How the History of the Piano Inspires Me

Google's History of Piano Doodle Animated

Yesterday, Google celebrated Bartolomeo Cristofori as the inventor of the piano. You can see the “Doodle” here.

I love the history of the piano, and just how significant it was to the history of music. Before the piano, there were several types of hammered-string instruments like the dulcimer, harpsichord, and clavichord. The limitation of each was that the hammer that strikes each string was triggered by a mechanical process that meant that the force for which the hammer hit the string was always the same. That meant that the volume of the instrument was always the same.

Enter Bartolomeo Cristofori. He was a music-geek. He was a tinkerer. He was the guy that was always in his garage playing around with tools and wood and sounds and no one but him really understood what all that experimentation meant. In our day, that type of geekishness is finally celebrated again. People love the geek who takes off on her own for weeks on end, then shows up with something new and incredible that we never would have expected.

Cristofori was to the harpsichord what Todd Beauchamp was to the iPhone (that link right there is actually really worth reading). Cristofori decided that the harpsichord would be a much more effective musical instrument if it could play at whatever volume you like. Keep in mind, no one at that time knew what a harpsichord would sound like if played softly or overly loud. Also keep in mind that the harpsichord was wildly popular; all of Bach’s preludes were composed and performed on a harpsichord. The instrument may seem dated today, but at the time, it was the pinnacle of instrumentation.

Cristofori kept tinkering until he finally got a mechanism that allowed the hammer to swing less or more forcefully depending on nothing more than human touch. Software developers, take note. He didn’t introduce a any new keys, you didn’t have to do anything different than before. You could still play Bach as you always did, but now you can add the emotion of volume to it.

It’s like taking software from beta to version 2.0 overnight. It’s like taking a flip phone, and turning it into a personal computing device like an iPhone. It’s like taking a wheel, and turning it into a motorcycle.

What we call “piano” today, is a short form of the full name: “pianoforte” which basically just means softly and loudly, and where we get those words in music as well. If Steve Jobs had followed Cristofori’s lead on naming his new device, he probably wouldn’t have called it an iPhone, but the Handheld Internet Communicator.

It’s hard to imagine music at all today without the pianoforte, even if it’s just all the digitized versions that let you do crazy digital sound effects. It all started with Bartolomeo Cristofori.

Why Should You Care?

To me, this micro-history on something we all take for granted today, reminds me of the importance of being a life-long geek. But not in simply the nuts and bolts kind of way; more the life-hacker type.

Sometimes, you can look at an issue in your life and the flaw, or the lack is so obvious, but the solution is completely untouchable. Perhaps you look around at your life and you see a lack of social outings, or connection with friends. Maybe your ability to connect with your faith community is severely lacking. Each of these things might seem very obvious to you, but also obviously irreparable.

Life-geeks like Beauchamp and Cristofori don’t settle for one volume level. They don’t settle for surfacing relationships, monotonous work days, regretful personal habits. They look at their life and their actions and geek out on how approach them in new ways, with creative insight, and make minor adjustments over a long period until months or even years later they suddenly have a new result which is surprisingly and refreshingly revolutionary and they can’t imagine their lives any other way.

I’ve played the piano since I was 10. For much of my youth I was convinced that music and the piano would be my job in one way or another. As I was finishing up my BA in Music Education, I discovered that doing music as an obligation or responsibility took all the joy of it away from me. But that joy was really important to me. I couldn’t change my BA at that stage, but I could change my life-path. That small realization helped me decide to further my studies in Theology and later History.

Today, I’m very thankful that music is still a very significant tool I use for relaxation and reflection. If I hadn’t made that small life-hack in my early adult years, I’m not sure where I’d be today, but I fear that music would not be what it is to me today.

There’s a lot more that can be said about all the ways this micro-history is inspiring me at that moment. But this kind of topic really is about self-revelation or self-discovery. So rather than babble on, here’s some really inspiring writing (honestly, even the wikipedia writing is thought provoking when put in this context) to get you going.

Read These to Get Your Life-Hack on:

“Life Hacking” as a term is kind of a fad, but the practice is well known to history. This is great reading on the history of Life Hacking.

LifeHack.org can sometimes be very trite, but other times very profound. Either way, there’s TONS of resources here.

Read about How Todd Beauchamp stays creative, then email that link to your boss and say: “See! I need space to do nothing so that you’ll love what I do in the end!”

There’s this crazy wonderful seriously talented duo called Buke and Gass that will light all your creative thoughts on fire. They make their own instruments, and play and sing and drum all of them at the same time. You’ve never heard a duo sound this big and complex ever. This YouTube Playlist is a great wonderland for Lifehacking inspiration

All the things you take for granted about the piano, summed up in a technical, community-contributed document at Wikipedia.

A comprehensive look at the history of the “American” piano. The geekish attention in this is excellent. Perhaps not the best book on the subject in light of what we know today, but reading older history books themselves end up being a history exercise in themselves.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0How the History of the Piano Inspires Me by Matt Cromwell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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