The Harpsichord family

In the previous post I have discussed the Clavichord. Both the harpsichord and the clavichord coexisted at the same time. Despite that, not only they look different but they also have different mechanisms. The harpsichord existed in quite a few different forms. The whole harpsichord family seems to derive from the psaltery, since like the psaltery it produces sound by plucking the string instead of striking, as in the clavichord or a piano.

Henri arnaut manuscript

Clavicymbalum manuscript by Henri Arnaut de Zwolle, 1440

Starting with the Clavicymbalum, it is considered to be the ancestor of the harpsichord and one, if not the only one, of the earliest reference to a harpsichord. The earliest reference is by Johannes de Muris in 1323 in his Musica speculative where he describes a monochord instrument in triangular shape with a curved side, having two octaves. It seems that it was a small instrument and worked like a psaltery. Instead of plucking the strings with the fingers, the strings were plucked by keys. The earliest sculpture dates from 1425 from an altar piece from Minden cathedral in Germany, where a small keyboard is played by an angel. The best source with detailed iconography is by Henri Arnaut de Zwolle from 1440. Arnaut wrote that the instrument could have been single or double strung and the strings could have been brass or iron, which shows that the sound of the instrument was not really established.

Video: Henri Arnaut replica Clavicymbalum

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The Harpsichord is assumed to date from 1397 from Padua, from a record regarding the invention of the clavicymbalumIn comparison to its contemporary keyboard instruments, it is bigger in size and different in shape, looking more like our contemporary modern grand piano.

The strings of the harpsichord are plucked. When the key is pressed, the jack is raised (which is a tongue with a small guitar pick called a plectrum). When its depressed, the jack returns back to its position, and the string is muted by a felt found on the jack. The following video shows how it works; Video: Harpsichord Action.  The sound of the harpsichord is more metallic and it cannot be used expressively like the clavichord. The volume cannot be manipulated, since the loudness of the sound decreases after the note is played. In order to provide a different timbre, they produced stops to vary the sound.

Unlike the fretted clavichord, where two or three notes are played on the same string, a key/a note on a harpsichord can have more than one string. When there are multiple strings on a note, the additional ones are called choirs. This is in order to manipulate the volume and the tone of the instrument. Therefore, the different choirs may sound differently. Through the stops of the harpsichord different choirs could be chosen. This means that they also have their own jacks. The different choirs act as a disposition.  The concert pitch of the instrument is at 8 foot pitch, which is the standard tuning at 440 Hz; the A above middle C in 8-foot pitch is at 440 Hz.

The Flanders harpsichord by Hans Ruckers and his descendants used longer strings, having great tension, with two sets; one at 8 foot and one at 4 foot (one octave higher). There were even German harpsichords that included a 16 foot stop, an octave below the 8 foot choirs. The Flemish harpsichord introduced the two-manual harpsichord to enable easy transposition at the fourth interval. They also had a more sustaining tone than the Italian harpsichords. The early Italian harpsichords were single-manual instruments and lighter in construction. There was also little string tension, thus the sound, although pleasing, was unremarkable therefore they were mostly used for accompanying singers and other instruments and not as a solo instrument.

At the end of the 16th century, couplers were added to the harpsichord, so one keyboard could play both strings for a fuller and richer sound. Thus the additional keyboard was now used for contrasting dynamics. By the 18th century, the Flemish harpsichord was developed further in France, and it was extended from four to about five octaves. Pedal harpsichords started appearing after the 18th century, and like the pedal clavichord, they were probably used by organists. Additionally, larger harpsichords started appearing at the time which often had three choirs per note. The choirs could be easily chosen by the player in different combinations.  Usually the upper manual was more quiet than the lower in order to create different dynamic contrasts.

Video: Pedal Harpsichord      Video: Harpsichord Coupler

In the UK from 1754, harpsichords with nag’s head swell started appearing by Jacob Kirckman. Through the use of a pedal a section of the lid rose and fell to provide a dynamic range, from muted ppp to open lid sound. From 1769 Burkat Shudi had also developed the venetial swell, which were wooden blades, like Venetian blinds. The harpsichordist controlled the volume through the swell pedal by opening and closing the wooden blades.

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Clavicytherium at the RCM, London.


The oldest string keyboard surviving, related to the harpsichord, is a Clavicytherium; it is held at the instrument collection of the Royal College of Music in London. The instrument is not signed nor dated. Nevertheless, documents of one of the internal joints were dated around 1470-80, and they refer to a citizen of the city Ulm in Germany. Hence, the clavicytherium was probably made in Germany. It is basically an upright harpsichord, and its soundboard it’s vertical instead of horizontal. In this way, the player hears the sound directly. Nonetheless, because the jacks must move horizontally, its action, for returning the jack to its position, is more complex and because of that it has a heavier touch.

