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The Development of the Piano

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours
/
SC Public Radio

The harpsichord, the keyboard workhorse of the Baroque period, is an instrument with a problem:  varying the touch on the keys has absolutely no effect on volume or tone quality.  Depress a key gently or pound on it, it doesn’t matter — the note will sound the same. 

But around 1700 a Florentine named Bartolomeo Cristofori invented a new instrument, the piano, whose strings were struck with cushioned hammers instead of plucked with quills. And the result was that volume and tone quality were now entirely determined by the player’s touch. Imagine: you could now get louder or softer gradually, you could make sudden changes in volume, and you could play softly with one hand and loud with the other, playing an accompaniment, for example, in the left hand, and a melody in the right. It’s no exaggeration to say that these new possibilities brought about stylistic developments that changed the entire course of music history.

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.