In Black and White (2)

Genesis of the Piano

[A Fusion of Sounds]

by Andrew G Lockhart


The piano combines keyboard and strings in a unique way.

As a keyboard instrument, it has much in common with the harpsichord and organ. But open up all three and the similarities  fade. True, both harpsichord and piano have strings. However, the arrangement is different. Moreover, the means of sound production are quite distinct. In the harpsichord, the strings are plucked by a quill or plectrum; in the piano, they are struck by hammers. Unlike either, the organ relies for its sound on the passage of air through valves, giving it distant kinship with the woodwind family.

As stringed instruments, piano and harpsichord are related to violin and guitar. And as an instrument of percussion, the piano shares ancestry with a host of other music-makers from xylophone and marimba to drum and glockenspiel. Certainly, some acoustic principles are the same, but there the resemblance ends. Whereas the violinist, for example, communicates directly with the strings by means of bow and fingers, the pianist is separated from the soul of her piano by a mechanism she need not fully understand but must handle correctly if a pleasing result is to be obtained. A similar comparison can be made between oboe and organ.

Instrumental music has its origins in antiquity.  Early humans learned to distinguish the sounds in nature. Survival depended on knowing which were dangerous and which benign; the roar of the angry predator or the call of the wild animal were very different from the whistling of wind in the trees or the rushing of water in a gorge. They discovered that whereas certain sounds were a signal for action or flight, others had a soothing effect on their minds, and it was not long before they found they could reproduce some of nature’s noises, by blowing into a hollow reed, by plucking animal sinew or by striking bone against a stretched skin. At first, such reproduced sounds had no purpose other than experimentation, but gradually they came to be used with, or instead of, the voice as a summons or warning. Later, they would serve as the accompaniment to celebration, or religious rite.

the amazing Bosendorfer piano

These early humans would have realised that the pitch of a sound depended on the tautness of the skin, or the length of the reed or sinew. Thus the primitive ancestors of the modern orchestral instruments – woodwind, strings and percussion – were born. The hollow reed became the flute, the plucked sinew the violin and the taut skin the drum.    Gradually, over the millennia, these instruments became more sophisticated until, about five or six thousand years ago, they evolved into the recognisable harps, lyres, pipes and horns that the civilisations of the ancient world employed in their rituals and ceremonies. Perfect archaeological finds are rare, so our knowledge of the first instruments comes chiefly from other visual records, such as stone fragments or tomb paintings. For the most part, we can only guess how they might have sounded. Nevertheless, it seems likely that three of the four elements that we recognise in modern music would have been present. The ancients would have used rhythm and melody, and they would have experimented with dynamics – the intensity of sounds. That the fourth – harmony – was known is less probable.

The earliest records indicate that for millennia of human history music was  homophonic only. However, by the first millennium BC, polyphony and harmony were clearly features of performed music, not only in the accompaniment of singing, but also in purely instrumental playing. Ensembles certainly existed in the civilisations of the Middle East. That the Old Kingdom of Egypt valued music both in ceremony and as an art form is evidenced by artefacts, depictions in tombs and ancient scripts. Temple musicians enjoyed a high social position, as did those employed by the royal households. Orchestras employed wind and stringed instruments as well as drums and clappers.

In Babylon too, instrumental music was well known. The book of Daniel in the Old Testament records –

… you will hear the sound of the trumpets, followed by the playing of oboes, lyres, zithers, and then all the other instruments.’

Multiple translations may have muddied the waters in that we cannot be sure precisely what instruments were meant, but it seems this early orchestra, like the Egyptian, consisted of woodwinds, strings and percussion at least. By the time the above account was written, the Babylonian court had developed a sophisticated music culture, and the Jewish writers of the chronicle would already have been familiar with it, though they may not have approved of its pagan associations. There are many other biblical references too, to trumpets, harps, lyres and percussion.

Modern European music and instrumentation owes much to Classical Greece. The Greeks did not invent harmony; it occurs in nature. However, by the time of Plato they had raised it not merely to a proper art form but to a philosophy and science as well. Poetry and song were an essential part of the Athenian education system. Sung melody was often accompanied on a lyre, harmonising at intervals of one octave and perhaps even fourths or fifths.

Pythagoras is credited with discovering the precise mathematical relationship between notes of different pitch, something that is of vital importance in the design of stringed keyboard instruments. His method was to use a single-stringed instrument called a monochord, consisting of a hollow box with a string stretched between two bridges. The string was plucked with the fingers and pitch was altered by means of a slider bar mounted on the box. Though not technically a keyboard instrument, Pythagoras’s simple machine could be regarded as a prototype for the psaltery which would give rise eventually and indirectly to the harpsichord.

The evolution of instruments was not confined geographically to Europe and the Middle East. Other nations and cultures invented instruments of their own. By Pythagoras’ day, the Chinese had already developed a sophisticated music theory and musicians were performing on stringed and percussion instruments at the royal court. These would have included the bianzhong, which consisted of sets of nine or thirteen bronze bells. One example, discovered in modern times, had as many as sixty, hung in layers and having a range of about five octaves. Another Chinese instrument was the guzheng, a kind of zither with thirteen or more strings made of silk.

The guzheng was adopted by the Japanese in the eighth century and became the koto, an instrument important in the music of the imperial court. The koto today has 13 strings of equal length and tension, fitted with movable bridges, and employs a pentatonic scale. The player sits beside the instrument on the floor and plucks the strings with plectra fitted to the fingers of her right hand; her left hand is used to control the tone.

Music flourished in Persia under the Sasanian kings but was suppressed by the Arab conquerors in the seventh and eighth centuries. It enjoyed a revival under the Abbasids. Of the many Persian scholars who lived during this period, Abu Nasr Farabi probably contributed more than any to the science of music. His book on the subject, Kitab al-Musiqa, became a reference work for generations of Muslim musicians who came after him. Another great polymath of this period, Ibn Sina, complemented Farabi’s work and laid the foundations of a harmonic system.

Farabi was an instrumentalist and is believed to have invented several instruments himself. The santur, an Iranian version of the psaltery and koto, is a zither employing seventy-two strings that the player strikes with lightweight mallets. A similar instrument is played in India.

The Arab and Persian influence in European culture and language has been profound, even if underestimated or denied in later centuries. After the conversion of the Mongol princes to Shi’a Islam in the early fourteenth century, music was again discouraged by the clerics in Persia. However, by this time, musical ideas and instruments had spread to Muslim Spain where, for several hundred years, music flourished along with literature and art.

In the early ninth century, Ziryabi, a Persian musician of considerable talent was forced to flee Baghdad. He travelled through Africa to Spain where he founded a music college in Cordoba. Ziryabi’s teachings would later form the foundations of the music of Andalusia. The people who gave the West algebra and its number system also gave it alphabetic notation and the lute.

How and when musicians made the imaginative leap from finger-plucked zither to keyboard is a matter for speculation. It may have been that, plagued by pain and swelling in his fingertips, some forgotten artists hit on the idea of creating his music by more indirect means. Or, fancifully, having constantly to replace a damaged or lost plectrum, he devised the key mechanism as a more substantial and less losable alternative.

There are no records of stringed keyboard instruments until late mediaeval times. For all their musical sophistication, none of the early civilisations of the Middle or Far East seems to have developed anything resembling the harpsichord in design or function, or, if they did, no records have survived. The first keyboard instrument appeared in Alexandria around 250BC.  It was a primitive organ, operated by water pressure, called a hydraulis.

The hydraulis, and further development of the keyboard, will be the subject of a later article.



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