What is a Piano? A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding the Basics

The piano is a musical instrument that has captivated audiences for centuries with its rich, dynamic sound. It is a complex and versatile instrument that is capable of producing a wide range of tones and sounds, making it a favorite among musicians of all genres. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the basics of the piano, from its history and construction to its playing techniques and styles. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced musician, this guide will provide you with a solid foundation for understanding and appreciating the beauty of the piano. So, let’s dive in and discover the magic of this incredible instrument!

What is a Piano?

Definition of a Piano

An acoustic piano is a musical instrument that produces sound through the mechanical vibration of strings, which are struck by hammers when the keys are pressed. The sound is amplified by the piano’s soundboard and resonates through the air.

Acoustic pianos come in two main types: grand pianos and upright pianos. Grand pianos have a horizontal soundboard and strings that are longer than those of upright pianos, which gives them a richer and more resonant sound. Upright pianos, on the other hand, have a vertical soundboard and shorter strings, making them more compact and affordable.

Digital pianos, on the other hand, use electronic components to generate sound, rather than strings and hammers. They can simulate the sound of various types of acoustic pianos and offer additional features such as headphones for silent practice and built-in metronomes to help with rhythm practice. Digital pianos can be more affordable than acoustic pianos and are often used in schools and other institutions where multiple pianos are needed.

History of the Piano

Invention of the Piano

The piano was invented in the early 18th century by Bartolomeo Cristofori, an Italian instrument maker. He created the first piano as a result of his interest in creating a new type of keyboard instrument that could produce a variety of musical tones. The first pianos were made with strings that were plucked by small hammers, which allowed for a greater dynamic range than other keyboard instruments of the time.

Evolution of the Piano

Over the years, the piano underwent many changes and improvements. The German piano maker, Steinway, developed the “Steinway action” in the early 19th century, which allowed for greater control over the sound and enabled pianists to play with more precision. The “Steinway action” quickly became the standard for all pianos and remains so to this day.

In the mid-19th century, the famous French piano maker, Pleyel, developed the “Pleyel action,” which further improved the control and responsiveness of the instrument. This led to the development of the “Pleyel model” piano, which became very popular among professional pianists.

Throughout the 20th century, advancements in technology and materials led to significant changes in the design and construction of pianos. Today, there are many different types of pianos available, each with its own unique characteristics and features.

Parts of a Piano

Key takeaway: A piano is a musical instrument that produces sound through the mechanical vibration of strings, which are struck by hammers when the keys are pressed. Acoustic pianos come in two main types: grand pianos and upright pianos. Digital pianos, on the other hand, use electronic components to generate sound. To play a piano, one must understand the basics of notes and octaves, and develop proper technique through finger exercises and sight-reading. Regular maintenance and care, including cleaning and tuning, can help prevent damage to the instrument. Different types of pianos are available, including grand pianos, steel-frame pianos, and toy pianos. Famous pianists and composers include Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Liszt, Arthur Rubinstein, Martha Argerich, and Lang Lang. There are various resources available for learning the piano, including online platforms such as Virtual Piano, Piano Marvel, and Flowkey, as well as offline resources such as piano method books and private lessons.

Internal Components

A piano’s internal components are the mechanisms that allow it to produce sound when the keys are pressed. These components include the action, soundboard, strings, and frame.


The action is the part of the piano that transfers the energy from the player’s fingers to the strings. It consists of a series of levers and hammers that strike the strings when the keys are pressed. The action is an essential component of the piano, as it determines the touch and feel of the instrument.


The soundboard is the large, flat board that extends from the back of the piano. It is made of spruce or maple and is responsible for amplifying the sound produced by the strings. When the hammers strike the strings, the soundboard vibrates, producing a rich, resonant tone.


The strings are the heart of the piano. They are made of high-tension steel wire, copper wire, or a combination of both. There are usually 230 strings in a standard acoustic piano, with each string producing a specific pitch. The strings are anchored to a metal plate called the “plate” and are stretched over a cast-iron frame called the “plate frame.”


The frame is the structural support of the piano. It is made of cast iron and is designed to withstand the tension of the strings. The frame also serves as a mounting point for the soundboard and the action. It is an essential component of the piano, as it ensures that the instrument remains stable and durable over time.

External Components


The keyboard is the most recognizable part of a piano. It consists of 88 keys, which are arranged in groups of black and white. The keys are played with the fingers and produce sound when struck by hammers inside the piano. The keyboard is also called the “action” of the piano, and it is what gives the instrument its distinctive sound.


