What is a piano? It’s not a harpsichord or a clavichord or an organ but all of these and other instruments share some common lineage or at least certain similarities. They all have keyboards of course although they can differ in length or even number; for instance organs commonly have two or more keyboards (manuals). Harpsichords and pianos share a vaguely similar shape (although not always). And with the exception of the organ, they are stringed instruments, although the manner of manipulating the strings differs.
The clavichord had an advantage over a harpsichord in that it allowed for expression the latter did not – namely the ability of the performer to control the volume. By that I mean the ability to play loud or soft. Unfortunately “loud” wasn’t very, and limited its function to personal use for the most part.
The harpsichord was a popular instrument for quite some time due in part to its added benefit over a clavichord of greater volume. But, alas, it lacked the ability to control the level of that volume – loud or soft.
Innovative instrument designers and builders worked tirelessly to improve a number of factors concerned with the playing of the instrument and the sounds it produced. The first examples of what we can classify as a piano, distinct from its predecessors. was referred to as “piano-forte” or some variation. The two words mean, appropriately enough, “soft” and “loud” and succinctly summed up the important feature offered by this new instrument that most previous ones lacked.
As with most innovations or inventions, the establishment of the piano as a primary instrument replacing its ancestors took place gradually. In fact the first pianos weren’t especially popular for a variety of reasons including tradition and the need for further development, as would be expected. Meanwhile musicians practiced or performed on their instrument of choice, with the piano and its earlier kin coexisting in a sort of harmony, if somewhat strained.