20 Interesting Facts About The Harpsichord

Written by Dan Farrant

The harpsichord is an instrument with a rich tapestry of history and unique sound. It has been both a symbol of the past and a beacon of musical evolution. This keyboard instrument made its mark during the 16th and 17th centuries.

In this article, we’ll explore its origin, design, and mechanism of sound production. We will also look into its role in European music and its influence on modern keyboard design.

Whether you’re a musician, a history buff, or simply curious, we invite you to join us on this fascinating journey through 20 interesting facts about the harpsichord. Let’s get started!

1. The Harpsichord Has A Unique Origin

It began with the psaltery, a wooden instrument with strings stretched across its length. However, musicians could only pluck one string at a time to produce sound on it. Then there came the keyboard. With it, musicians could create chords and more sophisticated melodies.

By attaching a keyboard to the psaltery, musicians then could employ the versatility of the keyboard while still utilizing the distinct, resonant sound of the psaltery’s plucked strings. This ingenious fusion marked the birth of the harpsichord.

2. The First Known Harpsichord Dates Back To The 14th Century

Historical records show that the first known mention of the harpsichord was in 1397, in the estate inventory of Hermann Poll, a citizen of Flanders. However, the instrument probably existed before this time. It likely evolved from earlier stringed instruments like the psaltery and dulcimer.

The early harpsichords were quite different from those we know today. They were smaller and typically had only one string per note, but over time, the design evolved.

3. You Pluck To Produce Sound

Unlike the piano, the harpsichord produces sound by plucking strings using a mechanism called a jack and plectrum. Each key is connected to a jack, which lifts when the key is pressed, causing the plectrum to pluck the string.

When the key is released, the jack falls back down. A small piece of felt or cloth, known as the damper, touches the string and stops it from vibrating.

4. It Lacks Dynamics

When a key on the harpsichord is pressed, the plectrum plucks the string and produces a sound. The force with which the key is struck does not affect the volume of the sound. This is because its mechanism only allows for the string to be plucked at a uniform intensity.

This lack of dynamics poses both challenges and opportunities for musicians. On one hand, it limits the expressive range of the instrument. On the other hand, it encourages the player to explore other means of expression.

5. One Key Plucks Multiple Strings

Each key on a harpsichord typically activates multiple strings, contributing to its distinct sound. The mechanism lifts a jack that plucks two or three strings per key.

Players can manipulate the number of strings plucked using stops. This alters the instrument’s tonal quality. The slight tuning differences between the strings create a beating effect, giving the harpsichord a rich, complex sound.

This was useful in the Baroque era, when composers wrote intricate polyphonic music, as the multiple strings brought out complex melodies.

6. Its Inner Parts Were Originally Made Of Animal Products

The harpsichord was originally constructed using a mix of materials, including animal products. The plectrum was often made from bird quills, particularly crow quills. These were prized for their strength and flexibility. The strings were typically crafted from gut, usually sheep intestines, chosen for their warm, rich tone.

Modern harpsichords maintain many traditional aspects of their construction but with some key differences. The plectra are now often made of durable plastic. The strings, on the other hand, are typically made from steel or brass.

7. Harpsichords Need To Be Tuned Often

Harpsichords are sensitive to environmental changes, like humidity and temperature. Hence, they require tuning before each performance. This process involves adjusting each string’s tension using a tuning hammer or wrench until it produces the correct pitch.

Historically, harpsichords used various tuning systems like meantone temperament and well temperament. However, the equal temperament system, where all semitones are equally spaced, is most commonly used today.

Regular tuning is crucial to maintain the harpsichord’s unique sound, making it a routine pre-performance task. This practice adds to the rich history and distinctive sound of the harpsichord.

8. It Was Popular During The Baroque Period

During the Baroque period, the harpsichord was popular in Europe. It served as both a solo and accompanying instrument. Its ability to articulate complex polyphonic music made it a favorite of composers like Bach and Scarlatti.

It was also crucial in basso continuo, a form of musical accompaniment used extensively in Baroque music. Here, the harpsichord provided harmonious accompaniment for other instruments or voices.

