From Too Loud to Just Right

Have you ever wondered how the piano got its name? Piano is the musical word for quiet, from Italian like most musical words. But why would a musical instrument be called ‘quiet,’ especially one that is as loud as the piano?

Forte is the musical word for loud and the full name of the piano was originally pianoforte or ‘quiet-loud’. When we consider the other keyboard instruments that were available in 17th-century Europe, this begins to make sense. There were loud ones and quiet ones, but nothing in between!

If you have ever heard a pipe organ in a church, you know how loud it can be. Sound is made by air pumped mechanically through reeds or pipes that are usually installed near rafters of resonant wood or stone spaces. There is really no way to play a pipe organ quietly. Its robust vibrations help to accompany hymns for a congregation, inspiring even the most shy to sing along.

Some pipe organs like the Cavalle-Coll at the Church of St. Sulpice in Paris can be almost overwhelming as you hear here. You can see its keyboard consoles and a master musician up close here.

The piano was created, like the organ, to replace a full orchestra as needed. But unlike the organ, the piano can play notes that are either quiet or loud depending on how a player strikes a key. My students learn that when they play a piano key slowly (that is, the individual gesture to play it is slow), its sound will be quiet (piano). Playing a piano key quickly will make a loud sound (forte).

Digital keyboards that are touch-sensitive, which means the keys will respond at different volumes when played at different speeds, are great for learning this as well.