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How a Piano Turns Waves Into Wagner

BY: Editors | Jul 10, 2015
How a Piano Turns Waves Into Wagner

In the diverse music landscape of Salt Lake City, concerts run the gamut from rock tours to world-class world music. At The Complex Salt Lake City, for one, audiences can see touring acts on four different venues, including a 21-and-over beer garden. But of all the musical events in Salt Lake City, none may be more spectacular than the performances of the Utah Symphony in their residency at Abravanel Hall. Along with the world-class strings, clarinets, and trumpets, the stage is commanded by the presence of the most familiar—and dramatic—of instruments: the piano.

Despite it being perhaps the most universal instrument, the piano may also be the most misunderstood. Read on to learn what happens beneath that ebony hood.

What’s in a Name?

As hinted by its black and white keys, the piano is a device of contradictions. Its name derives from pianoforte, a hybrid of Italian words meaning "soft" and "loud." More than 200 strings produce its sound, yet it’s classified as a percussion instrument. Outside, it is large and elegant; inside, it is delicate and complicated—the result of almost 9,000 moving parts working in tandem to amplify an almost silent vibration.

What Happens Inside

When the player presses a key:

  • A tiny wooden hammer, covered in felt, spring ups and hits a set of tensioned strings made of hard steel wire.
  • These strings then vibrate at a certain frequency.
  • A large, flat wooden board within the piano casing vibrates at the same frequency as the strings, converting the mechanical energy into a full, discernible sound.

When the player releases a key, a felt block called a damper presses against the string to absorb the vibration and silence the note before it wakes the audience asleep in the balcony.

Not As Easy As It Sounds

Despite the simple concept, a piano's mechanism presents several complicated problems. For instance, each string must be finely tightened to assume the correct frequency, which creates a lot of tension. in addition, the hammer must not only retreat from the string immediately, so as not to dampen the vibration, but also refrain from bouncing back and hitting it again.

Luckily, the solutions to the various technical issues came all at once—the result of the ingenuity of Bartolomeo Cristofori, an instrument maker appointed to the Grand Prince of Tuscany's court in 1688. No later than 1700, Cristofori arrived at his concept for an instrument dubbed arpi cimbalo del piano e' forte. Cristofori's design was so innovative and complex that subsequent inventors failed to find any easier alternative, and eventually the prototype pianoforte became the world standard. Modern pianos are big, too, in part because the total strings sustain an average of 20 tons of pressure, which requires a massive iron plate bolted to a heavy wooden frame to support.