- Learn how a piano produces its unique sound
- We explain the differences between string and percussion instruments
- Find out what category the piano falls under
If you’ve ever looked inside an acoustic piano, you’ll have noticed that there are many strings tightly fixed to a soundboard. These strings don’t look that different to the strings found on guitars, either, and similar to a guitar need to be kept in tune.
In order for these strings to produce sound, each key is connected to a rounded felt hammer that strikes the string when the key is pressed.
In some traditional methods of instrument classification, the piano is considered a chordophone. A chordophone is an instrument with strings, although not necessarily a string instrument.
It’s understandable that many people think of the piano as a string instrument, but as it turns out, the piano can also be considered a percussion instrument.
In this article, we’ll find out why.
Also check out How Many Keys Does A Piano Have (All Types)?
What Makes Something A String Instrument?
String instruments include things like the guitar, bass, violin, viola, cello, and harp. Some non-western string instruments examples would be the sitar, koto, and balalaika.
String instruments have been used in many cultures throughout the world for thousands of years. What all of these have in common is that they produce sound using strings that are either plucked or bowed.
For example, the harp is often considered part of the string section in an orchestra because it has strings that are plucked. While the violin, which is bowed, is also still a part of the string section.
What Makes Something a Percussion Instrument?
Percussion instruments include drum sets, bongos, timpani, maracas, shakers, tubular bells, xylophones, and vibraphones. Percussion instruments are so named because they must be struck or shaken in order to make sound.
Some percussion instruments are considered unpitched, such as shakers. This means that they aren’t tuned to any particular note.
In this excellent video from the London Philharmonia Orchestra, musician David Corkhill explains the different percussion instruments encountered in an orchestra.
Other percussion instruments, like timpani and xylophones, are tuned to certain notes. Pitched percussion instruments such as the timpani or tubular bells can support the harmony of a piece of music.
Pitched percussion instruments can even play a melody or line, as is often called for on xylophone or glockenspiel.
Interestingly, vibraphone (aka vibes) can be bowed with the same kind of bow used on string instruments.
However, since the vibraphone doesn’t have strings, and since mallets are the usual means of playing the vibraphone, it is ultimately considered a percussion instrument.
So, Is The Piano a String Instrument?
Many people consider the piano a string instrument because of its similarity to other string instruments. Just like a violin, it uses vibrating strings over a soundboard.
The soundboard is responsible for much of the volume and timbre of these instruments.
Like other string instruments, the pitch of a piano is determined by the amount of string tension as well as the thickness of each piano string.
Similar to electric bass strings, a low piano string is wrapped in wire to lower the pitch farther. All else being equal, the thicker the string, the lower the pitch.
The harpsichord, which is the predecessor to the piano created in the 16th century, consists of strings that are plucked over a soundboard.
On the outside, it looks a lot like a piano given the similar keyboard interface. However, because the harpsichord is plucked, it is considered to be a string instrument.
If the piano evolved from the harpsichord, isn’t that another argument for the piano being a string instrument? Perhaps, but there are also reasons the piano is considered a percussion instrument, which we’ll look at now.
Is Piano a Percussion Instrument?
Despite the similarities between piano and string instruments, there is one key difference with the piano: pianos produce sound by striking the strings rather than bowing or plucking them.
As we learned before, producing sound through striking or shaking the instrument is what makes something part of the percussion family. The piano fits this definition because its sound is produced through hammer strikes on the strings, triggered by the keyboard.
By this reasoning, a dulcimer, which also uses hammers to strike the strings, would be considered a percussion instrument, too.
Although piano and dulcimer feature vibrating strings as in string instruments, the means of making them vibrate is what makes them percussive.
The piano is considered a percussion instrument because the strings are struck.
In modern piano music, composers sometimes ask a performer to pluck the strings from inside the piano.
So, does that make the piano a pure percussion instrument? Not necessarily.
So How Should I Define What The Piano Is?
While the piano does have strings just as you’d expect from any other stringed instrument, it also strikes the strings to produce sound, which technically makes it perform as a percussion instrument.
This makes it neither a dedicated string or percussion instrument, and there’s a term for this: ‘chordophone’.
Because of the hybrid nature of the piano, you’ll also very commonly hear it referred to as being in the ‘keys’ family of instruments.
Giving the piano its own sub-category is, in many contexts, simply easier to deal with and organize as it doesn’t fit neatly into either the string or percussion categories.
Ultimately, these layers of complexity help to keep the piano alive in the 2020s and beyond. Truly a timeless instrument that we’ll never tire of!