One of the longest debates in music is whether a piano belongs to the percussion family of instruments or whether it is a string instrument. I’m here to take a look at both sides of the argument and provide a definitive answer. So, is a piano percussion?
The piano is BOTH a stringed instrument and a percussion instrument. The strings are stretched between two points and vibrate as per the classification for stringed or chordophone instrument classification. But they vibrate only because they are struck as percussion rules. A single instrument does not have to fall strictly into one class.
This article looks into the argument for both cases and to find if it really can be classed squarely in one category or the other
Why do people think the piano is a percussion instrument
A piano is widely considered to be a percussion instrument because of the final act of the hammer striking the strings to create the sound. This, in effect, places the instrument into the percussion category despite the initial action of the piano player using keys on the exterior of the instrument.
If a piano is indeed a percussion instrument it would then fall into the realm of pitched percussion for sure. One of the most versatile pitched percussion instruments of all!
Percussion instrument classification
A percussion instrument is one that is played by being struck, scraped, or brushed by an object to create the sound or range of sounds. Implements that can be used are traditionally percussion mallets, brushes, hands, or even other parts of the instrument itself.
Why do people think the piano is a stringed instrument
The piano is considered a string instrument by many people because the strings in the instrument are stretched between two points. An easy example of this is a violin where the strings are played by scraping a bow across them or plucking the string individually as you would a guitar for instance.
Stringed instrument classification
A stringed instrument or chordophone is classified by the strings vibrating to create sound when played either by using another implement across the strings or plucked individually. The vast majority of stringed instruments also consider the body to which the string vibrations are transmitted and in some cases, resonated
What about the Piano being Percussive and not Percussion
In many debates on whether a piano is a stringed instrument or not, the general settling of the argument is a compromise that the piano is percussive as opposed to percussion.
Is the Piano like Mallet Percussion in the interior operation?
Some argue that the piano is like mallet percussion in that the sound is created by the striking of the tone creating parts [strings] by the hammer. Similarities with definite pitch percussion instruments like the Xylophone or Marimba are used where mallets strike the bars to create melodies.
I’d say that the piano is pretty similar to mallet percussion (vibes, glock, marimba, etc.). It’s seen in a different context now because the finger-operated keyboard is similar to the organ and the harpsichord from which the piano is derived, but acoustically and mechanically the piano resembles mallet percussion. You are free to call the piano a string instrument, and you would technically be correct, but its sounds are very different from the plucked strings (harpsichords, guitars, lutes, harps), or the bowed strings (viol/violin family).Reddit – The Epic Sock
Does it matter?
Whether the piano is a percussion instrument or a stringed instrument does not alter the fundamentals of the instrument itself, and one ‘Redditor’ eloquently put it…
The one big accepted classification system for musical instruments doesn’t exist. The most commonly used one is Hornbostel-Sachs, which classifies the piano as a simple chordophone or zither.
Generalized, you can say that if you classify by operation technique it’s a key instrument, if you classify by stimulus it’s a percussion instrument and if you classify by the nature of it’s sound-generating material it’s a chordophone (or string instruments). The latter is how most of the modern classification systems work.
And in a non-systematic approach, you can call it what you want 😉Deleted Redditor
What do the experts say?
in 1914 a classification process for musical instruments was first published in the Zeitschrift für Ethnologie.
Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs created the most widely used system for classifying musical instruments which is known as the Hornbostel-Sachs system
The piano falls under the category of Chordophone within this system and is, therefore, a string instrument by this system
Chordophones primarily produce their sounds by means of the vibration of a string or strings that are stretched between fixed points. This group includes all instruments generally called string instruments in the west, as well as many (but not all) keyboard instruments, such as pianos and harpsichords.Wikipedia
Summary: According to the most widely used system in the world, the Piano is a string instrument. However, as pointed out by the Reddit contributor, this only applies if you recognize the classification system at all. My advice is, do not worry whether the piano is percussion or string, and certainly don’t get involved in a debate about it. There is never a winner. Even if you can win, the victory is rather hollow. A little like the inside of a piano, or a drum!