What is the difference between a piano and a keyboard?

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By Alec Coles-Aldridge

03 January 2020

Alec Coles-Aldridge looks into how different – or indeed how similar – keyboards and pianos really are

Sometimes, we use language that communicates effectively, yet when held in the light of careful scrutiny reveals a myriad of inaccuracy.

Take the word tea for example. This word is often used to describe drinks that actually include nothing from a tea plant; the most common culprit being peppermint tea.

And this same critical eye can be cast over the words piano and keyboard. Frequently, keyboard is used to mean a digital piano. Indeed, when the question, 'what is the best keyboard?' is asked in music shops, people are scarcely looking for a clavichord or spinet, despite these certainly being keyboards.

So, what exactly is the difference?

 

Keyboard is an umbrella term

The term can be used for any musical instrument with adjacent depressible keys.

The earliest known keyboard instrument is the Ancient Greek hydraulic. Invented by Ctesibius of Alexandria in the 3rd Century BC, the hydraulic is a type of pipe organ blown by air with water providing the power source. The Latin poet Claudius Claudianus described the hydraulic as capable of “thundering forth as he presses out mighty roarings with a light touch”.

 

Keyboards lead the way

Fast forward to 1360, and the first reference to a keyboard instrument using strings – the eschiquier – appears in the account books of John II of France. Soon, further keyboard instruments started being developed.

One of the earliest new arrivals was the clavichord, which is first mentioned in 1404. The clavichord is rectangular in shape with horizontal strings. The depression of a key causes a tangent (essentially a brass blade) to strike the string. Over the coming centuries, numerous additional keyboard instruments were created, including the virginal, spinet, harpsichord and clavicytherium.

One of the most bizarre of these new arrivals was the carillon, a set of bells played from a keyboard. The earliest record of the carillon was in 1510, and the instrument still exists today. Falling just behind the pipe organ, the carillon is the second heaviest musical instrument; the Riverside Church carillon weighing 91 tonnes!   

 

©Pax:Vobiscum

The keyboard of this clavichord is clearly visible

 

‘A different internal mechanism for creating the sound’

In 1700, the ground-breaking gravicembalo col piano e forte, commonly known as the piano, arrives. The instrument continued using the already established keyboard layout of depressible keys, but with a different internal mechanism for creating the sound.

 

Is a piano just a ‘descendent’ of the keyboard?

And here lies the answer to the difference between a piano and a keyboard. The piano, alongside a long list of other musical instruments, is a type of keyboard.

Since the invention of the piano, numerous additional keyboard instruments have been developed. The orphica, optigan, keytar and digital piano all arrived by the time of the 21st century. A full list of keyboard instruments would include over 40 varieties... only one of which is the piano!

 

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Main image: ©iStock