Video: Clavicytherium


A different kind of harpsichord is the Spinet. It has the same mechanism,  however it is more triangular, with a concavely bent side on the right, which curves away from the player. The main difference is that the angle of the strings, is about 30 degrees to the right of the keyboard, whereas in a harpsichord they are at 90 degrees angle to the keyboard. The strings are also in pairs, having a gap of at least 4 millimetres and the widest 10.  The jacks are located in the wider gap, in the opposite direction plucking the strings on either side of the gap. Therefore, the spinet has only a single choir of strings, at eight-foot pitch. Because of the angle, the tone is also slightly different; the sound is weaker since it is impossible to pluck as close to the nut. Because of that the spinet was used domestically.  Video: Spinet and action

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Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731), the inventor of the piano, had invented in the late 17th century two types of spinets intended for the Medici family of Florence, for the Prince Ferdinando. He firstly invented the oval spinet and the spinettone, also called spinettone da teatro and spinetta traversa (transverse spinet). The aim of Cristofori was to fulfil the Prince’s wish, who needed an instrument with multiple choirs for more volume in order to fit in the orchestra. Cristofori achieved combining  two 8 foot registers with long bass strings (like in a harpsichord) in a spinet.

Oval spinet split keys

The oval spinet has the strings placed parallel to the keyboard, like in a virginal. The instrument has an oval shape because of the way the strings are placed, which are in an alternating pattern. The lowest C is located in the middle, C# is found behind C, D is found in front of C etc. Since the instrument is a harpsichord, the strings are also plucked by plectra. The oval spinet has two choirs of strings both at 8 foot with different timbres; thus when each is used separately the tone is different. When both strings are played simultaneously the sound is louder. The first oval spinet of 1690, has two split keys (the black keys divided); the F# and G#. Whereas the second surviving oval spinet of 1693 has a normal octave and not split keys. The diagram shows the complex arrangement of the lowest keys. By including two split keys, Cristofori completed the octave by adding D and E on the sharp keys, whereas the key of E was instead C.

The spinettone, like the spinet,  had a diagonal shape with jacks plucking the strings in opposite-facing pairs with larger gaps along the strings. In comparison with the spinet, the spinettone was very long, however narrower than a harpsichord. The instrument had was built as an improvement of the oval spinet, having the same mechanism. It had multiple choirs at 8 foot and 4 foot pitch (normal and an octave higher, with each choir having its own jacks). The choirs could have been played simultaneously or individually by sliding the keyboard forward and backward.

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The harpsichord, the spinet and the virginal were the same kind of instruments in different forms. The Virginal looks like a clavichord and sounds like a harpsichord. It is basically a small harpsichord in a rectangular shape. Unlike the harpsichord,  it has 32 single choir of metal strings, one string per note, which are parallel to the keyboard. Each string is longer than its neighbour, with the bass strings at the front, as a result a triangle is formed inside the case. Because there is only one string per note, this means that the virginal is not as loud like the harpsichord, however it has more volume than the clavichord. Thus, they were popular as domestic instruments and they have been in use since at least 1460.

There are a few variations of virginals. Flemish virginals have the keyboard either to the right or to the left of the case. When it is to the right the strings are plucked nearer the centre and they produce a resonant, rich sound. These virginals are called muselar.  The muselar has 4 octaves range, and because it plucks the string near the centre, it makes it difficult for repeating notes since the vibrating string interfers with the plectrum from connecting. Video: Muselar Virginal

When the keyboard is placed to the left, the virginal is called spinett virginal (not to be confused with the spinet). The strings are plucked nearer the end producing a brighter sound. The spinetts are made mostly in Flanders, England and Italy.  Video: Spinett Virginal

The ottavino is a small virginal, tuned an octave higher. The were mostly used in homes in Italy during the 17th and 18th century,  accompanying singing. The Flemish ottavino could have been coupled with the virginal producing a double virginal. The Italian one was a separate instrument. The double virginal was basically a spinett or muselar, with a small ottavino (the child), placed under the soundboard like a drawer, next to the keyboard of the larger instrument (the mother). They could have been coupled together by removing the jack rail of the larger instrument and placing the ottavino over its strings. Thus when its keys of the mother were pressed, the jack activated the strings of both instruments, sounding in octaves and producing a brighter sound. The earliest double virginal known is from 1581 by Hans Rucker, a  Flemish harpsichord builder.

Video: Ottavino               Video: Double Virginal

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In 1555 Nicola Vicentino (1511-1576) described in his L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica an enharmonic keyboards, the archicembalo, a harpsichord with two keyboards that enabled microtonality.  The extra pitches where produced by split keys. The lower keyboard had additional sharps from E to F and from B to C. As a result, there were thirty six keys in the octave and they were divided into thirty one equal dieses.

The only surviving instrument with Vicentino’s 31 octave system is held at the International museum of library of music in Bologna, Italy. It was made by Vito Trasuntino of Venice (1526 – after 1606). It bares the signed name “Clavemusicum Omnitonum Modulis Diatonicis Cromaticis et Enarmonicis”, meaning it was intended to play diatonically, chromatically and enharmonically.   Video: Archicembalo

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Another variation of a keyboard instrument from the 16th century was the Claviorganum, a combination of organ and a keyboard instrument, usually a harpsichord.  The instrument was not common, it was quite expensive and it was mostly found in aristocratic families. It also came in different shapes, such as harpsichord-shaped with a chamber organ underneath, with one or two manual harpsichords, or as a clavichord with pipes underneath. The claviorganum is described by Michael Praetorius in his Syntagma Musicum, 1614:

“…a clavicymbal, or some other symphony, in which a number of pipes is combined with the strings. Externally it looks exactly like a clavicymbal or symphony, apart from the bellows, which are sometimes set at the rear and sometimes placed inside the body”.

