A European Musical Hybrid

The use of a mechanism to control a musical instrument is a phenomenon unique to Western culture and is an excellent example of the Western proclivity for the technological mastery of nature. Key levers were first employed by the Hellenic Greeks in the hydraulos, or "water organ," to open valves to admit air into selected pipes. The use of organs later was taken up by Medieval European monks. These same monks invented musical polyphony, the simultaneous sounding of two or more melodic lines to produce the flux between consonance and dissonance we experience as "harmony." Several human voices or instruments were needed to realize this polyphonic web of sound. To facilitate the performance of polyphonic music by a single player, the monks developed the system of digitally manipulated balanced levers we call a keyboard. The keys could be employed either to open valves to selectively admit air into pipes or to cause the strings of a board zither to be pressed, plucked, or struck. Thus, an artistic challenge stimulated the invention of a mechanical contrivance that later was employed in very different applications such as typewriters, calculators, and computers.

The capacity of keyboard instruments to realize polyphony and harmony has made them especially attractive to composers. Over many centuries – from Byrd to Bach to Bartók – the great majority of creative musicians were either virtuoso performers on the organ, harpsichord, or piano, or were at least competent players who made regular use of the keyboard in their compositional activities.

Until the turn of the twentieth century, keyboard instruments were among the most sophisticated and costly products of European culture. Large organs were an architectural feature of churches and cathedrals, and richly decorated harpsichords and pianofortes were prominent among the furnishings of palaces and grand houses. Beginning in the late 1700s, the Industrial Revolution led to mass production that made pianos affordable to middle-class families. The instrument became a status symbol and an indispensable requisite of the genteel life. The piano's prominence in the bourgeois home remained unchallenged for over a century until the advent of the phonograph, radio, and television in the first half of the twentieth century. Although its dominance in the home and on stage has declined recently in Europe and America, the piano continues to occupy a central position in modern musical life, and the clavichord and harpsichord have been revived for widespread use in the performance of music from older repertories. Today, these keyboard instruments are made and enjoyed all over the world.