Music and the Mechanical Arts

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Music and the Mechanical Arts


The eighteenth century opened at the pinnacle of achievement for the master craftsmen of Western musical instruments. Fine string and keyboard instruments were produced by hand in small workshops using traditional methods and materials. In response to the changing desires of musicians and audiences and in keeping with the century's widespread interest in mechanical contrivances, these skilled artisans continued to innovate instrument design, leading to the invention and perfection of perhaps the most important instrument in the history of music, the piano.


Through the seventeenth century, an assortment of keyboard instruments were in use throughout Europe. One of the most popular, the harpsichord, featured keys that plucked strings as the player pressed them; a rival for its dominance, especially in Germany, was the clavichord. The clavichord was similar in range to the harpsichord, but it used small hammers that struck the strings. These hammers would remain in contact with the string as long as the key was depressed, thus allowing the performer to control the volume of each note. Players could also, by rocking their finger while pressing down a key, produce a vibrated sound, similar to the vibrato produced by string players and singers.

Both of these instruments found favor with composers as well as performers, but by 1700 their shortcomings were well known. The harpsichord was a versatile instrument, capable of ensemble as well as solo playing and suited to either private or public performance. However, players could not modulate its volume at all, drastically limiting musical expression. While the clavichord provided the player both dynamic range and the expressive capability of vibrato, it was a delicate, intimate instrument poorly equipped for performance in public halls. An instrument that combined the power of the harpsichord with the expressiveness of the clavichord was desired to bring keyboard music into larger concert halls and to permit composers and performers greater creativity.

Interest in the design of a new keyboard instrument stirred across Europe. A craftsman in France presented four designs for "hammer-harpsichords" to the Académie des Sciences in 1716, and a number of makers from the German-speaking countries worked on examples of what came to be known as the pianoforte (the name combines the Italian words for "soft" and "loud" and was subsequently shortened to piano.) While German designers were largely responsible for the early development and evolution of the piano, credit for its initial invention must go to one man alone. Sometime between 1698 and 1700, Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731), the keeper of instruments for the ruling family of Florence, the Medicis, produced the first working piano. Cristofori's piano had virtually all of the design elements of the modern instrument, but the complexity of its mechanism discouraged other makers from trying to produce similar instruments. In fact, Cristofori's design had more influence on pianos produced in the nineteenth century than on those made by his contemporaries.

In its final form (achieved in the mid-nineteenth century), the piano combines five mechanical components: strings (these vary in length, circumference, and number, depending on pitch), a frame to support the immense tension of the strings, a system of sounding boards and bridges to communicate the vibration of the strings, a mechanical "action" to bring the keyboard into contact with the strings, and a system of pedals that allow the performer to increase or diminish the damping of the strings. The action in particular posed a host of mechanical problems. Solving these satisfactorily was Cristofori's act of singular genius, and the chief conundrum for those who tried to copy or supplant his design.

The main challenge in designing the piano's action was constructing a system that allowed the hammer to strike the strings quickly and rebound immediately, leaving the strings free to vibrate. Cristofori achieved this with an intricate array of levers, springs, checks, and guides; his chief innovation was the design of a pivoting mechanism known as an "escapement" that allowed the hammer to strike the string from a short distance but still fall clear of it after making contact. He produced several pianos, but they failed to attract much interest in Italy, where harpsichords remained the favored keyboard instrument for years after Cristofori's death in 1731.

Interest in new keyboard instruments was greater elsewhere. Some German makers copied Cristofori's pianos directly; others worked on their own designs. While Cristofori's piano was essentially a modified harpsichord, other makers began from the clavichord and sought merely to make that instrument louder. Pianos based on the clavichord were usually rectangular in shape (Cristofori's piano and those like it had the wing shape similar to grand pianos of more recent times), and often featured a simplified action. Early German-made pianos came to the attention of important composers, including Johann Sebastian Bach in the 1740s and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the 1770s. These musicians and others offered their opinions and suggestions about the new instrument and its capabilities, and composed pieces for it.