Video: Claviorganum

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The harpsichord can have different forms, with different registration and dispositions. The early music written for keyboard instruments was either for the organ or for all the keyed instruments (harpsichord family, clavicord etc). The first music published for solo harpsichord was during the 16th century.  During the Baroque era the harpsichord was a popular instrument for composers. Music written for solo harpsichord included preludes, fugues, fantasias, toccatas, variations and dance suites. The instrument was eventually declined, and replaced by the piano.



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The Clavichord

In my post The string instrument: how it all started I have discussed Pythagoras’ monochord not only because it was the beginning of the string instrument but also because the clavichord has evolved from the monochord; they share the same mechanism ideology.

The clavichord was made around 1400 and was popular until 1800.  At the beginning, the clavichord was even referred to as monochord.

There seems to be a confusion regarding the first written reference of the word clavichord. I have read different sources referring to the word clavichord that do not correspond. One reliable source that really puzzled me was that the first record of the word clavichord was in 1404 in Der Minne Regel by Eberhardus Cersne:

“Das Clavichord und Clavizimbel erscheinen auf der Abbildung in Virdungs Büchlein als viereckige Kätschen” (The Clavichord and Clavizimbel appear in the figures in Virdung’s booklet as square boxes).

However, this is completely wrong. Since the writer refers to Sebastian Virdung’s (born around 1465) book Musica getuscht, that was firstly published in 1511. So how could Cersne referred in 1404 to Virdung’s book that was published in 1511?

fretted clavichord

Fretted Clavichord

Nevertheless,  the clavichord is a small wooden box and does not have legs or a stand. Because of its size it has a small sound, therefore it was meant as a private instrument used at home and not as a public instrument. The first clavichord had a range of 3 to 3 ½ diatonic octaves in C. By the middle of the 18th century clavichords had five octaves.

The strings and the soundboard are located horizontally behind the keyboard. The strings are in the left and are attached to pins on one side, over the bridge to tuning pins on the right side. When the keys are pressed, the back part of the key rises and a small brass percussion instrument – a tangent – touches the strings, determines the length of the string and eventually the string starts to vibrate. The string only vibrates from the tangent to the bridge. If played too hard, the string is stretched and sounds louder. This is because the key has a direct mechanical contact with the string through the tangent. Basically, depending on the pressure applied on the key the pitch can be altered in order to produce vibrato, which is called Bebung.

The Bebung is produced by pressing the key up and down with the finger and it only produces pitches above the note. So, the clavichord, depending on the force the keys are pressed, could be used expressively. The player can control the volume, attack and duration. When the key is released, the back of the key returns to its place and touches a woven which is found between the pairs of strings and stops the string from vibrating.

In the video in the following link, the mechanism of the clavichord can be seen, as well as the use of Bebung. Video: Clavichord action, and Bebung

The Clavichord has more keys than strings because each string has a few tangents, unlike the modern piano in which each key has its own string. This clavichord is called fretted clavichord. Most clavichords were double or triple (two or three notes would be played on the same string). And because of that those notes could not be played together (old music though does not require notes to be played simultaneously). In other words, like Pythagoras’ monochord, the strings are divided into specific rations in order to give a specific pitch.

Video: Fretted Clavichord, Bach BWV 846


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The oldest surviving signed clavichord was made in Venice in 1543 by Dominicus Pisaurensis. It has his signature written in ink above the keys DOMINICVS PISAVRENSIS M D XXXXIII. The clavichord is held at the Instrument museum of the University of Leipzig. This harpsichord instead of one curved bridge it has 3 separate bridges instead, which is more common in later North-European and Italian clavichords.

In 1693, Johann Speth in his book Ars Magna Consoni Et Dissoni asks for a clavichord that each key has its own string and not the strings touched by more keys.  After time clavichords would come into larger sizes, and around the 17th century unfretted clavichords would start appearing. The unfretted clavichord means that each key had its own string, thus the instrument is also bigger because there are more strings. Because of that and its bigger soundboard, in comparison to the fretted clavichord, it sounds a bit different. More than one note can be played simultaneously, since now the keys do not share the same string. The first unfretted clavichord was built in 1716 by Johann Michael Heinitz.  Video: Unfretted clavichord

Gerstenberg clavichord pedal, 1766

There were also pedal clavichords, with more than one clavichords added together, in order to be used by organists for practice.

Video: Pedal Gerstenberg Replica Clavichord

In all, the advantage of the clavichord is that it takes less space, it has less tension in the soundboard, there are fewer strings to tune and the most important of all it is that its the most expressive early keyboard.


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