There are typically three pedals on a piano, each with a specific function. The left pedal, called the “soft pedal” or “una corda pedal,” is used to muffle the sound and produce a softer, more delicate tone. The middle pedal, called the “sustain pedal,” is used to sustain the notes being played and give them a fuller, richer sound. The right pedal, called the “loud pedal” or “damper pedal,” is used to lift the dampers off the strings, allowing the notes to resonate freely and producing a louder, more powerful sound.


The case of a piano is the outer shell that houses the internal components of the instrument. It is typically made of wood and is designed to protect the delicate mechanisms inside the piano while also providing a resonant chamber for the sound to develop. The case may be decorated with various designs and patterns, and it often serves as a visual focal point in a room. The lid of the piano can be opened or closed to adjust the sound, as the position of the lid affects the resonance of the instrument.

How to Play a Piano

Basic Concepts

Notes and Octaves

The piano is an instrument that is played by pressing keys that are arranged in rows on the keyboard. Each key corresponds to a specific note, and the distance between the keys corresponds to the pitch of the note. The notes on the piano are arranged in octaves, with each octave containing seven white keys and five black keys.

Reading Sheet Music

To read sheet music, it is important to understand the layout of the staff. The staff consists of five lines and four spaces, and each line and space represents a different note. The notes on the staff are arranged in ascending order from bottom to top, and the notes on the same line or space are called an octave. The sheet music also includes the timing of the notes, which is indicated by the length of the note and the shape of the note head.

Scales and Chords

Scales are a series of notes played in a specific order, and they form the basis of most melodies. There are many different scales, including major and minor scales, and each scale has its own unique sound. Chords are a group of three or more notes played at the same time, and they create a harmony that supports the melody. Chords can be major, minor, or diminished, and they can be played in different inversions to create different harmonies.

Proper Technique

Playing the piano with proper technique is essential for achieving accuracy, precision, and musicality in one’s performance. Developing good habits from the beginning is crucial to prevent injury and ensure a smooth, effortless playing experience.

Hand Positioning

Hand positioning is a fundamental aspect of proper piano technique. Each finger should be placed directly on the key, with the knuckles aligned in a straight line. The wrists should remain relaxed and in a neutral position, with minimal movement. It is important to avoid curling the fingers or overextending the wrists, as this can lead to tension and strain.

Finger Exercises

Finger exercises are a vital component of developing proper technique. These exercises help to build strength, flexibility, and dexterity in the fingers and hands. They also improve coordination and overall control over the instrument. Common finger exercises include scales, arpeggios, and trills, which can be practiced in various ways to target specific aspects of technique.


Sight-reading is the ability to play a piece of music without prior preparation. This skill is essential for performers, as it allows them to quickly and accurately play unfamiliar pieces. Developing sight-reading skills involves practicing reading sheet music, identifying patterns and rhythms, and developing muscle memory. Regular sight-reading practice can also help to improve overall technique, as it requires a combination of hand positioning, finger dexterity, and musicality.

Piano Maintenance and Care

Cleaning and Tuning

Cleaning and tuning are essential components of piano maintenance that contribute significantly to the instrument’s longevity and overall performance. Here are some details on how to clean and tune your piano:

Dusting and Wiping

Regular dusting and wiping of the piano’s exterior are necessary to prevent the buildup of dust and dirt, which can damage the finish and attract pests. Use a soft, dry cloth to gently wipe down the surface of the piano, paying particular attention to the keys, keyboard cover, and the area around the pedals. Avoid using liquids or harsh chemicals, as they can damage the finish or sealants.

Humidity Control

Maintaining the appropriate humidity level in the room where the piano is located is crucial to prevent damage to the wood and soundboard. Extreme changes in humidity can cause the wood to expand or contract, leading to cracks and other structural damage. Ideally, the relative humidity in the room should be maintained between 40% and 60%. You can use a hygrometer to monitor the humidity level and a humidifier or dehumidifier to adjust it as needed.

Tuning Schedule

Regular tuning is essential to ensure that the piano remains in good condition and sounds its best. The recommended tuning schedule for a piano depends on the amount of use it gets and the environment it is in. As a general rule, a piano should be tuned at least twice a year, but more frequently if it is used regularly or if the environment is very humid or dry. A professional piano tuner can help you determine the appropriate tuning schedule for your instrument.

In addition to cleaning and tuning, there are other maintenance tasks that you can perform on your piano, such as regulating the action and voicing the hammers. These tasks should be performed by a professional tuner, as they require specialized tools and expertise.

