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Is It a Piano, Pianoforte or Maybe a Harpsichord?


Three Names for Antique Instruments That Look Very Much Alike
Victorian Pianoforte Residing in The Queen Anne Mansion in Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Victorian Pianoforte Residing in The Queen Anne Mansion in Eureka Springs, Arkansas

- Photo Courtesy of The Queen Anne Mansion
What’s the difference between a piano and a pianoforte? And is the harpsichord really a piano? They’re all instruments with keyboards. But is that the only similarity?

Piano vs. Pianoforte

The name sounds familiar, but are they the same? The answer is yes. Piano is a shortened name for what by and large originated in Italy as the pianoforte.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the pianoforte was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori around 1700. He had been in charge of building and caring for the harpsichords (find out more about these instruments below) belonging to the Florentine court of Grand Prince Ferdinando de' Medici. "The poet and journalist Scipione Maffei, in his enthusiastic 1711 description, named Cristofori's instrument a 'gravicembalo col piano, e forte' ('harpsichord with soft and loud'), the first time it was called by its eventual name, pianoforte," reports the museum’s website.

The instrument Cristofori invented was described as "resembling a harpsichord … with hammers and dampers, two keyboards, and a range of four octaves." The action of his piano was “highly complex and thus expensive, causing many of its features to be dropped by subsequent eighteenth-century makers, and then gradually reinvented and reincorporated in later decades."

There are three known remaining Cristofori pianofortes in existence, and the oldest of the three resides in the museum's collection.

Today the term pianoforte is used sometimes to describe antique pianos marked as such, like the one shown above that resides in the Queen Anne Mansion in Eureka Springs, Ark. This Victorian example originated in London in the 1800s.

Where Does the Harpsichord Fit in?

Although the Harpsichord has a keyboard (sometimes two) and looks much like a piano, albeit a rather elongated version, it’s actually a different type of instrument due to the way it functions.

While a piano uses hammers and dampers to strike the strings within to make beautiful music, a harpsichord performs very differently. When the keys on a harpsichord are depressed, the strings are plucked rather than struck. The sound produced is very different for this reason. While smaller version may be known as a spinet, virginal or muselar, these are all forms of the same instrument.

The harpsichord was very popular in the 18th century until the pianoforte all but replaced it. Moving into the 19th century most homes of means contained a piano which was widely used for entertainment, including during holiday celebrations.

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