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What Came Before The Piano? The Harpsichord

The next in our Piano History Series; What Came Before The Piano? The Harpsichord. Our first post followed the history of the Clavichord which predeceased the Harpsichord and had distinct differences. Continue reading to briefly learn what made the Harpsichord pivotal in stringed instruments.

Harpsichord What Came Before The Piano? The Harpsichord
Harpsichord with characteristic black naturals and white sharps, unlike the piano which ist he opposite

The Basics

The harpsichord became popularised in the 16th century through to the early 18th century. Although it is unknown who originally invented the Harpsichord, as we know from earlier blogs it was developed from instruments such as the Clavichord and the Dulcimer.

The harpsichord was used as both a solo instrument and an accompanying instrument often for singers. Almost all composers of the time wrote music for what was then the most popular instrument of its age. The earliest example of a harpsichord we have is from Italy in the 16th century and is a typical example being decorated in beautiful paintings and leather stampings.

In construction the later harpsichords look closely like a grand piano. The keyboard is at the front with the expected curved back shape which holds the strings, long for the bass and short for the treble. This shape developed over time and earlier harpsichords had shapes closer to Clavichords or entirely unique. The important thing is that the harpsichord brought the new innovation of plucking the strings instead of hitting them.

In 1890 the harpsichord had a revival with renowned piano makers such as Pleyel and Erard creating new instruments using the technology of the piano, including pedals to change registers.

How does it work?

In simple terms as the front of the harpsichord key is pushed down, the back raises which leads to a chain reaction causing a jack to rise and pluck with a quill or plectrum the strings on the way up, and then pass it freely on the way down; thus the sound of a harpsichord is created. Much like the piano the sound is amplified by a soundboard and the correct register is achieved by the strings going over a bridge and being plucked in the best place for sound production. A felt is then placed on the string to remove any continual ringing. Harpsichords since approximately 1550 have had two strings with two rows of jacks and plectra which can be adjusted by the harpsichordist to produce different volume and tone.

The pluctrum rising and strings a string on a Harpsichord in the blogWhat Came Before The Piano? The Harpsichord
The pluctrum rising and strings a string on a Harpsichord

The Differences

The harpsichord by 1550 had 4 octaves and two strings per note. Although pleasing this harpsichord had its limitations including that of dynamic variation and rapid repetition. Through its evolution this grew to 5 octaves, two keyboards stacked on top of each other, and three strings per note. Two keyboards meant that harpsichords were now able to produce both loud and quiet notes at the same time and notes could be repeated rapidly between the different keyboards with their own jacks. This made the harpsichord much closer in playability to the piano but not close enough. The natural evolution at this point was moved forwards by Bartolomeo Cristofori who invented the piano.

Special Effects

Towards the 17th century some harpsichords were built with two stacked keyboards and three strings. The lower keyboard dealt only with the unison standard octave, and the higher keyboard the shorter third string with its own plectrum and higher octave. As most harpsichord music was pleasing to the single keyboard instruments, not many of these stacked instrument survive today. The French "couplers" music which was written with crossing interlinked lines was only possible on the stacked keyboards however and was a skill in itself to play.

Many harpsichordists had a "buff stop" which was a piece of leather that could be placed on the stings to dampen them and give a more pizzicato effect. It is also possible to create a "lute stop" which was a different register by a separate plectrum plucking very close to the end of the stings.

We hope that you have enjoyed this short blog on What Came Before The Piano? The Harpsichord and it has helped you to understand the basics of this beautiful instrument. Please click on some of the links below to gain a further understanding.


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