Early man discovered at some point that stretching a string between two points produced a sound, and that by shortening the length or thickness of the string changed its pitch. Later, adding parallel strings together created a rudimentary harp.
C. 3rd Millennium BCE, Harp
The harp appeared throughout the Middle East and Egypt, and moved widely across the world, in both vertical and horizontal modes. Considered to be the first stringed instrument, the speaking length of its various strings created a harmonic curve that would dictate the shape of the piano’s frame.
- Lawergren, Bo. "Ancient Harps." Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, 2007 – 2015. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.
C. 2650 BCE, Guqin
The ‘qin,’ and 'se,' were stringed instruments created by Fu Xi, known in Chinese mythology as the first of the ancient sages. Modern instruments have seven strings and a range of four octaves. Literature concerning the lore, its theory, and general literature dates back nearly 3,000 years.
- Lewis, Mark Edwards. Writing and Authority in Early China. New York: SUNY Press, 1999. Google Books. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.
- “Guqin.” New World Encyclopedia. New World Encyclopedia, 30 Jan 2014. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.
- “SE.” Cultural China. Shanghai News, Press Bureau and Shanghai Xinhong Cultural Development Co., Ltd., n.d. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.
C. 2500 BCE, Lyre
The lyre, a yoked instrument with strings running from a single point at the base of a resonating body to a crossbar, plucked by fingers or plectrum. Formally associated with the Greeks and the myth of Hermes (who was said to have fashioned it from a tortoise shell) but having antecedents in Egypt (with its origin attributed to Thoth), as well as variants from the East and across the globe.
The lyres of Ur, excavated from an old grave in the city of Ur, 1929, are three of the oldest examples of the instrument.
C. 5th Century BCE, Monochord
The monochord, a primitive, single-stringed scientific instrument, attributed to Pythagoras, used as a way of teaching harmonics, measuring musical intervals, tuning scales and encouraging experimentation. It is thought that Pythagoras used the monochord to delineate the three Western Scales (diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic), illustrating how numerical ratios could be visualized with sound. The single string was typically plucked, though later developments would offer other variations, including the use of a bow. The introduction of a sound box to enhance the lower-frequency response of the single string led to the invention of the soundboard.
3rd Century BCE, Hydraulus
The concept of a keyboard most likely originated in the 3rd century B.C.E. with the earliest incarnation of the organ, the hydraulus. To manipulate the sound, players manipulated hinged or pivoted levers, pressing downward to open up the passage of air to various pipes.
By the Middle Ages, the mechanical action was typically reversed, in the form of a slider or turn-key pulled outward to sound notes. Not until the portable organ, and then the organistrum, would the concept evolve into a formal keyboard.
800, Music Notation
Music notation first developed, a curve representing the rise and fall of pitch.
900, Portable Organ
The portable organ, or positive organ, used initially for liturgical music and operated by two players; one working the bellows while the other designated notes manually, or by a rudimentary keyboard.
Psaltery, or psalterium, a box zither constructed of a flat resonating box with open strings spanning its surface (secured with pegs at each end). To generate sound, the player plucked the strings with fingers, or by using a plectrum (often a feather quill). Used widely in Europe until the beginning of the 16th century, its origin is rather difficult to unearth as its Greek and Latin etymology predates actual representations of any instruments.
Towards the end of the 11th century, the clavier, or key-board, would formally express itself in organs of all types.