitch. Low notes are on the left side of the keyboard and as we progress right, the pitch becomes higher. Over time, an ingenious design of 7 lower keys (usually white) and 5 raised keys (usually black) eventually became the standard for all keyboard instruments.
So what is the difference between an organ and other keyboard instruments?
It is how the sound is produced! The sound of a pipe organ is produced by air being rushed through a separate pipe for each note. By the 16th century, the concept of pressing keys was applied to string instruments and new instruments such as the clavichord and harpsichord were invented.
The clavichord and harpsichord are a little bit different than the piano. On a clavichord, the strings are plucked by “tungents” and on a harpsichord they are mechanically plucked by quills. Harpsichords were widely used for public performances, often playing with other instruments but they had a major disadvantage as compared to other instruments. Harpsichords could not change the volume of their notes.
Wind instruments can create louder sounds by how strongly the performer blows into the instrument. String instruments achieve differences in dynamics by how much force is applied to the strings by the bow.
Harpsichord players simply couldn’t do that: no matter how hard or light a key was pressed, the sound volume was the same. The only workaround for this problem was to add or take away another whole set of strings so the sound would change to twice as loud or twice as soft.
(It is interesting to note that pipe organs did have the ability to gradually increase or decrease the sound volume but they were generally too big and loud to be used in ensembles with other instruments.)
Musicians really liked to play together back then, and still do now. The poor harpsichord players had to make up such things as trills and other ornaments to be able to shine over the other instruments; however, it just wasn’t the same as being able to play louder and quieter.
Finally, in the early 1700’s an Italian harpsichord maker Bartolomeo Cristofori invented a new kind of instrument where the strings were hit with hammers rather than plucked. With the invention of this instrument, it became possible for the volume to increase or decrease depending how hard you pressed the keys. He called this amazing mechanical advancement the “fortepiano”- which translates from Italian as simply “loud-quiet.”
In the 1800’s, the fortepiano began to undergo massive technical developments due to the expansion of trade and industry across the world. During this time, the terms “fortepiano” and “pianoforte” were used interchangeably. Eventually, “fortepiano” fell out of popularity and now we use that term to refer to instruments which were built in the 1700’s.
So now, if you are playing piano in a country where the instrument is called pianoforte, you are free to play with different dynamics, both soft and loud, but if you are playing it in a country where it is called just piano then you can only play it quietly all the time. There’s still a debate on how to do this in Germany where it is klavier and China where it is Gāngqín!