In the Western musical tradition, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of the keyboard — not only in terms of the volume of music composed for it, but in terms of its influence on music theory, which affects not only keyboard players but players of just about every other instrument: guitar, clarinet, and even the voice is influenced by the keyboard.
Like all musical technology, the keyboard evolved slowly, a subject taken up in Musical Instrument Design: Practical Information for Instrument Making by Bart Hopkin, which contains illustrations of a variety of historical and contemporary alternative keyboards.
The earliest keyboards were used to operate organs, and were derived from stops and levers that allowed air (or water in the case of the Greek hydraulis pictured below) into pipes.
Given the ubiquity of the keyboard in our present musical landscape, some performers and composers have come to feel stifled by the inescapable limitations of a machine that has influenced everything from scales to perhaps our own musical imaginations. Some, such as John Cage, attempted to interrupt their keyboards by placing bolts, insulation and other modifiers in, on, and around the piano strings. Here’s David Greilsammer installing the required components to play a few pieces by John Cage:
Presently, Seattle pianist Tiffany Lin is curating This Old Piano in which local instrument makers deconstruct old pianos and rebuild them into new instruments.
In the world of electronic children’s toys, there’s another breed of innovators working to add switches, shorts, and other circuit bends to their thrift store keytars.
For some, however, changing the piano isn’t enough. The piano must go. In his essay “Ban the Piano: A 21st-century composition manifesto,” Byron Au Young states, “For music to regain its agency and creativity, composers must unchain themselves from the piano and reintegrate the two primary building blocks of composing music: drum and voice.”
All of that said, I don’t know anyone who isn’t glad that Glenn Gould found access to a piano, and encountered there the musical ideas of Bach (though Gould’s singing may not receive universal acclaim).
Steven Arntson is a writer and composer who performs as a concertina soloist and with the quartet The Toy Boats. Upcoming appearances are posted on his Facebook page, and recordings, scores, and articles reside at his website.