30 October 2017
Royal College of Music student Alec Coles-Aldridge takes a look at why the piano is such a popular instrument in western music.
In the world of instrument design, Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731) is one of the most successful and influential individuals. The Italian instrument maker is regarded as the inventor of the piano, an instrument that now holds a central place in western music. Since the middle of the 18th century, pianos have featured in the works of many composers, either to help them write music or as the instrument that the music was written for.
Even for those with limited music training, the piano is a recognisable instrument. The trumpet may often be confused with the trombone or the clarinet with the oboe, but few incorrectly identify a piano. Indeed, the piano holds a prized position in western music as one of the most popular instruments. But beyond mere familiarity, why is the piano such a favoured instrument? Why is it that the piano is one of the most learnt instruments?
Alongside familiarity, harmony gives the piano a significant advantage over many other instruments. The ability to play complete chords gives an instant appeal. With the exception of a few musicians who are able to play multiphonics, instruments such as the tuba or the flute can generally only play a single line of music. The richness of a piano playing a simple root position chord is immediately attractive and a significant contributor to its popularity.
Of course, this is not exclusive to the piano with the harpsichord and clavichord also able to produce harmony, but familiarity is again set firmly in favour of the piano. The organ is another contender but, as an instrument rarely found outside a church, lessons and practice are somewhat difficult to organise.
Another fundamental quality of the piano is the comparatively quick progress that can be made by a complete novice. The trombone and violin take months- years even- to produce a mildly bearable sound but the percussive nature of the piano means a pleasurable sound can be produced instantly.
Ultimately, the piano is a discernibly popular instrument. People know how the piano sounds and they understand the basics behind the production of the sound. The ability to easily play multiple notes at once satisfies the desire of western musicians to hear harmony in their music. The piano can be an entire musical world, melody and harmony all on one instrument.
Copyright by Alec Coles-Aldridge. Alec is a student at the Royal College of Music studying for a Bachelor of Music Degree.