Preventing Damage

Maintaining a piano requires not only regular tuning but also proper handling to prevent damage. Here are some tips to help you protect your piano:

Proper Handling

  • Always use the proper touch when playing the piano. Avoid using excessive force or leaning on the keys, as this can cause damage to the mechanisms inside.
  • When moving the piano, make sure to use a dolly or piano mover to avoid scratches and dents.

Avoiding Extreme Temperatures and Humidity

  • Extreme temperatures and humidity levels can cause damage to the wooden parts of the piano, such as the soundboard and the frame.
  • Avoid placing the piano near heating or cooling vents, direct sunlight, or sources of moisture.
  • Keep the room temperature and humidity levels stable to ensure the longevity of the instrument.

Regular Inspection

  • Regular inspection by a professional technician can help identify any potential issues before they become major problems.
  • Check for any signs of wear and tear, such as sticky keys or loose tuning pins.
  • Keep the piano clean by dusting the exterior and wiping away any spills or splashes.

By following these simple tips, you can help prevent damage to your piano and ensure that it remains in good condition for years to come.

Piano Styles and Types

Grand Pianos

Grand pianos are the epitome of elegance and sophistication in the world of pianos. They are characterized by their horizontal design and are considered the gold standard in piano making.

Features of Grand Pianos

  • Vertical strings: The strings in a grand piano are vertical, which allows for more length and a longer vibration. This results in a richer and more resonant sound.
  • Steep string angle: The steep angle of the strings in a grand piano means that the hammers have a longer distance to travel to strike the strings, which creates a more powerful sound.
  • Bolder bass: The larger body of a grand piano means that the bass notes are louder and more resonant.
  • Greater dynamic range: The horizontal design of a grand piano allows for a greater dynamic range, which means that pianists can play both soft and loud notes with more precision.

Types of Grand Pianos

  • Concert Grand Pianos: These are the largest and most expensive type of grand pianos. They are used in concert halls and professional settings.
  • Baby Grand Pianos: These are smaller than concert grand pianos but still offer a rich and powerful sound. They are popular among professional pianists and serious amateurs.
  • Upright Pianos: These are the most common type of grand pianos. They are smaller and more affordable than baby grand pianos and are often used in homes and schools.

Overall, grand pianos are the ultimate choice for pianists who seek the highest quality sound and performance. Their horizontal design and vertical strings allow for a richer and more resonant sound, and their larger size allows for a greater dynamic range. Whether you are a professional pianist or a serious amateur, a grand piano is the perfect choice for anyone who wants to experience the ultimate in piano performance.

Steel-Frame Pianos

Steel-frame pianos are a type of piano that feature a steel frame instead of the traditional wooden frame. The use of steel in the construction of these pianos provides them with a number of advantages, including increased durability and stability.

Player Pianos

Player pianos are a type of steel-frame piano that are designed to be self-playing. These pianos use a system of pins and hammers to automatically play a pre-programmed piece of music. Player pianos are often used in situations where it is not possible or practical to have a live performer, such as in department stores or other public spaces.

Silent Pianos

Silent pianos are another type of steel-frame piano. These pianos are designed to be played silently, using headphones, so that the player can practice without disturbing others. Silent pianos are often used in music schools or in the homes of professional musicians who want to practice regularly without disturbing others.

Hybrid Pianos

Hybrid pianos are a unique blend of acoustic and digital technology. They offer the best of both worlds, providing the authentic feel and sound of an acoustic piano, along with the convenience and versatility of a digital instrument. In this section, we will delve deeper into the different types of hybrid pianos available in the market today.

Digital Pianos with Built-in Acoustic Piano Features

One type of hybrid piano is the digital piano that has been designed to replicate the feel and sound of an acoustic piano. These digital pianos are equipped with weighted keys that provide resistance, just like the keys on an acoustic piano. They also include a range of built-in sounds, such as electric pianos, organs, and strings, making them a versatile option for any musician.

Pianos with Physical Strings and Digital Sound Generation

Another type of hybrid piano is the one that has physical strings, but the sound is generated digitally. These pianos offer the authentic feel of playing on a traditional acoustic piano, with the added benefit of digital technology. The digital sound generation allows for a wider range of sounds and features, such as headphone usage and volume control, which are not available on traditional acoustic pianos.

Both types of hybrid pianos offer a unique solution for musicians who want the authentic feel of an acoustic piano, but also require the convenience and versatility of a digital instrument. Whether you are a beginner or a professional musician, a hybrid piano can provide you with the best of both worlds, allowing you to enjoy the full range of musical possibilities.

