March 29 is a very special holiday for piano lovers: Piano Day! This worldwide event takes place on the 88th day of the year, a nod to the 88 keys on a standard piano.

Given the occasion, it is the perfect time to take a look at the marvelous evolution of the piano.

Before the Piano

Despite its classic black and white keys, the piano shares its roots with stringed instruments—vibrating strings producing tones at different tensions and lengths. But the piano owes its creation to the evolution of three instruments: the hammered dulcimer, the clavichord, and the harpsichord.

Hammered Dulcimer

The hammered dulcimer, a type of zither that uses small mallets called hammers to strike stretched wires, was likely invented around 900 in the Middle East. It was the first instrument to use strings, a soundboard, and hammers to produce musical tones.

The hammered dulcimer spread to other parts of the world; it was widely used throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and can still be heard in some modern folk music. You can find a variety of struck zithers throughout MIM’s Middle East, Asia, Europe, and United States / Canada Galleries. Some notable examples of struck zithers include the Hungarian tambal and Romanian cimbalom in the Europe Gallery, and a hammered dulcimer made by James A. MacKenzie in 1877 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which you can see in the Dulcimers exhibit in the United States / Canada Gallery.

Keyboard Instruments exhibit

The Keyboard Instruments exhibit in MIM’s Europe Gallery features distinctive instruments, such as a clavichord, spinet, and clavicytherium.


The dulcimer led to the development of the clavichord, which first appeared in the 14th century. The clavichord uses the same stringed components of the hammered dulcimer, but it incorporates a keyboard that triggers metal blades, called tangents, to strike the strings. Because clavichords were not loud enough for large performances, they were mostly used as practice instruments or for composition.

At MIM, you can see a clavichord made in Florence, Italy, around 1900 in the Keyboard Instruments exhibit in the Europe Gallery.


The clavichord was followed by the spinet, virginal, clavecin, gravicembalo, and, finally, the harpsichord during the Renaissance. The harpsichord also uses a keyboard, and pressing its keys activates a row of jacks that lift to pluck individual strings with a small plectrum made from quill or plastic.

Though the harpsichord is louder than the clavichord, its volume can not be varied. The strings are plucked with uniform volume no matter how hard or soft the player plays, and they are damped when the key is released.

One of MIM’s most treasured instruments is the 1584 Flemish single-manual harpsichord in MIM’s Europe Gallery. MIM acquired the harpsichord from the family of Frank Hubbard, a noted Boston-area specialist who restored the instrument. An illustration of the instrument graced the cover of Hubbard’s definitive 1965 book Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making. Detailed study and technical drawings of this harpsichord have served as the model for hundreds of carefully crafted re-creations sought by schools, ensembles, musicians, and collectors around the world.

Juvenal Correa-Salas plays MIM’s historic 1584 Flemish single-manual harpsichord.

The First Piano

The piano was born out of an attempt to enhance the harpsichord’s expressive possibilities. Invented in Padua, Italy, by renowned harpsichord maker Bartolomeo Cristofori in the 1700s, the piano was initially called the gravicembalo col piano e forte, or “harpsichord that plays soft and loud.” The name referred to the instrument’s ability to change its volume according to the pressure on the keys—an important feature not found on harpsichords. Eventually, the name was shortened to fortepiano or pianoforte, and then, finally, piano. Though the piano gradually made its mark during the 18th century, it was the go-to keyboard instrument by the early 1800s.

Little is known about Cristofori’s life, but the few surviving examples of his work provide evidence that he refined the design of the piano over the years. Most notably, Cristofori’s pianos were responsive and featured a wide dynamic range that let players express nuances in their music like never before.

Three of Cristofori’s pianos survive today. They can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Museum of Musical Instruments in Germany, and the Museum of Musical Instruments in Italy.

Steinway & Sons Pianos

Though many remarkable and acclaimed piano makers followed in Cristofori’s footsteps, one of the most famous is Steinway & Sons, which was born in Germany and perfected in the United States.

In 1836, Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg completed his first fortepiano in the kitchen of his house in Stessen, Germany. He had to work on the instrument in secrecy, as he was only permitted to repair instruments in his workshop. Commonly referred to as the “kitchen piano,” this historic instrument is on display in MIM’s Steinway exhibit, giving you the chance to look at the piano that started the Steinway legacy.

In 1850, Steinweg immigrated to America with his sons to pursue his passion for creating a more perfect piano. Three years later, he changed his name to Henry E. Steinway and officially founded Steinway & Sons.

The Steinway exhibit in MIM’s United States / Canada Gallery presents the company’s origin story and highlights the craftsmanship of its top-tier instruments. The exhibit also features a deconstructed Steinway, letting you see the thousands of parts that go into a modern grand piano.

Steinway exhibit

MIM’s Steinway exhibit, featuring a deconstructed piano, a modern grand piano, and the first piano made by Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg in 1836. Loans courtesy of Steinway & Sons.

