What Are The Differences Between Pianos & Celestas?

Keyboard instruments are some of the most complex to analyze, let alone master. In this instance, we’ll be having a closer look at two keyboard instruments that share the same status as orchestral percussion instruments while differing in many respects: the celesta and the piano.

What are the differences between pianos and celestas? The differences can be abridged as follows:

  • The celesta is a metallophone, while the piano is a percussion and a string instrument.
  • Celestas mainly come in the upright variety. On the contrary, there are three different types of pianos.
  • Celestas are brighter-sounding than pianos.

Throughout this article, we’ll dive deeper into the distinctions between pianos and celestas just described, but first, let’s review both instruments’ histories.

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The Backgrounds Of Pianos And Celestas

Keyboard instruments can find their origin in the 3rd century BC in Alexandria. The first keyboards were mechanical water organs called Hydraulis which, as the name suggests, were actioned with the aid of water pressure in order to propel air across their tubes.

Over the course of centuries, many other instruments started to use keys laid out similarly, though their underlying mechanisms were greatly dissimilar from one another.

The Background Of Pianos

The piano is a relative latecomer in the list of keyboard instruments. It derived from older chordophone instruments that also operated via keys, such as the harpsichord or the clavichord.

The older clavichord is very similar in design to the modern piano, though it relied on a string-plucking mechanism for enticing vibration. In the 17th century, Bartolomeo Cristofori came up with the piano by delineating a system involving hammers instead of tangents.

These hammers would hit the strings with an intensity relative to how the player pushes the keys, allowing for more nuances in volume than what was allowed with the contemporary harpsichords or clavichords. This made the piano a suitable instrument for conveying a wide range of emotions while sharing the same harmonic versatility as the other keyboard instruments.

Two centuries later, manufacturers would include up to three different pedals so that instrumentalists could add a broader range of colours to their performance.

The Background Of Celestas

The celesta is an even more recent invention. It was devised and patented in 1886 by French carpenter and instrument builder Victor Mustel (although some sources claim that it was patented by his son Auguste in that same year).

The name celesta comes from the French word “cèleste,” meaning “heavenly”. It utilizes the same concussive hammer system as pianos. Still, these hammers would hit metal sound bars with resonator boxes at the bottom to deliver their sound waves, similar to mallet instruments.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky grew very fond of these novel instruments and was responsible for ultimately popularizing them worldwide, particularly with his most successful ballet: “The Nutcracker”. Since then, the instrument has gained a lot of traction in academic circles.

One of the most recent pieces that garnered renewed widespread attention towards the celesta was “Hedwig’s Theme”, written by John Williams for the Harry Potter films.

What Are The Differences Between Pianos And Celestas?

Now, we’ll go over the contrasting elements between pianos and celestas outlined at the beginning.

Difference 1: Class

I began by highlighting the following:

“The celesta is a metallophone, while the piano is a percussion and a string instrument.”

While both instruments share the same keyboard layout consisting mostly of “white” (natural) and “black“ (accidental) keys, their resonance mechanism is distinct. So distinct it is, in fact, that they are classed slightly differently.

The celesta, just like the piano, is a percussion instrument of the pitched variety. They both generate sound by hitting the surface of a body, engendering vibration.

However, celestas are closer to idiophones in their innermost constitution, with the main resonant device being the metallic sound bars inside the chamber. These bars are hit by hammers made with a felted tip.

Idiophones are instruments that don’t necessitate additional components such as membranes or strings to produce audible sounds. In this respect, the celeste is closer to mallet instruments like the xylophone or the glockenspiel.

On the contrary, apart from being a percussion instrument, the piano is also a chordophone, for its sound delivery rests on the vibration of strings distributed across the soundboard. The hammers are made with harder and more vertically thick shanks than the ones in celesta.

Difference 2: Variety

On another note, I pointed out that:

“Celestas mainly come in the upright variety. On the contrary, there are three different types of pianos.”

Pianos generally come in three main variants:

  • The upright piano, with a vertical soundboard.
  • The grand piano, which has a horizontally laid-out soundboard and a much better response (as it’s not hampered by gravity like the upright piano is).
  • The electronic piano which resonates via sensors and an amplifying device.

Conversely, celestas don’t stray from their upright variety, modelled similarly to the upright pianos.

Difference 3: Sound

Last but not least, I affirmed that:

“Celestas are brighter-sounding than pianos.”

In this regard, the differences are very noticeable. The piano has a sound that is unique and hard to imitate. It’s highly balanced with a strong midrange delivery.

When it comes to the celesta, it generates a bell-like ring with a very robust emphasis on the higher end of the frequency spectrum. It’s comparable to the sound produced by mallet metallophones like the glockenspiel or the vibraphone. Celestas are called “bell pianos” for that very reason.

On a mildly related note, the celestas are normally arranged in four octaves, from C4 to C8, and are written one octave lower than their absolute pitch. In contrast, conventional pianos have 88 keys with a pitch range between A0 and C8 and are not transposed, meaning that the written note matches the frequency of the pitch.

Read How Pianos Compare To Other Instruments

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and the author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or producing music. For more info, please check out his YouTube channel and his music.

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