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What's that sound?

What’s the difference between a piano and a pianoforte? And is the harpsichord really a piano? Obviously, these are all instruments with keyboards and strings within. But is that trait the only similarity?

Piano Versus Pianoforte

The name sounds similar, sure, but are they the same type of musical instrument? The answer is yes. Piano is simply 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 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."

The true forerunner to the piano, however, is the dulcimer rather than the harpsichord.

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

Today the term pianoforte is used sometimes to describe antique pianos marked as such.

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