History of the Harpsichord

Technical Breakdown of the Early Keyboard Instrument

Harpsichord Keyboard
Harpsichord Keyboard. Jacqui Hurst/Getty Images

History of the Harpsichord

  • Also Known As clavicembalum; a clavicytherium is a harpsichord that’s vertically strung to save space
  • Dates: First appeared late 14C; popular until mid-19C
  • Range: 4-5 octaves, 59 notes were common
  • Size: Averages 8 feet in length; 3 feet in width
  • Voice: Distinctly treble, guitar-like timbre

The earliest written record of the harpsichord dates to 1397, making it among the earliest stringed keyboard instruments (and certainly the largest and most complex for its time). It is thought to be related to a small, ancient harp known as the psaltery, as well as to a keyed version of the polychord that popped up around the 13th century (see organistrum).

The harpsichord is an early ancestor of the piano. The resemblance can be seen in its body, which resembles a small, angular grand piano, often with a reverse keyboard. Harpsichords are still built today by specialty instrument-makers.

Harpsichord Action

The harpsichord used a plucking action, meaning its strings were not hammered like those of the piano; they were plucked with “plectra” made of quill or animal hide. While this type of action had some negative qualities – it made for shabby dynamics and wasn’t particularly strong – it was crucial to the harpsichord’s crisp, highly-treble tone.

To give the harpsichord’s voice some strength, the size and shape of its soundboard were modified and the length of its strings was increased; each note was given two or three strings instead of just one, and thicker, more tightly-strung sets were used.

The Harpsichord’s Notorious Lack of Dynamics

Due to its primitive and weak plucking action, the harpsichord did not have a touch-sensitive keyboard; the player had practically no control over the volume of individual notes. Naturally, this got old. Other instruments of the time had become more dynamically expressive, and harpsichordists wanted more options. Eventually, harpsichord builders began employing methods to mimic dynamic variations:

  • Forte / Piano Stops: A forte stop was used to lift the dampers off the strings – much like the sustain pedal – allowing them to vibrate freely and produce a larger tone. On the other end of the spectrum was the piano stop, which kept the dampers on the strings and slightly muted them. The problem with both stop effects was that the harpsichord already had a quick decay, meaning its strings didn’t vibrate long in the first place.
  • Coupler: A stop was developed to allow the instrument’s two manuals to play simultaneously (one manual would be played by the musician, while the other appeared to be played by an invisible man); but this really just created a fuller tone, not a louder volume.

Harpsichord Strings, Manuals & Disposition

The first harpsichords were built with one set of strings (or “choir”) and one manual (or keyboard). ” Disposition” refers to the pitch of the choir sets, and 8-foot pitch – the universal concert pitch – was standard on the harpsichord. So, the earliest harpsichords had one 8' choir of strings; written 1 x 8'.

When a second choir was introduced, it was either an additional 8' (both 8' choirs were the same pitch) or 4', which was an octave higher than 8' (the shorter the string, the higher the pitch).

Common harpsichord dispositions include:

  • 2 x 8': Two choirs at 8 feet
  • 1 x 8', 1 x 4': One choir at 8' and one at 4'
  • 2 x 8', 1 x 4'
  • *1 x 16' + 2 x 8' + 1 x 4'
*16-foot strings are an octave lower than 8', and are less common. Rarer still is the 2' choir; two octaves higher than 8'. These choirs were mostly found on German harpsichords of the 18th century.

Choirs could be turned on or off with hand stops. When a second manual arrived on French harpsichords in the 17th century (and, later, a third), it was possible to assign each keyboard its own choir, so each register could be controlled independently.

Styles of Harpsichord Building

The manuals, dispositions, and even the body-shapes of harpsichords varied by region; learn how they evolved:

  • Learn About the Different Types of Harpsichords