Google Doodle celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori

May 4, 2015 • 8:45 am

Today’s Google Doodle celebrates the 360th birthday of Bartolomeo Cristofori (could he be an ancestor of Astronaut Sam?). You know who he is, right? (I didn’t.) But we all should, for he invented the piano. As the Guardian explains,

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, the instrument Cristofori invented was referred to during his lifetime as a harpsichord that plays soft and loud, from which its name is derived. In Italian, the phrase is gravicembalo col piano e forte.

It added: “Being able to change the volume was a major breakthrough. And that’s exactly what doodler Leon Hong wanted to highlight in this interactive doodle.”

Cristofori’s entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that little is known of his life and that his invention was not well known in his lifetime, even if it has since become ubiquitous.

It reads: “Cristofori apparently invented the piano around 1709, and, according to contemporary sources, four of his pianos existed in 1711.”

The Google page features an interview with creator Leon Hong. One Q&A:

What is your favorite part about the finished doodle?

My favorite part of the doodle is the animation of Cristofori playing when the volume is set on forte. If I had more time I would have put even more bounce to his bottom. I hope people decide to do more research after playing with the doodle and learn more about him.

Click on the screenshot below to go to the page and listen to “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring“. You can vary the speed and volume (and the player’s vigor and bottom-bouncing) by moving the slider on the right:

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 7.59.06 AM

35 thoughts on “Google Doodle celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori

  1. The piano is a wonderful musical instrument, and also an amazing mechanical contraption.

    I was lucky enough to spend a summer when I was in high school working for a man who repaired, rebuilt and refurbished pianos of all kinds including player pianos. Old player pianos, the kind that worked via air pressure, are nearly Rube Goldberg like devices. I spent countless hours that summer carefully disassembling such contraptions down to individual components, refurbishing or fashioning new components and putting them all back together under the watchful eye of the master. But the tuning was always left to a specialist who did nothing but tuning.

    1. Damn… I need them skills now. (the piano I learned on & that an older bro now owns has deteriorating plumbing inside – a pump upright player piano circa 1900)

      It still sounds excellent & has amazing action. Just no working player stuff like it had when I was growing up.

      I knew of Cristofori’s innovations & approx when it happened, but would not have been able to regurgitate the name…

      1. Same here, I knew of Cristofori and approx. date but was fuzzy on them. It may be because I played the piano, among a few other instruments, as a kid.

      2. Besides deterioration of the mess of tubes that channel the air to where it needs to go, the main thing that fails over time are the little leather diaphragms that actuate the hammer linkage.

        There is a wood board the length of the keyboard that has holes about the size of a quarter drilled into it, one for each key. Over each of these holes is glued a leather diaphragm. A much smaller hole perpendicular to the quarter size hole has an air tube attached to it. When a hole in the music roll moves into place over the air intake, air is drawn into the tube that is aligned with it and the corresponding air chamber is pressurized, causing the diaphragm to expand. That in turn actuates a lever that is part of the linkage from key to hammer.

        Replacing all the leather diaphragms is a given (and all the tubes), and if the board is in bad shape a new one may need to be fashioned.

        1. Fantastic summary! The instrument has been consistently dry, so I may luck out on some of the parts needing replacement (the board in particular). The tubes are especially daunting to me, and I’d be surprised if the bellows are intact, but it’s time I looked into this in a serious way. It would provide a much-needed lift if I got that thing going again.

  2. Here’s how a reconstructed instrument sounds:

    Unfortunately, we don’t know how the instrument as originally made sounds. The existing specimens are either not playable due to poor condition, or have been “restored” so they no longer resemble the originals. The reconstructed instrument is the best we can do.

  3. From .dk, I’m only getting the May the Fourth be with you meme. No piano for me, just lightsabers 🙁

  4. Silly instrumentalists. Bach’s “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” belongs to us singers.

    It wasn’t transcribed for piano until 1926, per Prof. Wikipedia.

