History of the Musical Keyboard

While the drum was probably the first instrument made, as we learned last year, the “wind” instrument probably comes next in the timeline...

Wind instruments include the flute, horn, clarinet, pipe organ and accordion. These all work by pressurized air. The flute is the oldest of these instruments, dating back some 30,000 years to China. The oldest working flute dates back about 9,000 years. These devices, made of hallowed out bone, wooden sticks, bamboo or reeds, generate a tone by air passing over a small hole in the tube with closed ends that causes reverberations (reflections) through the length of that tube. It’s a variation on blowing across the top of a bottle and we’ve all done this. A soda bottle. You put your lips up to it and blow across the mouth and it makes a tone. That tone varies based on if the bottle is empty (giving a low tone like a fog horn) or still contains liquid. Therefore the length of overall size of the tube controls the pitch, so if you start putting holes in the tube and use your fingers to cover them you will generate different notes or pitches.

If you blow through the rear of the tube inside of the side near the rear, you get a recorder or pan pipe.

If you open both ends of the tube and add a flat, thin piece of material (often made of wood or reed) to the narrowest end you create the clarinet. This uses air pressure to move or vibrate that piece of wood (or reed) which is amplified by the tube and given a pitch by the holes long the length of the tube.

If you change the tube from wood or reed to metal you get a saxophone, which makes a vastly different tone than a clarinet due to the metallic structure as opposed to the wooden structure.

If you remove the reed and just make a small opening at the rear you get a horn

If you replace the human mouth as the means of air pressure with a bladder bag or bellows that is pumped by the arm or foot, you get the basis of a bag pipe, accordion or harmonium if a reed is used near the wind opening or an organ if a metal tube or pipe is used.

The cheng (or sheng), invented by Ling Lun around 3000 BC is one of the first devices on which the harmonica, accordion and harmonium is based. This was a reed vibrating instrument powered by air from the mouth. A basic harmonica.

In 3 BC Ktesibios (Ctesibius), an engineer, invented the hydraulis, from which the musical instrument known as the pipe organ was derived. This device used water pressure to move air through long pipes, which generated a tonal vibration.

The Romans replaced the hand and water pressure mechanism of the hydraulis with a bellows.

By 3 AD the Roman Empire has split into two halves, Western and Eastern. The Western Empire was based out of Rome, Italy, while the Eastern Empire was based out of Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey. When the Western Roman Empire crumbled around 5 AD most of the knowledge and inventions fell into a “dark ages” until 760 AD when Byzantine Emperor Constantius sent a Roman modification organ to the King of the Franks, who then ordered a Venetian Monk to learn teach others how to build these devices. As a result of this action the pipe organ probably found its way into the Catholic churches of the Western world, making headway across the lands of Europe, Scandinavia and the Baltic regions.

By the middle ages the keyboard of the organ was attached to a big version of the stringed instrument known as the lute, with this comes the origin of the Harpsichord around 1400 AD.

There are several variations of the harpsichord, which plucks a series of strings of different lengths and tensions. These variations place the plucking mechanism at different locations along the paths of the strings.

The most remembered usage of the harpsichord in modern times is for the theme song of the television show “The Addams Family.” Of course, those into classical music hear this instrument all the time!

By 1500 AD the organ was found in the current form, with “stops” that subtract various pipes from “blowing” mechanism to create different sounds. By using these stops or levers which block off some pipes, and through construction of different size pipes the organ could emulate a variety of sounds including reeds and horns.

By 1700 AD the piano was invented. Based on the harpsichord this new device hit the strings instead of plucking them and Steinway took this to high art.

While the harpsichord is based along a standard sized set of strings and wooden case to hold them, pianos started to be made with longer strings and strings of different thickness, because the ability to hit thicker strings was easier than to pluck them.

The harpsichord was and still largely is a 60 or 66 key instrument, as was the original piano. After a while more keys and notes were added to the piano until the standard of 88 keys was largely adopted for the full size or grand piano.

