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What Came Before The Piano? The Clavichord

In this article we will give a brief overview of one of the instruments that came before the Piano: the Clavichord! We have only covered the very basics so if you would like to find out more then please follow some of the links below with our sources.

The Basics

The Clavichord is a square stringed instrument that was popular in the middle ages. Much like the piano the Clavichord is played using a keyboard, has resonating strings and a soundboard. The Clavichord actually looks a lot like a piano for these reasons. That being said most Clavichords were only small, perhaps three octaves. When they had their lids on top, Clavichords look much like a desk or bureau. The Clavichord can produce dynamic variation by changing the touch of how the pianist plays much like in a piano.

How Does It Work?

In a Clavichord the strings run from the tuning pin over a bridge to the hitch pin. The action consists of a basic key which when depressed levers the tangent - a brass hammer - to hit the strings which vibrate, causing sound. Unlike in the piano, the tangent stays on the string instead of rebounding. The strings are usually in pairs and made of brass much like in a lute. It is possible to create the effect of vibrato - or bebung - on a Clavichord.

When the tangent hits the string it creates one side which is muted by a damper and the other side vibrates causing the notes. Some Clavichords were fretted so that more than one note sound could be achieved by the same string

The Differences

The clavichord uses a brass "tangent" to hit a string in order to create noise whereas the piano uses felted hammers. These hammers then rebound from the string unlike in a Clavichord where they stay in contact with the string until the key is lifted. Additional to this the piano is much bigger than a Clavichord although some of the later instruments did become much bigger.

The Clavichord didn't have much power so was often used as a practice instrument as opposed to a performance instrument. However, concerts in the home were common so this wasn't often a problem. Sometimes Clavichords were stacked on top of each other and organists used the to practice! Pianos have a greater dynamic range and a more responsive touch due to the way the actions works.

History Series: What Came Before The Piano? The Clavichord

We hope that this article on What Came Before The Piano? The Clavichord has helped you to understand the basics of what the Clavichord is , how it worked and how it differs from the piano.


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