Keyboard instruments before the piano, part 1: Harpsichord

The first pianos were developed in the early 1700s by an Italian instrument maker called Bartolomeo Cristofori. We’ll take a look at some early pianos in another post. But first we’ll explore two important types of keyboard instruments which existed before the piano. Let’s start with the harpsichord.

The harpsichord has a brilliant sound which could be described as ‘fizzy’. This is because the strings are plucked, rather than being struck with hammers. A harpsichord mechanism consists of a wooden structure called a jack, which contains a quill or a small piece of hard leather (or plastic, as in many modern harpsichords). If you have a chance to play a harpsichord you will notice a slight resistance on the keys just before the quills ‘ping’ the strings.

Following the boom in historical instrument performance from the 1970s, the harpsichord has enjoyed a great revival of interest. However, its main drawback is its limited dynamics. Key pressure doesn’t make any difference between soft and loud, as it does on the piano. So, to give the performer more variety of sound, harpsichords often have two sets of strings, and many have two keyboards (or manuals).

In the following video, Steven Devine, keyboardist with the Orchestra of the Enlightenment, demonstrates a 2-manual harpsichord.

Here are some videos which show harpsichord jacks in action: