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The piano underwent major changes between its invention ca. 1700 through the late 1800s: the double escapement, the iron frame, cross-stringing, among others. But the piano reached a mature state by the late 1800s and is largely unchanged since ... as far as I know.

What modern innovations/experiments are out there?


This question concerns the acoustic/mechanical piano. Although electronic keyboards represent an evolution, for the purposes of this question, they're a different instrument – in the way the piano is a different instrument than a harpsichord.


Answer directory

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    The last 2 decades most innovation budget seems to go to MIDI enabled pianos with servo mechanisms to replay. In the 80s Kawai also experimented with plastic parts in the hammer mechanism. Nov 24 '20 at 8:08
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    Sostenuto pedal, from the mid 1800s, is probably included in your list. Sadly it's not included in many pianos except in U.S.
    – Tim
    Nov 24 '20 at 10:01
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    I have an upright piano that has a feature I've never seen on any other - the middle pedal causes little pieces of metal to interpose between the hammers and strings, making the instrument sound almost like a harpsichord (albeit still with variable dynamics, which a true harpsichord doesn't generally have). I don't know how common or how old this feature is, but it's an interesting variant. Nov 24 '20 at 15:04
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    @Aaron Just had a look, it's marked The Richmond Piano Co. on the inside (it has a glass front and a light inside, so you can see the mechanism). It's possible the harpsichord modification is after-market, I'm not the first owner. Nov 24 '20 at 16:13
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    @KrisVanBael I agree with phoog's comment. Your mention of MIDI-enabled acoustic piano is a major innovation and worthy of mention. My apologies for over-reacting at the time.
    – Aaron
    Jan 18 at 5:36

15 Answers 15

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(1) A variation on the player piano is the Speaking Piano:

YouTube: Speaking Piano
(NOTE: Video narration is in German, but the piano "speaks" in English.)

This is the 2009 work of Peter Ablinger. He processed speech audio using Fast Fourier Transforms, effectively splitting the audio into 88 frequency bands, assigning each frequency to its own piano key. The MIDI data produced by this method is 'performed' by a mechanical device that has a separate actuator for each piano key.

(2) The infinite sustain grand piano uses electromagnetic coils beneath the strings to sustain the notes without decaying to silence. Also, notes can be started without the piano hammer, so the note swells from silence. This is a similar principle to the e-bow used by guitarists to infinitely sustain their notes.

YouTube: Magnetic Resonator Piano

(3) The vertical piano. This uses the same type of string for all notes, rather than using wound strings for lower notes. This means the piano strings must be much longer than they would be for wound strings.

YouTube: Tall Piano

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Extended Range Pianos

Guitarists aren't the only ones interested in downtuning! The Imperial Bösendorfer, built in 1909, extends the range of your standard 88 key piano down to a low C0, 9 semitones lower than the standard low A0.

enter image description here Image Source


Lump String Construction

Proposed by Franklin Miller Jr. in a 1949 paper and patented by Albert Sanderson, a lump constructed string reduces the inharmonicity of the piano's wires by adding a small extra mass of winding near the ends of the speaking length. I've seen these in person but clearly they're uncommon as I cannot find an image! Here's a lumped string on an electric bass guitar:

Lump Bass String

Image Source

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    Nice answer, +1. The patent has a good drawing of the string here: patentimages.storage.googleapis.com/ff/6a/41/dee1da26db1b3f/… I hadn’t noticed that on any of my bass stings in the past but I also rarely use taper wound strings like these that get thinner where they cross the saddle, like piano strings do. Nov 24 '20 at 5:15
  • Lumped strings are uncommon/new for electric bass, so it's likely that you've never played a lumped string. I only know of one person/company that makes them, and their associated research paper was submitted October 11, 2019
    – Edward
    Nov 24 '20 at 5:32
  • Yes, I looked them up. They are extremely expensive too! Nov 24 '20 at 9:58
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    There's also the harmonic pedal: youtube.com/watch?v=t7z6cYWjr3Q Also there are modifications such as key sensor bars so that an acoustic piano can produce MIDI data. Nov 24 '20 at 10:05
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    Speaking of extended range, Stuart Sons has recently produced a 108-key piano: stuartandsons.com/108keys.html
    – academic
    Nov 24 '20 at 14:39
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There is one almost forgotten chapter in the music history: Quarter-tone music: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quarter_tone

