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How the piano got its name

I always enjoy telling the story of how the piano got its name. Piano means “soft,” in Italian, and it seems a little strange that an instrument that can weigh almost a thousand pounds and compete in volume with a symphony orchestra should be called a “soft.” Well we have to start with the piano’s predecessor, the harpsichord, or gravicembalo, in Italian. The strings of a harpsichord are plucked, not struck, and no matter how hard, or how softly, you press the keys, the sound volume stays the same. But in about 1700 an Italian named Bartolomeo Cristofori invented a keyboard instrument with little hammers that strike the strings, and now by varying your touch on the keys you could vary the volume. Cristofori called his instrument the gravicembalo col’ piano e forte – the “harpsichord with soft and loud.” Eventually this lengthy name got shortened to pianoforte, and from there it was just a short step to “piano” all by itself.

A Minute with Miles is a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.

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Miles Hoffman is the founder and violist of the American Chamber Players, with whom he regularly tours the United States, and the Virginia I. Norman Distinguished Visiting Professor of Chamber Music at the Schwob School of Music, in Columbus, Georgia. He has appeared as viola soloist with orchestras across the country, and his solo performances on YouTube have received well over 700,000 views.