Why is a Piano Called a Piano?
Thursday, July 12, 2018 by Trevor Eisenman | Word History
The piano is said to be the most well-known and recognized instrument in the United States. But do you know why it is called a piano?
Most any musician will be able to tell you “piano” means soft in Italian. Well, ask any piano mover about pianos, and they will tell you a piano is anything but soft! They are big, heavy and made out of all kinds of wood - not Egyptian cotton. So why isn’t it called an “enormo-chord” or a “colossal-keyboard”?
Turns out, “piano” is the super-shortened name. The full name was pretty long: gravicembalo col piano e forte, or "harpsichord with soft and loud" ( this was back in the 1700’s), so “pianoforte” became the short name. In Italian, pianoforte translates literally to “soft-loud.” Eventually, as the piano evolved, the last half of the name was dropped off, but the instrument was still able to be loud and soft depending on the touch of the musician. This very practical name helped set apart the instrument from its ancestor, the harpsichord.
The harpsichord looks much like a piano, but the strings are plucked by a mechanism attached to the keys. So although the harpsichord look similar, the harpsichord is kind of like a table-top guitar and the piano is more like a percussion instrument. But due to this plucking action, the harpsichord was unable to play loudly or softly - it just had a consistent loudness. Not very dynamic! The pianoforte was able to be soft AND loud, which set it apart from earlier instruments.
Piano is an excellent foundational instrument for any musician, young or old! We have students as young as 3 or 4 who start with piano. Because the piano doesn’t require a lot of strength (unlike wind instruments such as trumpet or saxophone), and playing in tune doesn’t require extra skill (such as violins do), anyone can learn to play a song quickly. So it’s more fun! Learning music theory on a piano can usually be translated to another instrument so the investment of time is well worth it.
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