Steinway Pianos in American History

Steinways have cemented their reputation as some of America’s finest instruments. The pianos have been integral to special occasions and historic events in the White House, concert halls, and war zones.

G.I. Piano exhibit

A well-maintained “Victory Vertical” piano is the centerpiece of MIM’s G.I. Piano exhibit in the United States / Canada Gallery. Piano loan courtesy of Steinway & Sons–America.

In 1938, the 300,000th Steinway was presented to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on behalf of the Steinway family. The instrument was meant to replace the 100,000th Steinway, which was given to the White House in 1903.

During World War II, Steinway & Sons parachuted about 2,500 specially designed upright pianos, known as “Victory Verticals,” to American soldiers. These pianos were built to handle extreme conditions, and soldiers used them to lift spirits during the war. You can see an immaculate example of these pianos, painted army green, on display at the G.I. Piano exhibit in MIM’s United States / Canada Gallery.

Many of Steinway’s pianos are still handcrafted in the United States, carrying on a 170-year-old tradition. If you’ve ever wondered how a Steinway feels—and sounds—try playing the beautiful Model B grand piano in El Río during your next visit!

Pianos and Technology

The marriage of technology and pianos has yielded a variety of unique keyboard instruments, such as mechanical pianos, electric pianos, and synthesizers.

Mechanical pianos

Player pianos gave people a way to have a self-playing piano in the home during the mid-20th century. Composers used a special arranging piano to punch individual notes of songs onto a master roll. The roll would then be used to trigger full songs on a player piano.

You can get a closer look at these interesting instruments in MIM’s Mechanical Music Gallery. Today, self-playing pianos use digital technology to trigger the notes. MIM has a great example of one of these modern self-playing pianos that is sometimes available to see inside MIM’s Music Theater.

Electric pianos

Though there have been many successful electric pianos, the Fender Rhodes is perhaps the most iconic. Like a conventional piano, the Rhodes uses keys and hammers to make sound, but the hammers don’t strike strings. Instead, the hammers strike thin metal tines, which vibrate next to an electromagnetic pickup. The signal is sent through a cable to an external amplifier and speaker.

You can see a Fender Rhodes that was owned and played by Grammy-winning musician Chick Corea in our Artist Gallery.

Chick Corea’s exhibit in MIM’s Artist Gallery

Chick Corea’s exhibit in MIM’s Artist Gallery showcases three of his electric keyboard instruments, including his Fender Rhodes electric piano. Gift of the Robert J. Ulrich and Diane Sillik Fund.


Synthesizers don’t use any acoustic mechanisms—no hammers, strings, or tines—to generate sounds. Instead, when a key is pressed, it generates an electrical signal that’s turned into musical sound.

At MIM, you can see several synthesizers, including the Coupland Digital Synthesizer, which was invented by Rick Coupland in Phoenix in the 1970s. Coupland grew up playing the piano and dreamed of a keyboard instrument that could play any sound he imagined. In the early 1970s, he developed one of the first fully digital synthesizers. It offered touch-sensitive controls that could modify dozens of parameters of sound, in real time, while the player was playing.

Though the Coupland Digital Synthesizer never went into production, many of its fundamental technologies and concepts later became standard features of popular, affordable synths from major manufacturers. The original prototype, now on display at MIM’s Electronic Music exhibit in the United States / Canada Gallery, was a fascinating prediction of music’s digital future.

The original Coupland Digital Synthesizer prototype

The original Coupland Digital Synthesizer prototype, on display at MIM’s Electronic Music exhibit, provides a rare look at one of the earliest instruments of its kind. Gift of Rick and Cordy Coupland.

More Pianos at MIM

Next time you’re at MIM, keep an eye out for these pianos, too!

  • An 1889 Erard grand piano and Prince’s purple Yamaha grand piano (Rediscover Treasures special exhibition, Target Gallery)
  • Roberta Flack’s 1922 Steinway Model A grand piano (Artist Gallery)
  • An 1850 Chickering grand piano and 1853 Chickering square piano (Domestic Music exhibit, United States / Canada Gallery)
  • A 1789 Broadwood square piano (England exhibit, Europe Gallery)
  • A c. 1826 Tischner grand piano built for Tsar Nicholas I (Russia exhibit, Europe Gallery)
  • A c. 1832 Jean-Henri Pape grand piano (France exhibit, Europe Gallery)
  • An 1886 Steinway Model C grand piano (Upper El Río, outside Europe Gallery)

While you’re here, see if you can spot the incredible variety of dulcimers, harpsichords, digital pianos, synthesizers, and more in our galleries.

Celebrate Piano Day with our curated Spotify playlist, which features a diverse selection of beautiful piano music!

Top banner image:
The Steinway Model B grand piano in El Río.
Loan courtesy of Steinway Piano Showroom of Arizona and Steinway & Sons, New York