A Brief History of the Modern Keyboard

By Michael Pilhofer, Holly Day

Music theory students often work with a keyboard, but where did it come from? While there have been many variation of keyboard instruments over the centuries, the standardized layout of the modern keyboard has its roots in the 14th century with the clavichord, a percussive instrument that looks a lot like a small piano, and behaves, albeit in a limited way, the same way a piano does.

Just as in a modern piano, when a note is struck, a small metal blade strikes a corresponding string inside the instrument. Unlike a modern piano, however, the clavichord has only one tuned string for each note, resulting in a “tinny” sound. Another downside of the clavichord was that because of its small size, it wasn’t loud enough to accompany most instruments and was therefore used primarily as a composition tool for musicians of the age.

In the 15th century the harpsichord arrived on the scene, which, despite its similarity in appearance to a clavichord, is actually a stringed instrument and not a percussive instrument. When you press a key on a harpsichord, the corresponding string (or strings, as in many modern harpsichord designs) inside the instrument is plucked by a tiny hook instead of struck by a hammer.

The main drawback of this construction is that no matter how hard or soft you press a key on a harpsichord, each note will be played at almost exactly the same volume, which, ironically, was also the drawback of many of the early electronic synthesizers.

The invention of the modern piano is credited to musician and inventor Bartolomeo Cristofori, the Keeper of the Instruments for Fernando dé Medici, the Grand Prince of Tuscany in the 18th century. His instrument was designed with a much larger body than the harpsichord or clavichord, which allowed room for strings of greater length inside the instrument, resulting in a louder instrument and one capable of greater sustain.

Because he utilized the striking technique of the clavichord instead of the plucking technique of the harpsichord, each note could be played loud or soft, depending on how the key was struck — hence the original name, pianoforte (loud soft) later shortened to just “piano.”