Some notes about the sound files that accompany

“The Invention and Evolution of the Piano” by N. Giordano

I have selected several sound files that contain snippets of some well-known music to illustrate aurally the differences between an early piano and a modern one. The pieces of music and the instrument that produced the different sound files are as follows. More details on the recordings from which the sound files were taken are given at the end of this document.

File name Music Type of piano
Scarlatti early piano 1 Scarlatti sonata K 209 Cristofori copy
Scarlatti early piano 2

Scarlatti sonata K 513 Cristofori copy
Scarlatti modern piano 1

Scarlatti sonata K 209 modern piano
Scarlatti modern piano 2

Scarlatti sonata K 513 modern piano
Mozart early piano 1

allegro movement, Mozart sonata K545 copy of c. 1790 piano
Mozart early piano 2

andante movement, Mozart sonata K545 copy of c. 1790 piano
Mozart modern piano 1

allegro movement, Mozart sonata K545 modern piano
Mozart modern piano 2

andante movement, Mozart sonata K545 modern piano

It is perhaps most remarkable that the early and modern instruments sound so much alike. As discussed in my article, the strings differ in tension by nearly an order of magnitude, and the hammer coverings are completely different (leather versus felt). Other important differences that were not discussed in the article are the thickness of the soundboard (which I will comment on below), and the fact that early pianos had a bottom that formed a cavity beneath the soundboard that acted as a Helmholtz resonator. Despite these and other differences, the two kinds of instruments certainly sound a lot alike.

When listening to the sound files I suggest that you pay attention to several differences in the sounds from the early and modern instruments.

(1) The tones of the early pianos are much more staccato-like. Intuitively one might suspect that this is due to hammers that are “harder.” This is certainly a factor, but a more important difference is that the early pianos had thinner soundboards. This meant that they were relatively more compliant so energy was transmitted more rapidly from the strings to the soundboard and then into sound, which makes the sound to decay more rapidly.

(2) Careful attention to the early pianos reveals the double decay of the amplitude of a given tone that was mentioned in the article. This is also present in the tones from the modern piano and can be heard most clearly in the longer tones.

(3) The tones of the early pianos are more resonant due to Helmholtz resonator formed by the soundboard and the sides and bottom of the case.

Sources of the Sound Examples

Scarlatti examples

Cedille Records, Scarlatti on Fortepiano, CDR 90000 042
Played by David Schrader on a copy of Cristofori’s 1726 piano (the one now in Leipzig, Germany) by David Sutherland

File names:
Scarlatti early piano 1: Scarlatti sonata in A major K 209
Scarlatti early piano 2: Scarlatti sonata in C major K 513

———–

Naxos, Scarlatti, D.: Keyboard Sonatas (Complete), Vol. 2., B000QQPEOA
Played by Michael Lewin on a modern piano

File name:

Scarlatti modern piano 1: Scarlatti sonata in A major K 209

——-

Decca Music Group Limited, Scarlatti: Keyboard Sonatas, B0015S58OE
Played by Andras Schiff on a modern piano.

File name:

Scarlatti modern piano 2: Scarlatti sonata in C major K 513

——————-

Mozart examples

Hungaroton Classic, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Sonatas Vol. III, Malcolm Bilson, fortepiano, HCD31013-14
Played by Malcom Bilson on a fortepiano made by Paul McNulty, Amsterdam, in 1989, after an instrument built by Anton Walter, Vienna, c. 1790

File names:

Mozart early piano 1: Mozart sonata No. 16 in C major K. 545. Allegro
Mozart early piano 2: Mozart sonata No. 16 in C major K. 545. Andante

——–

EMI Classics, Mozart, The Piano Sonatas, Catalog #67294

Played by Daniel Barenboim on a modern piano, presumably on a Steinway concert grand piano (The instrument is not specified in the liner notes but Barenboim is a Steinway artist so it is reasonable to assume that this is a Steinway instrument.)

File names:

Mozart modern piano 1: Mozart Piano Sonata #16 In C major, K 545 – 1. Allegro
Mozart modern piano 2: Mozart_Piano Sonata #16 In C major, K 545 – 1. Andante