There has been pianos constructed to play this kind of music - I have seen one on display in Prague. It has three keyboards, one of them shifted (by a quarter-tone) and inside two full scale piano frames with strings. Quite a monster, though. There were some composers composing this kind of music (czech Alois Haba, for example) and one can find even recordings of this kind of instruments.

There is a picture on czech wiki: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%C4%8Ctvrtt%C3%B3nov%C3%BD_klav%C3%ADr_3.jpg

Quarter-tone piano

VitVit, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The August Forster website contains additional information. The first of his/their quarter-tone pianos was a grand built in 1923 for Alois Haba. It contained two actions tuned a quarter-tone apart. In 1928 another version of the instrument was built for Ivan Wyschnegradsky.

Here is an image from the patent (SOURCE).

Quarter-tone piano patent image

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    Quarter-tones are hardly an “almost forgotten chapter in the history of music” — they’re a standard tool today for many avant-garde composers, and similarly, most performers who work with that genre will be very familiar with the performance techniques for them (which vary between instruments). As you say, though, the quarter-tone piano never quite caught on — that, it would be fairer to describe as almost-forgotten!
    – PLL
    Nov 26 '20 at 9:26
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Electric piano

Although I suspect this isn't the answer you're after, it's probably the biggest and most significant innovation. It allows the "same" instrument to be played, but more portable, cheaper, with a greater variety of sounds, and sometimes with the ability to do extra things like bend notes.

The not convincingly piano-like sound of early varieties (e.g. Fender Rhodes) are now also widely copied so their inadequacies have stuck and been sought after in their own right.

Piano Roll

Wikipedia tells me that this emerged sometime in the late 19th century, and allowed pianos to play themselves. It's obviously significant as an early "recording" format.

To add a bit more detail: a roll of paper with holes in is scrolled through a reader mechanism. Each column on the paper corresponds to a single note and so when a hole is in the "read" position the note is played. The original mechanisms appear to use a pneumatic mechanism - air is continuously blown into the sheet and when it is able to pass through a hole it triggers a valve. The pneumatic action physically depresses the keys and uses the normal hammer mechanism and thus it genuinely is a piano.

I think rolls could be produced in two ways: first by "writing them out" almost like sheet music. Second using a modified piano mechanism to punch holes as you play thus recording a performance.

Transposing piano

Where the keyboard shifts along to hit different strings and allow you to change key without understanding music. I can't find much about the date of invention, and they were never widely adopted (at least outside of the purely electronic versions that almost every electric piano can do).

I don't know a whole lot about the transposing piano except that Irving Berlin famously used one and mainly worked on the pentatonic that comes from all the black keys (which could be transposed to any key with the aid of the transposing piano). Here's a short television clip of him discussing it..

I can also find a shaky and unwatchable youtube video showing an 1896 transposing piano in action. The video shows how the keyboard (and it looks like the hammer mechanism too) slides relative to the string.

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  • Can you expand on the piano roll and transposing piano parts? Maybe further comment about how they operate. The Electric piano part is not so interesting for this question -- it's really a whole different instrument.
    – Aaron
    Nov 24 '20 at 8:24
  • @Aaron I've added a little more detail. I'm honestly not an expert in either except that they exist
    – DavidW
    Nov 24 '20 at 8:54
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    I've added a link to the Smithsonian institute for Irving Berlin (and softened the description a bit to what I can actually justify). He obviously had a pretty long career and I suspect his skill/knowledge developed during it but I think his "formal musical knowledge" was pretty limited though
    – DavidW
    Nov 24 '20 at 9:06
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    Just to flag one more update - a link to a video of Irving Berlin showing off his toy
    – DavidW
    Nov 24 '20 at 9:12
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    I like to think that electric piano relates to piano the same way as electric guitar to acoustic guitar: not really convincing as louder and more portable version of the acoustic instrument but great instruments on their own.
    – ojs
    Nov 24 '20 at 20:48
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The harmonic pedal