  5. I’m completely amusical, but I do love piano sometimes.

    Also, as Doug Hofstadter pointed out, “pianoforte” makes for a nice (seeming) oxymoron, like his famous “smartstupid”.

  6. My youngest plays an electric piano (Yamaha) and I can say, having grown up with a grand piano, the days of fully mechanical pianos are likely numbered. Just a couple of thousand dollars can buy what was once ten times that amount; in a smaller space.

    1. What Ben said.

      I suppose it’s possible that future synthesizers could really, perfectly replicate a given sound, but as yet? Digital pianos still do not quite sound like the real deal, nor are their keys as easy (in a strictly relative sense) to manipulate so as to produce expression.

      1. If they don’t sound the same, it’s most likely due to the sound coming off a loudspeaker cone instead of a linear vibrating string. I think digitally (with sufficient bitrate) it should be possible to reproduce any sound whatever. It’s when you get to the mechanical business of disturbing the air that it gets difficult.

        1. If the primary sound is coming out of an electronic loudspeaker system, the digital pianos are quite good. Perhaps not perfect, but certainly to the point that few will be able to tell the difference — and, in most settings where that’s how the music is performed, almost nobody will be able to tell the difference.

          But, in an acoustic setting?

          Instantly obvious that it’s coming from a loudspeaker rather than the actual instrument.

          That…and, for the musician, you still need the entire keyboard with all its precision levers and weighting and springiness and the rest, and that’s a significant fraction of the cost of a good piano.

          But wait! There’s more!

          There’s lots more ways to get a sound out of a piano than by pressing the keys. Some pieces call for directly striking or plucking or even bowing the strings. And much more common are effects from harmonic resonance. You can, for example, step on the sustain pedal of a piano, loudly play an arpeggio on a trumpet with the bell aimed right at the strings, and the piano will continue to faintly sound the chord.

          It’ll be a looooooooong time before anything like that is possible with electronics….


          1. I do agree that the ‘feel’ of the keyboard is critical. (And I say that not as a musician myself, but I know that even with a computer keyboard the ‘feel’ has a big influence on how easy it is to type – obviously it will be far more so with a musical instrument keyboard). Once again, like the speakers, this is a mechanical consideration.

            The other ways you mention of getting sound out of a piano strike me as a bit idiosyncratic, not mainstream – I wouldn’t regard the lack of those features as being defects of a digital piano. I’d say though that those features could be duplicated quite easily** with electronics, if someone felt it was worth doing.

            (**Easily for Yamaha, that is, not necessarily easily for your local electrical hobbyist).

            1. (Just in case I was unintentionally ambiguous, “And I say that not as a musician myself” means I am not a musician. I didn’t mean to confuse).

            2. The other ways you mention of getting sound out of a piano strike me as a bit idiosyncratic, not mainstream – I wouldn’t regard the lack of those features as being defects of a digital piano. I’d say though that those features could be duplicated quite easily** with electronics, if someone felt it was worth doing.

              The sympathetic resonance of a piano is something that’s always there, even when not explicitly written into the work. And it’s a big part of what gives the sound “richness” and “resonance” and “warmth.”

              And I’ll be buggered if I can think of a practical way of digitally reproducing it…it’s an extremely complex system with all kinds of multiply-interacting feedback loops and edge cases and the rest. Honestly? It’d almost certainly be much, much, much cheaper to just build a real piano.

              It might help you to understand that all the digital pianos are…are samples of studio recordings. A modern electromagnetic player piano is put in a studio. Each key is recorded one at a time with different force / velocity profiles of the key being pressed, and then a mapping with some interpolation is put together. That’s all there is to it. With high fidelity recordings and enough samples of different velocities, you can get a surprisingly good facsimile of a recorded piano…but I really don’t think I’ll live to see the day when there’s an electronic equivalent to a Steinway D.


              1. I’d assumed that digital pianos are based on samples anyway.

                “It’d almost certainly be much, much, much cheaper to just build a real piano.”

