From Too Quiet to Just Right

In a recent piece I shared that piano is the musical word for quiet, and forte for loud, both from Italian like most musical words. The full name for the piano is pianoforte which means ‘quiet-loud’ because it can make sounds that are either quiet or loud depending on how its keys are played. When a player strikes more quickly, the sound will be louder. Conversely, a slower gesture will make a quieter sound.

This was revolutionary during the seventeenth century when the most popular keyboard instruments were varieties of organs //loud// and harpsichords //soft spoken//.

Photo by Elisabeth Swim. All Rights Reserved.

I recently attended a concert of Mercury orchestra playing Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #5, which has a sizable solo for the harpsichord. It was unforgettable, partly because we were in the famed Big Barn at the country-music hub Dosey Doe. The harpsichord is the shadowy horizontal instrument here (its front left leg and music stand are reflecting red light):

Even with the lid off its resonating chamber, which puts it at its very loudest, it was still sometimes nearly inaudible over flutes and bowed string instruments that enjoyed more volume control. Still, the performance dazzled and I wrote a poem thing about it:


The harpsichord is the most soft spoken rhythm section. Melodious tip-toe marking time in waves: undercurrent dissonant, consonant, dissonant, consonant buoying lyric lines of bowed strings and woodwinds until your hammers flutter into frenzy, a frothy cadenza.


What I did not know before the concert was that the harpsichord was originally played as an ensemble instrument, to provide steady tempo for other, more prominent instruments. It was the very concerto that inspired this poem that brought the harpsichord to center stage (literally!) as a solo instrument back in the early 1700s.

Smaller than the piano, the harpsichord is also a string instrument and its sounds are made by hammers that strike its strings upon pressure to corresponding keys. But the innovations made to create the pianoforte which we now know as the piano include larger strings and a larger resonating chamber than those of the harpsichord, as well as controls for how long a sound resonates. In a way, the piano presents the convenience and collaborative nature of the harpsichord (today we hear the piano with orchestral, jazz and chamber groups alike), as well as the volume and tonal range of the organ.

Photo by Elisabeth Swim. All Rights Reserved.

The pianoforte teaches my students countless transferable skills as they learn to play quiet and loud (digital instruments that are touch-sensitive are fine as well): Slow action required to play quietly teaches masterful fine motor skills; learning to play intentionally at different volumes helps critical listening skills. Paying attention to how different volumes of music make them feel helps with social referencing and mindfulness. It all adds up to better communication and increased self-confidence both at and beyond the keyboard.