This is a fourth pedal invented by Denis de La Rochefordière, around 1985[1][2], which can cover the capabilities of the sustain and sustenuto pedal, with an additional sympathetic resonance effect.

Basically, it has two positions:

  • when pressed all the way down, it acts like the sustain pedal
  • when pressed halfway, it lifts all dampers, but as soon as a key is pressed+released, that damper falls back, offering the sympathetic resonance of the other undampened strings, without sustaining the played note.

Here is a video presentation:

[2] http://www.harmonicpianopedal.com/comment_en.php
[1] https://www.feurich.com/en/innovation/pedale-harmonique/

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Tack piano

The tack piano involves inserting thumb tacks into each of the hammers. As you'd expect from hitting the string with metal instead of felt, the result is a louder but more metallic sound. This was useful in bars, where higher volume was more important than great tone. With the rise in recorded music, and especially with the invention of the jukebox, tack pianos became obsolete.

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    AKA 'honky-tonk' sound. I always heard the tacks were to simulate an ancient worn-out piano where all the felt was gone and the wood was hitting the strings. Nov 24 '20 at 16:10
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    @CarlWitthoft My understanding is that it was actually done that way at the time to make the piano louder and cut through crowd noise in a busy saloon.
    – Graham
    Nov 24 '20 at 16:41
  • Interesting to consider this in relation to John Cage's prepared pianos.
    – Aaron
    Nov 28 '20 at 0:34
  • @Aaron My understanding of Cage's prepared pianos is that they're more sound effects specific to the piece, not so much a design for a new reusable instrument.
    – Graham
    Nov 28 '20 at 1:25
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Improving the repeating action on upright pianos (to achieve the same capability as on a grand piano): https://medium.com/@thesteminists.uh/improving-the-upright-piano-action-an-engineering-project-part-3-33d593d03d93

Also practice pedals which put a damper across a large part of the strings to almost completely muffle the sound.

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    These are both important. It would be very helpful if you would add some more about both innovations, particularly in case the link posted should ever go dead.
    – Aaron
    Nov 24 '20 at 16:00
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In one word, I would say: Fazioli

For a very long time now, Steinway & Sons have dominated not only the market of top range pianos, but also they have become almost synonymous of what a piano is supposed to be and to sound like.

In the last 10-20 years, however, Fazioli pianos have emerged as a real contender for that position, and although they are a tiny company compared to Steinway, and likely to remain small, I think that the innovation and quality that they have been demonstrating is very real.

Some of their innovations, such as double and customizable action, are mentioned here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Innovations_in_the_piano

If you google "Fazioli pianos" you'll easily find articles and videos where they explain how those pianos are made, their history, and sound comparisons with other top makers.

Here are a few links to get started:

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    Yes! I had hoped someone would mention Fazioli. If possible, please add some of their innovations directly in the post, especially as a hedge against link rot.
    – Aaron
    Nov 24 '20 at 15:58
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    Could you summarize their improvements rather than just referring to external links? Nov 24 '20 at 16:00
  • But this is mostly design changes for sound quality, rather than changing any functionality. Nov 24 '20 at 16:11
  • Honestly I don't feel knowledgeable enough to go into specifics. I also understand that some of their most innovative processes are trade secrets. My suggestion to search "fazioli pianos" was intended against link rot, in the sense that at any point in the future such a search will quickly give you good and up to date results. At least for someone this would be better than not even knowing that the thing exists. I'm afraid that's the best I can do on this topic right now.
    – MMazzon
    Nov 24 '20 at 17:57
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    @MMazzon i don't think you need to go into detail, just some general descriptions of things they've done.
    – Aaron
    Nov 24 '20 at 19:29
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Under the topic of 'experiments', there are 'prepared pianos', where the musician places objects between or on the strings to get special percussive effects. John Cage (Works for Prepared Piano, did this, as did Dave Brubeck (Blues Roots). Of course some of these are rather odd: Sonatas and Interludes.

enter image description here

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The Fluid Piano has potential...but I've yet to hear anyone do anything interesting with it.

