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Families of instruments: where do we place the piano?

Posted by Mariana Del Rosal on Jan 21, 2020 9:00:43 AM

Which category of instruments does the piano belong to? When it comes to classifying, everyone knows the traditional families of instruments. But hey, if you don’t, don’t feel bad, we’ll talk about that later! However, the piano is somehow a hybrid: it does have strings that produce the sound, but those strings are hammered in order to sound! In this article, we will explore the classical orchestral division of its instruments, go through the history of the piano. Then, we can try to decide whether it can be assigned to a single family of instruments based on its characteristics.

Classification of musical instruments

First things first: which are the families of instruments? You may have studied them at school a long time ago, so let’s remind them. Most of the orchestra instruments can be easily classified into families based on the way they make sounds. The most common categories are:

  • Woodwind
    (such as clarinet, oboe, or flute)
  • Brass
    (for example, trumpet, trombone, or tuba)
  • Bowed
    strings (violins, viola, cello)
  • Percussion
    (triangle, gong, xylophone)

Other families of instruments

Out of the orchestra, electronic instruments (which produce their sounds based on electricity) have gained importance for the past 80 years. Yes, 80 years we said since they became part of the Hornbostel–Sachs classification back in 1940.

Anyway, different cultures (such as Chinese) have created their own categorizations, and even western experts don’t agree on universal groups. Some classifications include more categories, such as the guitar family –different from the strings since they don’t use a bow- or the keyboard family. The last one includes –that’s right- the piano, solving our problem! But we won’t give up this easy and just claim the piano needs a whole new family for itself. Let’s go on exploring the possibilities this unique instrument offers.

Why would the piano be
a string instrument?

As we previously stated, some people consider the piano part of the string family. This is because, such as the piano, string instruments are made of wood. Their bodies are hollow, which allows the sound to vibrate within these instruments. At the same time, the part that produces the sound is the strings stretched between two points, which the musician can either pluck or play with a bow.

Ok, so our piano has strings (more than any other string instrument indeed) so if we based the classification on the means it makes the sound, putting it together with the string family sort of makes sense. However, if we consider the performance technique, it comes closer to another family of instruments.

Is the piano a percussion instrument?

According to Carlos Kalmar, music director of the Oregon Symphony, this is the largest family in the orchestra, since it includes any instrument that elicits sounds when hit, scraped, or shaken. Typical percussionists usually play different instruments in a single piece of music, and each of them requires specific abilities to make them sound with the proper intensity. Some percussion instruments are tuned and others are not, this means the first group produces different musical notes (think of a xylophone) while the second group has no pitch (just as cymbals).

Because pianists hit the 88 keys with their fingers to produce the many, many different sounds the piano has, it has been included many times among the percussion instruments. Each of the keys lifts a hammer inside the piano, which strikes a specific string.

The piano is unique

It may be a string instrument or a percussion instrument. Yet, there is much more about the piano! You can play many notes at the same time, and the sensitivity of the piano allows musicians to provide different intensity to each sound. Thanks to the pedals, the notes can last longer or shorter.

The piano is one of the most versatile instruments, and that is why it plays a huge role not only among the orchestra but in other musical genres as well: there is jazz piano, rock & roll, blues… where does this wonderful instrument come from?

The invention of the piano

The modern piano has a specific date, place, and inventor: Bartolomeo Cristofori built the first one between 1698 and 1700, in Padua (Italy). However, the piano was created based on other previous instruments: the harpsichord and the clavichord. They were popular instruments by the time the piano appeared.

In any case, neither of them provided the musician with the same control of the intensity and the duration the piano offers. In fact, the name of the piano (pianoforte in Italian) means that you can play the instrument at a normal level (piano) or in a louder volume (forte).

Other ancestries

But the keyboard instruments go way back! In fact, people played the organ during the Greek and Roman empires. The organ produces sound through air pipes, not strings.

On the other hand, another ancestry of the modern piano is the dulcimer, a Middle East instrument that Europe knew in the 11th century. It consists of a resonating box with stretched strings on top of it, which musicians would hit with a small hammer. This mechanism relates the piano with the percussion family, although it adds the black and white keyboard mediating between the performer and the hammer.

The piano, an
instrument of its own kind

As we can see, even from its origins the piano is a hybrid. It cannot be easily labeled either as a percussion instrument or a string instrument. It has aspects of both! And it is because of this complexity that the piano such an amazing instrument, one of the most popular in the world. There are many reasons while the piano is such a great instrument to play!

It is a great solo instrument, one that doesn’t need an orchestra to create amazingly complex pieces from many different times and genres. Composers usually play the piano since it allows the widest possible pitch range. This means you can write the parts of all the different orchestra instruments using the piano alone! That’s not all: even when someone pays it in an orchestra, the piano features many of the solo parts.

As it happens with most instruments, learning them while still young is better, but even adults can learn to play the piano as long as they get enough practice. Do you play the piano already? Are you looking forward to signing up for piano lessons?


Topics: Music Practice, Musical Instruments, Piano, Piano Lessons, History of Music, Music Lessons

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