Though the piano is one of the most popular instruments ever invented, few people actually know the name of the man who invented it. Everybody knows the name Henry Ford and even school kids know what Thomas Edison invented, but it’s puzzling why so few have ever heard of the man whose invention inspired such iconic composers as Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt (to name a few).  The man whose invention would change the world forever was an Italian harpsichord maker named Bartolomeo Cristofori.

early piano

The first pianos looked very different from modern pianos. They had no pedals, no cast iron plate and their keyboards were much shorter. These early pianos produced a narrow dynamic range and a much subdued “harpsichord-like” tone.

Bartolomeo was born in Padua, Italy in 1655. There is little record of him until, in 1688, when he began working for Prince Ferdinando de Medici, one of the most important and influential families in Tuscany. By then, Cristofori was already an experienced musical instrument maker and technician.  By the late 1680s, Cristofori’s job was to care for Ferdinando’s large (and ever-growing) collection of musical instruments.  Some historians point out that Ferdinando passed over a variety of other (very skilled) instrument makers and offered Cristofori a higher than usual salary because he wanted Cristofori to develop something special for his instrument collection. This may indicate that Cristofori was already an experienced inventor by the time the two men met.

History’s first reference of a piano is listed in the inventory of Ferdinando’s instruments collection from the year 1700. In Italian the entry reads as follows:

Un Arpicembalo di Bartolomeo Cristofori di nuova inventione, che fa’ il piano, e il forte, a due registri principali unisoni, con fondo di cipresso senza rosa…

Translated into English: An “Arpicembalo” by Bartolomeo Cristofori, of new invention that produces soft and loud, with two sets of strings at unison pitch, with soundboard of cypress without rose…”

Interestingly enough, the term “Arpicembalo” is an unusual term for the era that strictly translates to “harp-harpsichord” and may have indicated Cristofori’s chosen name for his invention.  …but, as with many things, the name changed over time due to subtle (and often lazy) changes in usage.  Initially, the phrase “che fa’ il piano, e il forte” (“produces soft and loud”) became the popular name for Cristofori’s instrument mostly likely due to the instrument’s unique ability to play both “piano” (soft) and “forte” (loud) – a feature that differentiated it from its harpsichord cousins.  For awhile, the instrument was called a “pianoforte” or “fortepiano” (terms that are still in use today to reference early ancestors of the modern piano) until, eventually, the word “forte” fell out of use and the instrument became widely known simply as “the piano.”

Thus, after over 300 years of development, the world’s most beloved instrument is called “the soft.”