And here is everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask about the Fluid Piano.
https://www.thefluidpiano.com/

Once again, it appears no one has very well figured out what to do with it. As a jazz player I could see the potential, but the only album yet released is one of Indian ragas, which makes good sense, but is more like adding the piano to the general suite of accepted classical Indian instruments, rather than using this invention to...using the invention to...uhhh...???

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The Player Piano was invented in the late 1800s, allowing an early form of playback before the invention and popularization of recording.

There is a modern version, the Disklavier, which accept MIDI. Here's the experimental musician Hainbach playing Black MIDI on a Disklavier. this technology opens possibilities by allowing music beyond the capability of any human pianist.

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https://www.klavins-pianos.com/products/una-corda/

The unique features of the Klavins Una Corda Piano include One string per note, open body design (no cabinet), double-layer soundboard of selected, solid mountain spruce, rib-less tone modulator (various material strips), stainless steel frame.

If you have not heard this piano, try to find some high quality recordings of it

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Nickelodeon

Nickelodeon

The band Sailor is known for their self-invented "Nickelodeon". In this video it can be seen in action.

Finally a few words about the £ 7000 dream-machine which bears a passing resemblance to duplicate honky-tonk pianos removed from any Dodge City saloon during Gold Rush era and placed back to back on stage. The instrument is basically Georg's brain-child and is in fact the casing of two upright pianos moulded together to look like an old-fashioned barrel-organ and raised on a rostrum so that it can be played standing up. Georg rigged up some piano keys to a Piano Mate, two synthesisers and a glockenspiel device was adapted from a series of doorbell mechanism which instead of activating a clapper to hit a bell now sets of little hammers against glockenspiel bars. There is a DC current activated by that part of the piano action which is like hammer, so you can play glockenspiel and piano together or either separately. Other synthesisers fitted underneath provide bass pattern from a keyboard and there are one or two secret modifications which they are keeping secret. The device which is quite unique and their own patent is now insured for an undisclosed sum and almost priceless.

From http://www.sailor-music.com/nickelodeon.htm

I'm not sure how much actual innovation is in there, but at least it's based on pianos, so I hope it qualifies as an answer.

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  • @Aaron Phew, seems I've met SE's model student. Can't find good pictures, but I re-uploaded the top one from the linked website to preserve the valuable information for future generations :)
    – MaxD
    Nov 25 '20 at 2:56
  • The picture is perfect, and the complement much appreciated. Cheers.
    – Aaron
    Nov 25 '20 at 6:06
  • Trying to figure out if that's just 2 pianos bolted together, or if they're sharing one set of strings and hitting them from both sides? Nov 25 '20 at 13:32
  • @DarrelHoffman Both sets of keys using the same strings seems INSANELY complicated to build. Judging by the rustic look, I'd say it's more likely to be two old standard pianos and a couple spax screws.
    – MaxD
    Nov 25 '20 at 13:44
  • @MaxD I agree, I was just trying to decide how impressed to be. It would be very cool for someone ambitious enough to try it though. Sort of the musical instrument equivalent of those people who slice 2 unrelated cars in half and fuse them together into one Frankenstein vehicle that somehow still actually works. Nov 25 '20 at 13:51
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I don't know if it still counts as modern, but I have stumbled on some pianos manufactured for left handed people.