                The first time, maybe. The development costs of the electronic version would be huge.

                But mechanical things (like pianos) get a bit cheaper when mass-produced, whereas electronics get cheaper by orders of magnitude. I’d guess 90% of the manufacturing costs of a digital piano are in the mechanical bits – keyboard etc.

                And yes, I’d imagine sympathetic resonance could be duplicated by digital means.

                I’m not a fan of things digital replacing mechanical things, at all, in fact I find it slightly depressing in many ways, but they seem to be capable of doing it.

              2. No, I mean it’d probably be easier to build the mechanical version than an electronic reproduction. It’s a very complex system, such that you’d practically need the acoustic equivalent of ray tracing in order to simulate it…and you’d need all sorts of three-dimensional acoustic imaging microphones all over the place, with speakers strategically located, and the software would have to be able to determine the difference between resonant feedback and squeal-type feedback, and on and on…honestly, I really don’t think we have that kind of technology yet, probably not even in an MIT lab. And, even if we do, the level of complexity necessary to duplicate it really is going to be on the order of just building a piano.


  7. Trigger warning: insufferable pedantry to follow.

    Keyboard instruments sounded with “hammers” and capable of dynamic variation already existed: clavichords. Of course, the hammers were called “tangents” and they remained in contact with the string until the player released the key. Cristofori’s real innovation was the escapement mechanism and the complex system that magnified a small key-depression into a comparatively large hammer-swing. The latter allowed the instrument to play much louder than the clavichord, thus being more suitable for large public recitals.

    1. According to the Wikipedia page, the hammer did not remain in contact with the string. They bounced like a modern piano. It points out that Cristofori improved his initial design for some time after his initial version. Like many inventions it is quite possible that some of the “innovations” were actually lifted from various sources. Edison borrowed heavily from others in developing the iconic light bulb.

        1. Here’s the description from Wikipedia Cristofori…Action. It seems to say he incorporated a bouncing hammer, no?

          “The position of the sprung ‘hopper’ or ‘jack’ centred in the key of Cristofori’s action (see “I” in diagram below) is so adjusted that the hopper escapes from the ‘notch’ in the middle of the intermediate lever (G) just before the hammer (C) strikes the string, so that the hammer is not driven all the way but travels the remaining distance under its own momentum”

          1. Yes.
            As I originally wrote, Cristofori’s innovation was the escapement, or the mechanism by which the hammer bounced back even though the player kept the key held down.

            Cristofori’s innovation was not the hammer itself, or producing sound by striking rather than plucking (as harpsichords do). Clavichords were not his invention, predate him, and used a type of hammer. But the hammer, or tangent, of the clavichord remains in contact with the string as long as the player keeps the key depressed. Cristofori’s innovation was the *escapement*.

    2. Keep in mind that both the piano (metal strings struck with hammers) and harpsichord (metal strings plucked with a plectrum) are based on instruments that go back thousands of years. The innovation was in adding a keyboard mechanism. The earlier instruments were more “hands-on”, played with small hammers or plucked with a quill. [Pipe organs also go back to antiquity — the keyboard was added in the middle ages.]

      1. Also true.

        My pedantry was directed at this:

        On the blog dedicated to its doodles, Google wrote that one of Cristofori’s “biggest innovations was creating a hammer mechanism that struck the strings on a keyboard to create sound. The use of a hammer made it possible to produce softer or louder sounds depending upon how light or hard a player pressed on the keys”.
        It added: “Being able to change the volume was a major breakthrough. And that’s exactly what doodler Leon Hong wanted to highlight in this interactive doodle.”

        The hammer was not Cristofori’s innovation and clavichords could change volume. They just couldn’t play *as loudly* as C’s innovations allowed.

  8. I can’t get the doodle, I get Nellie Bly. At least it’s not Star Wars like Draken is getting.

      1. Now why didn’t I think of that?

        My mind must be too highly trained, I guess.

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