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The idea of fitting a keyboard to an instrument with strings which started to vibrate when struck by hammers, was probably conceived in the 14th or 15th century. However, for the next 250 years it would be the harpsichord, with plucked not struck strings, that would reign.

Bartolommeo Cristofori, a Paduan harpsichord maker, is credited with constructing the first piano or clavichord in 1709-1711. While the clavichord allowed expressive control of volume and sustain, it was too quiet for large performances. The harpsichord produced a sufficiently loud sound, but had little expressive control over each note. The piano was likely formed as an attempt to combine loudness with control, avoiding the trade-offs of available instruments.

Cristofori's great success was solving, with no prior example, the fundamental mechanical problem of piano design: the hammer must strike the string, but not remain in contact with it (as a tangent remains in contact with a clavichord string) because this would dampen the sound. Moreover, the hammer must return to its rest position without bouncing violently, and it must be possible to repeat a note rapidly. Cristofori's piano action was a model for the many different approaches to piano actions that followed. Cristofori's early instruments were made with thin strings, and were much quieter than the modern piano—but compared to the clavichord (the only previous keyboard instrument capable of dynamic nuance via the keyboard) they were much louder and had more sustain. The creation of an instrument that played both piano (quietly) and forte (loudly) became the Pianoforte – shortened to the Piano.

Piano-making flourished during the late 18th century in the Viennese school, which included Johann Andreas Stein (who worked in Augsburg, Germany) and the Viennese makers Nannette Streicher (daughter of Stein) and Anton Walter. Viennese-style pianos were built with wood frames, two strings per note, and had leather-covered hammers. Some of these Viennese pianos had the opposite coloring of modern-day pianos; the natural keys were black and the accidental keys white. It was for such instruments that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed his concertos and sonatas, and replicas of them are built today for use in authentic-instrument performance of his music. The pianos of Mozart's day had a softer, more ethereal tone than today's pianos or English pianos, with less sustaining power. The term fortepiano is nowadays often used to distinguish the 18th-century instrument from later pianos.

The Pianoforte’s popularity was huge during the Romantic era. The Piano as an Upright (invented to satisfactory standards) came about in 1800, and the modern Grand came into production in the mid 1800’s. Both produce melodic tunes in 7 octaves across the keyboard.

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