Toy Pianos

Toy pianos are miniature keyboard instruments that are designed for children. They are typically smaller in size and have fewer keys than standard pianos. Toy pianos are often made of plastic and are less expensive than other types of pianos.


Accordions are a type of toy piano that are popular in some countries. They are typically small and portable, and have a squeezebox-like design. Accordions are played by pressing buttons or keys, which cause the instrument to produce sound.

Miniature Keyboard Instruments

Miniature keyboard instruments are another type of toy piano. They are designed to be small and portable, and are often battery-powered. Miniature keyboard instruments may have as few as 12 keys, and are typically played by pressing buttons or keys. They are often marketed as toys for young children.

Famous Pianists and Composers

Piano Legends

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven, a German composer and pianist, was born in 1770 and died in 1827. He is considered one of the most influential composers in the history of classical music. Beethoven’s works span various musical genres, including symphonies, concertos, sonatas, and operas. His most famous works include Symphony No. 9 in D minor, “Choral,” and Piano Sonata No. 14 in C minor, “C minor.”

Beethoven’s musical style was characterized by his innovative use of harmony, rhythm, and form. He was known for his ability to convey powerful emotions through his music, and his works often reflected his personal struggles with deafness. Beethoven’s influence on classical music is still felt today, and his works continue to be performed and studied by musicians around the world.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, an Austrian composer and pianist, was born in 1756 and died in 1791. He is considered one of the greatest composers in the history of classical music, and his works include symphonies, operas, and piano music. Mozart’s most famous works include Symphony No. 40 in G minor, “Gmin,” and Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major.

Mozart’s musical style was characterized by his use of complex harmonies, intricate rhythms, and elegant melodies. He was a prolific composer, and his works showcased his exceptional technical skill and creativity. Mozart’s influence on classical music is evident in the works of many later composers, including Beethoven and Chopin.

Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt, a Hungarian composer and pianist, was born in 1811 and died in 1866. He was a virtuoso pianist and a pioneering composer of the Romantic era. Liszt’s works include piano music, symphonic poems, and operas. His most famous works include “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” and “Transcendental Etudes.”

Liszt’s musical style was characterized by his use of chromatic harmony, dissonance, and complex rhythms. He was known for his technical mastery of the piano, and his works often showcased his exceptional virtuosity. Liszt’s influence on classical music is still felt today, and his works continue to be performed and studied by pianists around the world.

Modern Pianists

Arthur Rubinstein

Arthur Rubinstein, a Polish-American pianist, was born in 1887 and passed away in 1982. He was regarded as one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, known for his expressive and poetic interpretations of Chopin and other Romantic composers. Rubinstein performed extensively throughout his life, making numerous recordings and appearing as a soloist with leading orchestras around the world. He also conducted orchestras and was a dedicated educator, teaching masterclasses and serving as a mentor to younger musicians.

Martha Argerich

Martha Argerich, an Argentine pianist, was born in 1941 and is still active today. She is widely regarded as one of the most important pianists of the 20th century, known for her highly individual and imaginative interpretations of a wide range of repertoire. Argerich has won numerous awards and competitions, including the International Chopin Piano Competition, the Tchaikovsky International Competition, and the Grammy Awards. She has also recorded extensively, leaving behind a legacy of outstanding performances that continue to inspire pianists and audiences alike.

Lang Lang

Lang Lang, a Chinese pianist, was born in 1982 and is one of the most celebrated pianists of our time. He rose to international fame in the early 2000s, captivating audiences with his charismatic stage presence and dazzling technique. Lang Lang has since become a global ambassador for classical music, using his platform to promote the power of music to inspire and transform lives. He has performed with leading orchestras around the world, released numerous recordings, and collaborated with other artists across different genres. Lang Lang is also dedicated to music education, having established the Lang Lang Music World Academy in China, which aims to provide free music education to underprivileged children.

Composers for Piano

Frederic Chopin

Frederic Chopin, a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist of the Romantic era, is renowned for his unique style that blended elements of classical, folk, and oriental music. Chopin’s piano compositions, including his nocturnes, mazurkas, waltzes, and ballades, showcase his innovative harmonies, dynamic control, and expressive use of dissonance. His music often explores the full range of the piano, from the most delicate and subtle to the most powerful and dramatic. Chopin’s compositions for piano have been praised for their emotional depth and technical challenges, making him one of the most celebrated and influential composers for the instrument.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach, a German composer and musician of the Baroque period, is celebrated for his significant contributions to the development of keyboard music. Bach’s works for piano, including his famous “Well-Tempered Clavier,” demonstrate his mastery of counterpoint, harmony, and form. His compositions showcase intricate fugues, complex ornamentation, and a deep understanding of the instrument’s capabilities. Bach’s music for piano continues to be widely performed and studied, as it offers a rich opportunity for pianists to explore and expand their technical and artistic abilities.

Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy, a French composer of the late Romantic period, is celebrated for his innovative and impressionistic style that drew inspiration from literature, nature, and other art forms. Debussy’s piano compositions, such as “Clair de Lune” and “Preludes,” are known for their evocative and colorful soundscapes, unique harmonies, and impressionistic effects. His music often explores the instrument’s full range of dynamics and timbres, and his use of dissonance and parallelism contributes to his distinctive style. Debussy’s contributions to the piano repertoire have been highly influential, and his music continues to inspire and challenge pianists and audiences alike.

Resources for Learning Piano

Online Platforms

Virtual Piano

Virtual Piano is a popular online platform that allows users to learn and play the piano through a virtual keyboard. The platform offers a variety of features such as the ability to select different types of pianos, adjust the volume, and customize the keyboard layout. Virtual Piano also offers a range of tutorials and exercises to help users improve their skills, including tutorials on music theory and how to read sheet music.

Piano Marvel

Piano Marvel is another online platform that provides users with a comprehensive piano learning experience. The platform offers a wide range of piano lessons and exercises, including tutorials on piano technique, music theory, and sight-reading. Piano Marvel also provides users with access to a variety of piano lesson books and sheet music, as well as the ability to track their progress and receive feedback from their teachers.


Flowkey is an online platform that uses interactive video tutorials to teach users how to play the piano. The platform offers a range of lessons and exercises, including tutorials on piano technique, music theory, and sight-reading. Flowkey also provides users with access to a variety of piano lesson books and sheet music, as well as the ability to track their progress and receive feedback from their teachers. The platform’s unique feature is its interactive video tutorials, which allow users to follow along with the video and learn how to play a specific piece of music.

Offline Resources

Piano Method Books

Piano method books are an excellent resource for those who want to learn the basics of playing the piano. These books typically provide a step-by-step approach to learning the instrument, with exercises and pieces designed to develop specific skills. Some popular piano method books include the “Piano Adventures” series by Nancy and Randall Faber, the “Alfred’s Basic Piano Library” series, and the “Hal Leonard Student Piano Library” series.

Private Lessons

Private lessons with a piano teacher can be a highly effective way to learn the piano. These lessons provide one-on-one instruction tailored to the individual student’s needs and goals. A good piano teacher can help a student develop proper technique, improve musicality, and tackle challenging repertoire. Private lessons can be scheduled in person or online, depending on the teacher’s availability and the student’s preference.

Piano Workshops and Masterclasses

Piano workshops and masterclasses offer an opportunity for students to learn from professional pianists and educators. These events often focus on specific aspects of piano playing, such as technique, interpretation, or repertoire. Participants can observe and learn from master classes, where professional pianists demonstrate and analyze specific pieces or techniques. Workshops may also include group lessons, lectures, and other educational activities. Attending a piano workshop or masterclass can be a valuable experience for students of all levels, providing inspiration, guidance, and new perspectives on piano playing.


1. What is a piano?

A piano is a musical instrument that produces sound when its keys are pressed. It has a keyboard with black and white keys, and the keys are played with the fingers or with a special device called a pedal.

2. How does a piano work?

A piano works by using a system of hammers and strings to produce sound. When a key is pressed, a hammer strikes a string, causing it to vibrate and produce a sound. The strings are then amplified by a soundboard, which enhances the sound and projects it outward.

3. What are the different parts of a piano?

The different parts of a piano include the keyboard, soundboard, strings, pedals, and frame. The keyboard is the row of black and white keys that the player presses with their fingers. The soundboard is a large, curved wooden board that amplifies the sound produced by the strings. The strings are thin, wire-wrapped ropes that vibrate to produce sound. The pedals are used to control the sound and provide special effects. The frame is the overall structure of the piano, which houses all of the other parts.

4. How many keys does a piano have?

A standard piano has 88 keys, but only 52 of them are white keys and 36 of them are black keys. The keys are arranged in groups of seven white keys and five black keys, with the white keys repeating throughout the keyboard.

5. What is the difference between an acoustic piano and an electronic piano?

An acoustic piano is a traditional, handcrafted instrument made from wood and metal, while an electronic piano uses digital technology to produce sound. Acoustic pianos have a more natural sound and feel, while electronic pianos are more portable and versatile. Electronic pianos can also offer a wider range of sounds and features, such as headphones and recording capabilities.


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