A Piano Lesson

Which musical instrument gets its name from the Italian word meaning soft?

And the answer: piano.

One of the first fortepianos

The piano is actually a nickname from the longer Italian word fortepiano. In Italian, piano means "soft," while forte means "loud." The piano was invented after musicians who played the harpsichord wanted better volume control.

Even the harpsichord doesn't come as the first of its kind – the instrument descended from an ancient practice of string plucking to create music. The piano's original ancestor is known as the monochord, a single string stretched over a sound box and with a movable bridge. The monochord dates back to 6th century B.C. as a scientific instrument for measuring musical intervals.

Eventually, a family of stringed instruments with a keyboard evolved in Europe in the 14th century. The earliest of these was a dulcimer, a closed shallow box over which stretched wires were struck with two wooden hammers. The dulcimer led to the development of the clavichord, which also appeared in the 14th century. These were followed by the spinet, virginal, clavecin, gravicembalo, and, finally, the harpsichord in the 15th century.

In 1709, a man named Bartolomeo Cristofori decided he had had enough. The Italian harpsichord maker devised a new instrument that hammered on to the string instead of plucking it, to create soft and loud tones. This invention created room for instrumental variance, and was named gravicembalo col piano e forte (roughly “soft and loud keyboard instrument”). After he showcased the early piano in Florence, the world couldn't get enough. Some 300 years later, the piano remains an essential element of music across the globe.

To compare the sound of the piano with its predecessors, check out the video below:

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