The harpsichord and the clavichord are two medieval keyboard instruments that were invented more than 250 years before the piano. Vastly different in sound and shape, these instruments gained popularity during the Renaissance and Baroque eras but lost favor with the invention of the piano around 1700. You can tell the difference between the two by their distinguishing features.
Sounds of the Renaissance
The clavichord was developed in the 14th century and was the first keyboard to be invented after the church organ. The keyboard had a checkered look, hence, the original name "chekker," which comes from the medieval word for checkerboard. First used in royal court music in 1360, the clavichord was ideal for personal use because of its quiet sound and small size. Designed by Henri Arnaut de Zwolle, the harpsichord first appeared in 1440 in France. It was the primary keyboard instrument during the Baroque era, from 1600 to 1750. The harpsichord used the basso continuo, a method of playing a continuous bass line to support the higher notes of the melody.
What They Look Like
The clavichord is a long rectangular, wooden box with a keyboard in front and was originally made without legs for playing atop a table, as well as for ease during travel. Eventually manufacturers added legs. The finish traditionally was plain but scenic images were painted under the lid. The harpsichord was also traditionally made without legs for tabletop playing, but the shape is much different. The front and left side create a right angle, but the right side curves inward, much like a piano. Harpsichords came ornately finished with gold leaf and hand-painted images. The sizes varied from narrow to large, similar to the size of a baby grand piano, and some featured a second keyboard above the first.
How They're Played
The clavichord and harpsichord produce sounds differently, according to the specific inner mechanism of each keyboard. When the clavichord keys are played, a T-shaped bar strikes a string inside. The note can be held by simply moving the finger side to side, much like the way a violin is played. When the harpsichord key is pressed, the perpendicular strings inside are plucked.
What They Sound Like
The clavichord produces the softest sound of any instrument, which conveys a sense of grief. The quiet sound made it ideal for solo performances and as a practice instrument. The plucked keys of the harpsichord sound more like a guitar and had a nasal tone.
- Music in Western Civilization; Craig Wright and Bryan Simms; 2006
- Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Piano -- The Pianofortes of Bartolomeo Cristofori
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