Four Qualities to Love About the Piano—And One Big Limitation

Since the invention of the piano in 1655, the familiar 88 keys and three pedals have become a staple of Western music. Children usually start their musical education at the piano, and the requisite Yamaha or Baldwin can be found in almost any music room in any school across the country. Musicians love the piano because it is so versatile: it can play any style of music, can easily play music written for other instruments, and spans just over seven octaves. These are amazing feats of musicality that can’t be easily replicated on other instruments. But the piano also has one big musical limitation.

The Qualities We Love

Western music’s obsession with the piano was born way back in the Baroque era of the 1600’s and early 1700’s. Some of the most beautiful piano music we enjoy today was written during the succeeding 150 years or so, during the Classical and Romantic periods. What is it about the piano that has left an indelible print on the music of so many generations?

·          It’s easy to play—The piano requires no effort to emit sound. Unlike a violin, French horn, or even the human voice, a piano can play the same note at exactly the same pitch no matter who strikes the key.

·          It’s practical—The piano can play almost any music you care to try. It doesn’t have to be written in a certain key or on an unusual staff, and it isn’t limited by a short range. The piano can be a solo instrument in its own right, but it can also accompany other instruments or serve as a member of the orchestra.

·          It’s accessible—By accessible, I mean that anyone can learn to play it, regardless of age. Small children can’t always hold a full-size instrument or manipulate keys and valves, but they can learn to play the piano as soon as they are old enough to master fine motor movement.

·          It’s useful for learning theory—The piano makes it easy to learn chords. There aren’t many instruments that can play more than one note at a time, and those that can are limited to two or possibly three. The piano, by contrast, is limited only by the number of fingers you have, which makes it easy to try out different chord progressions and key signatures.

The Limitation 

Despite its versatility, the piano does have one significant limitation: tuning. A piano uses the equal temperament tuning system, in which each pitch is separated from the next adjacent pitch by the same interval, resulting in an octave divided into 12 equal parts, or half-steps. The benefit of this system is that it allows us to transpose and modulate to other keys easily. The drawback is that it doesn’t create accurate harmonies. A perfect fifth on the piano, for example, is pitched quite a bit “off” from a true perfect fifth, giving it a harsh tone (which is why you rarely find parallel fifths in choral music).

In order to accurately tune your ear to harmonies, you need to use a different model, such as just intonation, which uses pure intervals. Vocalists, string players, and wind instrument players may not know the musical theory behind just intonation, but they use it to tune their instruments or sing tight harmonies. In order to hear these intervals accurately and play or sing in tune, you need to step away from the piano.