“Piano” Is Just a Nickname
The first and original name of the piano was gravicembalo col piano e forte, roughly translating to “soft and loud keyboard instrument.” Unlike its predecessor the harpsichord, the piano’s new and more complex technology enabled the player to control the dynamics (volume) of the music through the speed at which a key was depressed. But who wants to say “I love that cool lick the gravicembalo col piano e forte player plays in that song”? Not long after, the instrument became widely known as the “pianoforte” (the “soft-loud”), which is its true formal name.
String Instrument? Percussion Instrument? Or Both?
A piano has over 200 strings, but it’s the hammers hitting the strings that makes them sound. So while the piano could be considered a string instrument, most authorities consider it a member of the percussion family.
The Black and White Keys Were Reversed
Like most earlier keyboard instruments such as the clavichord and harpsichord, on early pianos the large keys (the white keys on the modern piano) were black, and the small keys were white. But it was eventually realized that this caused needless mistakes, as the space between the large keys (which adjoin each other) was not as visually distinct as it could be. Reversing the colors made it easier to play better.
Controlling the Instrument
The only aspects of sound that can be controlled by one’s hands are the initial volume of a tone (regulated by the velocity at which a key is depressed) and how long the tone lasts (controlled by how long the key remains depressed). When you think about it, it’s surprising that one’s hands can actually control only these two simple aspects of the sounds of such a multifaceted instrument, considering otherwise how complicated it seems to be to play!
The History of Piano Pedals
The three or sometimes two pedals that exist on most contemporary pianos (and their digital brethren) are the sole survivors of a wide variety of pedals of varying functions that existed in the past. These included:
The lute pedal, which altered the tone to something like a violin player plucking a string (known as pizzicato). That would be nice to have when attempting to create an exaggerated staccato (a short, detached tone).
The cembalo pedal, which changed the tone to sound more like a harpsichord. I could do without that pedal, myself!
The swell pedal made the overall volume louder or softer by either raising and lowering the lid or opening and closing slots on the sides of the instrument. What an awesome feature that would be!
Other pedals on earlier pianos mimicked (or literally produced) the sounds of bells, harp, drums, triangle and similar instruments. One critic complained that these alterations threatened to turn the piano into a “vulgar musical toy.” He might have had a point there!