Around 1810 the basis of the first harmonium or foot pumped reed organ was perfected. Sounding somewhat like an accordion, it is found in many small churches and religious schools (I played one in Chicago at Gogatha Lutheran Church on the South West side of town). In modern music the Beatles made use of this instrument in two of their hit songs. “You Won’t See Me” where a single harmonium note is droned in the last verse and continues through the ending, played by management associate Mal Evans, who was probably ordered or asked to pump the pedals and press “this key” by John Lennon or Paul McCartney, who thought it would make a nice, new layer to the ending of that song. Producer George Martin, a consummate pianist, played it through the song “We Can Work It Out.” One of the key features of this device is the ability to “swell” or grow louder as you pump the bellows pedals faster and harder. This works like a volume control.

In 1822 Christian Friedrich Buschmann basically invented the accordion, although in Vienna around 1829 Cyrillus Damian was actually awarded a Patent from the Royal court for the “accordion.”

The accordion is a small reed organ that is worn on the chest and pumped by the arms as you play the keyboard with both hands. Wind pressure from the bellows vibrates through reeds which are exposed by the pressing of keys to generate a tonal pitch.

In modern music Lawrence Welk, German and Austrian folk music, “Polka” music, Mexican “Ranchera” and even some “Tejano” music, plus the works of Weird Al feature the accordion. The current Yahoo ads for their music downloads feature space aliens who transport up all sorts of rock and pop musicians but zap an accordionist with a phaser! Of course the classic send up comes from National Lampoon who did a parody on “hip” accordionists like Lawrence Welk and Myron Floren, among others, showing their various methods all on the same song, the classic accordion piece “Lady of Spain.”

The first electronic organ was perfected and Patented in 1934 by Laurens Hammond. In 1937 Hammond perfected the B-3 model, which was originally introduced to the musical world at the 1939 AES show in New York.

The Hammond electronic organ used wheels with varied hills and valleys that spin around at precise rates and caused fluctuations in the magnetic fields, which were then linked to electronic vacuum tubes used to generate the sound. Various “draw bars” gave alterations to these fluctuations so that virtually any instrument could be mimicked. The organ mechanism generated sine waves (smooth hills and valleys) and saw tooth waves (spikes) and square waves.

This organ has two levels of keyboards, each with 61 keys. Made of solid walnut it weighs 400 pounds and takes four people to transport by hand or dolly. It became the rage of the music world and to this day any modern “rock” band has one stored away somewhere and often uses it on stage.

Classic rock works with feature the B-3 as a prime instrument include the acts Argent (“Hold Your Head High”), Steppenwolf (“Born To Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride”) and Emerson, Lake and Palmer (almost their entire album collection, including the classic “Carnevil Nine”). It’s also been heard in tunes by Steely Dan and the Eagles. Organist Billy Preston plays one throughout the Beatles song “Let It Be.” Alan Price, keyboardist-arranger for the Animals, plays one extensively on all their hits (“We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” and “House of the Rising Sun”). Musician-Producer Al Kooper (Lynyrd Synyrd break out album Second Helping and the first Blood Sweat and Tears album lead singer) made his “commercial musical debut” on the B-3 for Bob Dylan’s song “Like a Rolling Stone” for which Dylan insisted that organ part, done by a virtual rookie, be included high in the mix!

The B-3 relied on external “Leslie” speakers for rotating, phase shifted sounds. This added to the size and weight as these Walnut cabinets were as tall as the B-3 and about half as wide!

For home use, the M-3 Hammond was created with a smaller size and built in speaker system.

By the 1950’s everyone and anyone was making electronic organs using oscillators and tube amplifiers, aimed at the home market. Lowry and Wurlitzer (who struck it big early in the 1900s with the “Theater” pipe organ aimed at big movies houses in the silent film era). The Spinet Organ for home use was marketed in 1949.

Because of the size and weight of this electro-mechanical organ devices such as the Farfisa organ became a hot item in the 1960’s and were used in the classic song “96 Tears” by ? and the Mysterians, also heard in songs by the Doors and Monkees.

