There is a long history and even some prehistory to the piano. Other keyboard instruments existed, such as the virginal, the clavichord and, most famously, the harpsichord, long before the piano was conceived. Unfortunate, these tended to suffer limitations; the harpsichord produced sounds as a fixed volume no matter how hard of fast the performer played. The virginal only had a few octaves of range. These limitations restricted what music could be played or performed. It is frustrating to hear music performed by other instruments or groups that cannot be reproduced on the keyboard. The modern piano has only minor limitations here.
The first true piano emerged in Italy in 1709, conceived and built by Bartolomeo di Francesco Cristofori. It was capable of producing notes of considerable volume as well as extremely soft tones, on a keyboard with several octaves range. Pianos later acquired an even larger keyboard, and various improvements; at the same time the earliest piano is not that different to the acoustic pianos of today, some 300 years later.
A few other keyboard instruments are different to the piano. Though they also have a keyboard the playing experience and technique required are notably different. Some notable points are:
- A piano has a sustain pedal where a traditional organ does not. This means it is not possible to hold onto a note while moving to the next note. The fingering technique is therefore different with these instruments.
- A traditional organ has its volume controlled by a pedal. This means all the notes being played will sound at the same volume. A Piano, by comparison, can play loud and soft notes simultaneously.
- A synthesiser can bend notes with an extra control. This is one of the few forms of expression not possible on an acoustic piano.
Electronic and digital pianos have been steadily developing over the past few decades. Some of these sounded so different they were really alternatives to traditional acoustic pianos. Other electronic pianos could produce a reasonable facsimile of a piano sound, but lacked the expressive capabilities that made the piano so unique and desirable. It has only been in recent decades that digital versions of the piano could compete with general quality pianos, while also providing some of the facilities found on other keyboard instruments. Yet even with the ability to bend notes or record compositions directly most high end performances still use high end acoustic pianos, especially with older music specifically written for the instrument. It is almost impossible to find a music school that does not include a piano.
Piano lessons can be of great benefit even to those pursuing another instrument. The systematic layout of a keyboard allows a good perspective on where the notes stand relative to each other. The advanced understanding for experienced musicians taught in music schools often uses the piano, regardless of the style or instrument the individual student intendes to specialize in.