Basically, the bass are on the right side of the piano and the treble are on the left side. Some left handed pianists commented how they had to re-learn what they learnt on right handed piano, but were able to progress much faster on the left handed one.

Christopher Seed is an international concert pianist who can play piano both normally and in mirror image. In 1997 he commissioned the Dutch firm Poletti and Tuinman Fortepiano Makers to build the world's first left-handed piano. It is a complete mirror image of a normal piano with the high notes on the left and the low notes on the right. The lid opens the other way as well so Chris performs on the right side of the stage (as seen by the audience) and the pedals are reversed.

source

There are very few of them, because there aren't much demand for such product according to the manufacturers, although some rare people I could come across on the Internet expressed interested. Most of the contents I could find about it are dating back between 2000 and 2013 mostly.

A few example below; I got the Blüthner pictures from a shop, which I will not disclose to avoid advertising them:

Left handed Blüthner Model A upright

Left handed Blüthner Model A upright, notice how the the keys are backward

Left handed Blüthner Model 4 grand

Left handed Blüthner Model 4 grand

Picture of a quote with some kind of badge on a piano

Qualität in feinsten tönen (Quality in the finest tones)

Der Musik zum Fluss verhelfen (help the music flow)

The "badge" seems to say: Modell Loso für Linkshänder (Loso model for left-handers). Notice how the right most keys are A and A-sharp, rather than B-sharp and C.

Left handed Kawai K2 upright

Left handed Kawai K2 upright from this article

Also see this screenshot from a Blüthner "News for friend" from March 2009:

Screenshot of a part of Blüthner "News for friend" which talks about left handed piano by Blüthner

The picture says:

Mozart, Beethoven Chopin - Blüthner provides instruments for left-anders

These three famous composers and pianists were left-handed and they possibly might have been even more spectacular if they had had a left-handed piano. For the pianist, Geza Loso, a dream came true. When his fingers glide with ease over the black and white keys of his piano, this is due to the help of Blüthner who built a left-handed piano for the left-handed pianist.

The treble notes are situated on the left-hand side and the bass on the right. Mr. Lozo has transcribed his music for this special keyboard.

Fifteen percent of the population are left-handed. The interest was immense when Blüthner constructed and built the first "left-handed" grand piano. Apparently "left-handers" can play the melodies with more ease on such a piano. Mr. Lozo has a music school where he teaches "left-handers". An upright piano is now being prepared, which will be a world novelty when it is completed.

Further information under www.gezaloso.de.

The information are very scarce though, probably because they weren't so popular, but it sounds like there was something going on a dozen years ago in that area, and I couldn't find anything on the website of the brands themselves.

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  • For some reasons, I am finding more videos of left handed piano on Youtube, than I am finding information on a search engine. Self-note: Find which brand actually created the concept of left handed piano?
    – Clockwork
    Jan 13 at 10:51
  • Okay, I actualy found an article that mentioned which brand was the first one to do that. Added that in, and edited out the other brand.
    – Clockwork
    Jan 13 at 10:53
  • Based on the source article, it seems like there's only one of these in the world, but your post suggests there are "several". Can you add an additional reference to bridge that gap?
    – Aaron
    Jan 13 at 11:26
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    I mean, does more than one such piano exist? That is, multiple instruments, regardless of brand. You say "some pianos manufactured for left-handed people", but the source article makes it sound like there's only one in the world, built for a specific pianist.
    – Aaron
    Jan 13 at 11:31
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    Looks good to me. My compliments.
    – Aaron
    Jan 13 at 16:22
2

Horatz already brought up quarter-tone pianos. I want to mention that Kari Ikonen has been working on a device he calls maqiano that allows a musician to temporarily adjust the tuning of a limited range of keys on a piano.

See maqiano.com more information

I'm not sure whether he has gone commercial, yet (patents pending). His motivation is chiefly to be able to play the maqam scales without having to retune a grand piano. See here for an example, and here for a demo (both in youtube). The term is a portmanteau of maqam and piano :-)

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