The prepared piano is a unique musical instrument that has had a significant impact on contemporary music. It is an acoustic piano that has been modified with various objects placed on the strings to create new and distinctive sounds. This innovation was pioneered by certain composers and performers, but there continues to be debate around who can claim credit as the true inventor of the prepared piano.

Historical Background

Historical Background

Throughout history, numerous attempts have been made in adapting traditional instruments to push past their standard sonic range. As early as the Renaissance era, players would retune lutes or viols for particular pieces of music. Later centuries saw more extreme approaches – like gluing additional frets between those which already existed on guitars during Baroque times.

When it comes to keyboard instruments specifically, organ stops precede any acknowledgment of “prepared” pianos or keyboards. Invented around 1450 by Italian builder Agostino degli Organi and later refined significantly throughout Europe’s Gothic period (the high point being J.S Bach’s extensive employment), they set specific pipes responsible for tones beyond what natural air would allow were pulled out from within an organ’s housing based on need (“stop” itself coming from “blocking” certain sound possibilities).

Roughly three centuries lapsed before anyone considered tampering with one of Western art’s most revered productions: The Piano.

From Household Item To Regarded Musical Instrument

From Household Item To Regarded Musical Instrument

Invented in 1709 by Bartolomeo Cristofori in Florence (who named his creation gravicembalo col piano e forte [keyboard instrument capable of playing soft or loud]), it remained pretty much untouched regarding alterations past timbre production until Erik Satie’s vexations forced several tweaks over two decades after its 1887 invention: double-keyboard versions better suited to handle chromatic complexities, coupled with slightly calming tendencies established Ives’ well-documented involvement using bolts hammered down onto hammers-yet still no fussing directly per se.

However, it wasn’t until John Cage took a screwdriver to the piano strings on his own in 1938 that the prospect of preparing instruments for fresh sound was truly established. As he put it in an interview five years later:

“I got sight of screws and chair bottoms and saw what they would do; but I found out how not why. Then a workman began to experiment with me.”

If Cage was holding down one end of this “discovery,” then surely his first determined accomplice (graphic designer/composer) Earle Brown’s contribution three years later-financing preparations for Sonatas & Interludes-marks another loud knee pop ringing through history books, if not outright boxing cage’s days outside avant-garde circles.

Cage originally devised a method to prepare pianos during his residency at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo around 1938-39-a time when both unemployment rates and Dew Point temps were vying for headlines but also enjoying their fair share of high-profile composers/musicians/guitar repairmen hanging about town doing nothing but theorizing endless possibilities arising from various objects lying about people’s homes. While many probably dabbled, Sound-on-film pioneer Oskar Fischinger along with Richard Buhlig et al most likely had sketches well underway before Cage ever sat astride felt hammers readying himself whatever weirdness might spill forth over next few seasons, given just how big their grip must have stuck into those tight purse strings long sucked dry by Depression-esque conditions – leaving aside practicality side potential damage involved though care-given player was habitually mentioned throughout published materials advertising or discussing upcoming events involving prepared pianos.

Who Invented The Prepared Piano?

The question as to who exactly invented the prepared piano is still up for debate among music historians and scholars. Some argue that John Cage should be credited as the inventor since he is often cited as having been the first person to modify a piano with various objects.

Others point out that there were earlier experiments in modifying keyboard instruments, such as composer Henry Cowell’s pursuit of creating new sounds by altering the strings inside of pianos. Additionally, certain performers like Russian avant-garde pianist Aleksandr Skryabin and American composer George Antheil can be seen as forerunners to Cage’s development. However, despite these cases pre-dating Cage’s mid-century breakthroughs by several years at least.

In many ways, the story behind who invented the prepared piano is one that mirrors broader cultural shifts around music ownership and innovation in 20th-century America. In short: while it’s impossible to know exactly who deserves credit for assembling scraps and bolts onto wood or plastic hammers – no doubt countless aficionados have done so without a second thought whenever they weren’t tinkering other things together – ultimately what matters most when examining this case study spans innovators approximated discursive counter-currents historically present within arts (including music) scenes-at their best they provided breathing space larger impulses powering ones intuitions towards inquiry-toiling aspects creative process struggling against conservatory forces aiming squelch all possible deviance lest change disrupt greatness already achieved; at worst offering shortcuts guaranteed well-trodden paths not presenting any disturbing view either how real art took place then nor necessarily today.


Despite controversy over whether John Cage or other composers/manufacturers conceived idea preparing pianos originally or before him, remains accomplished musical figure either way thanks ongoing legacy international acclaim left us through inventive works challenging accepted conclusions existence only recently promoted beyond selective territory academics small groups specialists-but certainly deserving far wider attention!