The biggest revolution in keyboard music came in 1963 at the AES show where Robert Moog demonstrated his electronic synthesizer. In making this device, which lets you “bend” waves to create virtually any sound, he created the voltage controlled oscillator (a key part of the analog syth, as this makes tones in steps when you press the keyboard with a 1 volt per octave standard) and the “envelope generator” which gives use the modern term or ADSR (Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release).

Robert Moog was already a producer and distributor of another electronic musical device known as the Theremin (invented in 1919 by Russian physicists Lev Sergeivich Termen, aka Léon Theremin). The Theremin is best known for the classic movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” He used this manufacturing and distribution operation to market the Moog Synthesizer.

Originally a modular device, Moog brought it to the masses as an all-in-one, self contained device with the Model D in 1971, followed by the Mini Moog with 3 oscillators and a low frequency control.

One of the first major commercial recordings using the Synthesizer was “Switched On Bach” played by Walter Carlos (who would later become Wendy Carlos and do the sound track for several Stanley Kubrick films, including “A Clockwork Orange” using the Moog synthesizer). It was also used by Paul Beavers who played a solo on one of the last Monkees albums. The Beatles made some use of it in the Abbey Road album sessions (“Here Comes The Sun” as an example), but the most major use came from Keith Emerson in the group ELP starting with “Lucky Man” and heard in every other album after that, including "Carnevil Nine.” Some of the most outstanding performances in pop use came from Stevie Wonder’s Innervision sessions (“Superstitious”).

The big problem with the original Moog is only one key could trigger a sound. If you wanted to go from major to minors on the Mini Moog you had to manually turn the oscillator that controlled the “third” or not use the third at all! Moog solved this problem with the introduction of the Polyphonic Moog, a very expensive keyboard that let you play chords with two hands.

ARP made a unit much like the Mini Moog, except you could play two notes at a time and tuning changes were done with graphical sliders instead of turn knobs.

In 1975 he released the Taurus Bass Pedal synthesizer, which found wide use by many rock acts.

Oberheim, Prophet, Roland and Korg each came out with various “analog” synthesizers, each with their own trademarked sound. Korg was by far the lowest priced, followed by Roland at a moderate price level. Oberheim and the Prophet 5 were priced sky high, like the Polyphonic Moog. This device also introduced the whammy strip, a touch pad that let you change pitch or bend a note using your finger on an electro sensitive material, instead of a slider or pitch wheel as found in other Synthesizers and electronic organs.

Pop rock music was dominated by this sound in the 1980s. The Cars were frontrunners with hits like “Bye, Bye Love” which featured polyphonic analog (and possibly digital) keyboards, along with monophonic analogy synths. Tears for Fears uses them. The Talking Heads used them. Genesis and Phil Collins used them. Prince made heavy use of them. It was a large part of the “Modern Music” and 1980’s new “British Invasion.” There wasn’t much room on the charts in 1980 to 1990 for a song that wasn’t “keyboard based”

With the advent of digital electronics in the 1980s price, sound and features of the synthesizer became very accessible. Roland was one of the leaders of this movement, making good solid keyboards with a great sound available at under $1,200. Yamaha came next. By 1985 Moog sold his operation and the company eventually folded.

These put a damper on “analog” synths and I remember liquidating my Micro Moog which I bought for $700 at only $150. No one wanted a “one note” syth you had to hand tune.

Now, of course, the beefy sounds of analog synths are back in vogue and that some synth would sell for $500 to $1,000 if I kept it!

Oberheims, Prophets, analog Rolands (like the Jupiter 8), Moogs and ARPs (like the Odyssey) are selling today for almost as they sold for new in the 1980s!

The big killer for analog was probably the introduction of initially the Roland JX-3P and later the Yamaha DX-7.

The DX-7, which epitomizes the early “Madonna” sound of both the bass tracks (syth bass) and the primary music became quite popular starting around 1985.

The revitalization was the beefy sounds associated with analog synths, to which some modern electronic artists have now returned! To get an idea of the “weaker” sound of polyphonic analog/digital and monophonic analog take a listen to the Cars “Bye, Bye Love” and you’ll hear both, including a monophonic analogue solo, along with analog or digital “piano” arpeggios. The analog synth solo easily holds its own against the electric guitar solo heard at the end of the song.



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