The toy piano is a musical instrument, made as a child's toy, but which has also been used in more serious musical contexts. The instrument was invented in Philadelphia in 1872 by a German immigrant named Albert Schoenhut.
It is often in the form of a scaled down model of a piano, usually no more than 50 cm in width, and made out of wood or plastic. The first toy pianos were made in the mid-19th century and were typically uprights, although many toy pianos made today are models of grands. Prices range from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars.
Rather than hammers hitting strings as on a standard piano, the toy piano sounds by way of hammers hitting metal bars or rods which are fixed at one end. The hammers are connected to the keys by a mechanism similar to that which drives keyboard glockenspiels. This makes it sound more 'tinkly.' Some new toy pianos are electronic.
Toy pianos ostensibly use the same musical scale as full size pianos, although their tuning in all but the most expensive models is usually very approximate. Similarly, the pitch to which they are tuned is rarely close to the standard of 440 Hz for the A above middle C.
A typical toy piano will have a range of one to three octaves. The cheapest models may not have black keys, or the black keys may be painted on. This means they can play the diatonic scale (or an approximately tuned version of it), but not the chromatic scale. Typically, diatonic toy pianos have only eight keys and can play one octave.
British experimental composers used the toy piano frequently, especially the Promenade Theatre Orchestra (1969-73), a quartet of composer/performers (members included John White, Alec Hill, Hugh Shrapnel, and Christopher Hobbs, whose central instrumentation consisted of four matched French Michelsonne toy pianos and Hohner reed organs. Their music was, broadly, repetitive minimalism, often of great technical difficulty (Hobbs's Working Notes (1969) for four toy pianos), great dynamic power (Shrapnel's 4 Toy Pianos (1971)), were used in various combinations with reed organs, and used compositional techniques that were either specific to British experimentalism (such as systems music, invented by John White), or borrowed from other disciplines (such as Alec Hill's use of change ringing systems).
A pioneer of the toy piano is the German composer and pianist Bernd Wiesemann (b. 1938). He played many concerts with the toy piano in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1993 he released the CD "Neue Musik für Kinderklavier" ("New Music for Toy Piano"), containing compositions by John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ratko Delorko, Andreas Kunstein, Frank Scholzen, Joachim Herbold, Carlos Cruz de Castro, Francisco Estevez and himself. In 2004 he released the SACD "Das untemperierte Klavier" ("the not-so-well-tempered piano", a play on Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier), containing new contemporary works.
In 1997, pianist Margaret Leng Tan released the CD "The Art of the Toy Piano". On it, she plays a number of pieces written specially for the toy piano as well as arrangements of other pieces, including Ludwig van Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" and The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby". A documentary directed by Evans Chan entitled "Sorceress of the New Piano" explores the music making of Tan and will have its American debut at the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival in 2005.
Another famous artist who uses a toy piano is French musician/composer Yann Tiersen, who played the instrument already in his first album "La Valse des Monstres" ("Monsters' Waltz"). He also uses the toy piano to musically recreate the childhood of the main character in the French movie Amélie, which features a soundtrack composed mostly by him.
The toy piano has been used extensively by alternative rock and post-rock bands such as Agitpop, Evanescence, Radiohead, Warren Zevon, Tori Amos, Sigur Rós and The Dresden Dolls. The punk rock band Matty Pop Chart has a song on their Good Old Water CD composed entirely on a toy piano.
In the Peanuts cartoon strip, one of the characters, Schroeder, plays classical music (principally Beethoven) on what appears to be a toy piano. However, given the technical difficulties of the music he is playing, it is unlikely he actually played on a toy piano.
In 2005 Matt Malsky and David Claman sponsored "The Extensible Toy Piano Project" , which consisted of an extensive set of freely-available, high-quality toy piano samples, an international composition competition, and a festival at Clark University. One of the winners was Karlheinz Essl with his piece "Kalimba" for Toy Piano and CD playback.