What is a Harpsichord?

Piano Lessons / piano questions / What is a Harpsichord?

Ever since I started doing my Living Piano: Journey Through Time Historic Concert Experience – where I play concerts showing the development of the piano from the harpsichord to the early fortepiano and finally the modern concert grand piano in period costumes, one of the most frequent questions I receive are about the harpsichord. People are fascinated by it’s unique sound and interesting design. Today we are going to explore what makes the harpsichord special and how even though it’s related to the piano it’s a unique instrument.

It’s hard to imagine a time before the piano was invented, yet years ago the harpsichord and the pipe organ were the keyboard instruments of choice. The harpsichord that I perform on has two keyboards but this isn’t usually the case. Most harpsichords only have one manual or set of keys. Early harpsichords had the keyboards shifted in slightly different positions from one another, usually a fifth apart. Later the keyboards were designed with the keys on the two manuals in alignment with one another.

Harpsichords also evolved to have more features such as stops which could change the tone by striking different sets of strings or placing felt on the strings. Later, harpsichords had pedals to change the sound and tone of the instrument. These advancements were made because the harpsichord does not have dynamics by touch alone. This is because the strings are plucked instead of struck with hammers as in a piano. The fact is, no matter how hard or gently you press a key, it will always produce the same volume on a harpsichord – which is which is in sharp contrast to the piano. However, with the addition of stops and pedals the harpsichord is able to produce a variety of tones.

The harpsichord is a much more delicate instrument than the piano and it doesn’t produce nearly as much volume. It was used primarily during the Baroque era as the instrument of choice for performing because it produced more volume than other keyboards of the time. As time went on, instruments got louder which could accommodate larger performing spaces. Eventually the harpsichord lost favor to the piano.

Today harpsichords are rarely found. There are very few produced and there are scare technicians skilled in restoring them. If you play the harpsichord you will probably want to learn to tune to some extent since they are less stable than pianos.

If you would like more information about the harpsichord you can check out the video we produced on the Wittmayer Harpsichord we currently have for sale in our showroom and check out my Living Piano: Journey Through Time Historic Concert Experience video. Thanks for joining me. Robert@LivingPianos.com