Beginning in 1756 the disruption of the Seven Years' War scattered German piano makers throughout Europe and helped to make England and France important centers for piano design and production throughout the second half of the century. By 1800, nearly 1,000 pianos were being manufactured each year in a dozen workshops in London, the largest center for piano production. Pianos became fashionable not only for public performances but also, gradually, in gracious homes. The instrument was far from standardized at that point; English and Continental pianos differed in significant ways, and all makers continued to experiment.

While no other technological innovation approached the significance of the piano, the eighteenth century saw other musical inventions as well. Many of the orchestral wind instruments, such as the clarinet, bassoon, and flute, achieved their modern form during this period; for the most part, these inventions were the result of gradual design improvements rather than new technologies or materials. String instruments had already reached their penultimate forms in the previous century, but instruments produced in Italian workshops in the early decades of the eighteenth century are widely believed to be the finest ever produced; scientists and craftsmen have studied them without success to try to determine the technological and scientific basis for their exceptional sound. So superior are these instruments that many are sought out and used by modern musicians.

Instruments for musical reproduction also evolved in this era. Mechanical musical instruments such as the musical clock and the barrel organ had been invented many centuries earlier, but these devices became more creative and more popular in the eighteenth century, carried along by widespread interest in automata and contrivances. The most significant mechanical music invention, the music box, came late in the century. This instrument consists of a revolving metal cylinder with properly spaced projecting pins to pluck tongues cut into a steel comb or plate. The comb resonates different pitches and overtones. A spring, clockwork, and fly regulator move the cylinder smoothly and at the appropriate speed to play a single tune. The music box first appeared in Switzerland in the 1770s, and became a popular instrument in many homes during the nineteenth century. Despite its limitations, it foreshadowed in importance and structure the more flexible music reproduction technologies of the player piano and the phonograph.


The impact of the piano on the subsequent development of Western music cannot be overstated. The piano quickly became an essential tool for musical composition, a kind of workbench at which most composers wrote their music. It became a vital ingredient in music instruction as it provided a platform upon which to teach all of the ingredients of music theory. It was also an invaluable part of musical performance, as a virtuoso solo instrument and as a versatile accompaniment to other soloists or larger ensembles. Even the pitches used in musical performance have been determined by the conventional tuning of the piano. The place of the piano at the heart of the evolution of Western music has remained undisputed from the mid-eighteenth century into the twenty-first.

The piano was also a conduit through which music entered the homes and lives of thousands of people. Widespread enthusiasm for piano-playing at home was encouraged by the production, after 1811, of small "cottage" and other affordable upright pianos. Piano-making moved from workshop to factory, and by the 1830s pianos were being manufactured in America as well as Europe. It was an American-based maker, Henry Steinway, who produced the first fully "modern" piano in 1859, and ushered in the era of the piano's greatest popularity. At the time of the great Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, fewer than 50,000 pianos were manufactured worldwide annually; just before World War I, the real price of pianos had halved and annual production was around 600,000.

During its heyday from the 1860s to the 1920s, the piano was probably the most important source of entertainment in the home. But new musical technologies—most of which required considerably less effort—subsequently marginalized the piano. Automatic, or "player" pianos, introduced in the 1920s, ushered in other mechanical means of music reproduction, including the developing phonograph and radio. As these technologies improved, they provided easy ways to listen to a wide variety of music. The piano and other performance instruments lost their central role in domestic life, and became a subordinate, specialized form of entertainment. Ironically, the eighteenth-century's greatest advance in musical technology, the piano, was ultimately eclipsed in popularity by the descendants of the lowly music box as people chose to enjoy musical reproduction rather than performance in their homes.


Further Reading


Ehrlich, Cyril. The Piano: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Gill, Dominic, ed. The Book of the Piano. Oxford: Phaidon, 1981.

Loesser, Arthur. Men, Women, and Pianos: A Social History. New York: Dover, 1990.

Pollens, Stewart. The Early Pianoforte. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Ripin, Edwin, et al., eds. Piano: The Grove Musical Instrument Series. New York: Norton, 1988.