Technological advancements in the 16th and 17th centuries enhanced the harpsichord’s tonal range and expressive capabilities. Two keyboards now allow for greater musical complexity.

9. There Is A Two-Keyboard Variety

Double manual harpsichords were common in the Baroque period. They offered enhanced versatility and expressive capabilities. The two keyboards positioned one above the other, can be used independently or coupled for a fuller sound.

Building these instruments is technically challenging for some reasons. One is due to the need for precise calibration of both keyboards and two, is the coupling mechanism. Nevertheless, their ability to express intricate musical ideas ensures their continued popularity among performers of Renaissance and Baroque music.

10. There Are Vertical Harpsichords

Known as the clavicytherium, the vertical harpsichord was designed to save space. It dates back to the 15th century. Its name comes from Latin, meaning “keyed string instrument.” The oldest surviving example is in London’s Royal College of Music.

Despite its innovative design, the vertical arrangement of strings presents challenges in maintaining consistent sound quality and mechanical reliability. Nevertheless, the clavicytherium is historically significant as an early solution to space constraints in keyboard instrument design. It was also a precursor to the upright piano.

11. There Are More Designs And Sizes

Aside from the double manual and the clavicytherium, there are still a variety of shapes and sizes of harpsichords. The grand harpsichord, or “wing” shape, resembles a grand piano with parallel strings for rich sound.

Rectangular, or “table,” harpsichords are smaller. They have perpendicular strings for portability but limited tonal range. Virginals, rectangular or polygonal, have compact designs with parallel strings situated to one side.

Other variants are the spinet, the ottavino, the pedal harpsichord, and the archicembalo. Each offers its own blend of practicality, portability, tonal variety, and visual appeal. All of these contribute to the rich tapestry of harpsichord history.

12. There’s A Dynasty Of Flemish Harpsichord Makers

The Ruckers family established a dynasty of Flemish harpsichord makers. It all started with Hans Ruckers the Elder in the late 16th century. Their instruments, renowned for their unique sound and craftsmanship, were highly sought after.

Hans’ work included innovative designs like the double virginal. His sons, Hans the Younger and Andreas, continued his legacy, dominating Flemish harpsichord building for a century.

They further innovated their father’s designs and added aesthetic appeal with intricate decorations. Their superior sound quality, craftsmanship, and artistry have made them one of the most famous harpsichord makers of all time.

13. Playing One Takes Technique

One of the key techniques in harpsichord playing is finger legato. As there’s no sustain pedal in a harpsichord, players must carefully plan finger placement and movement to ensure smooth transitions.

Articulation is also fundamental in the harpsichord technique. Since the player can’t control the volume of each note, subtle variations in the timing and precision of key depressions can create an illusion of phrasing and dynamics.

Harpsichordists often use ornamentation — such as trills, mordents, and turns, which are rapid alternations between notes — to add expressivity to their playing. These were a central part of baroque music and remain important in the interpretation of this repertoire on the harpsichord.

14. It Was Pivotal In European Music

From the 16th to the mid-18th century, the harpsichord was pivotal in European music. This was mainly due to its unique tonal qualities and mechanical capabilities. It was the preferred keyboard instrument for solo and ensemble performances.

During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, it was central to musical culture. In particular, it was used widely in courts, churches, theatre, and opera. The Baroque period particularly saw its use in contrapuntal music. Here, the harpsichord’s clear tone allowed multiple melodies to be distinctly heard when played simultaneously.

15. It Was Widely Used By Prominent Composers

During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the harpsichord was a favorite among many prominent composers.

One of the most notable composers who extensively used the harpsichord was Johann Sebastian Bach. His works, such as The Well-Tempered Clavier, Italian Concerto, and the Goldberg Variations, have become staples in the harpsichord repertoire.

Another composer whose work is synonymous with the harpsichord is François Couperin. Known as Couperin le Grand, his four volumes of Pièces de clavecin contain over 230 individual pieces that demonstrate his mastery of the French harpsichord style.

Domenico Scarlatti also made significant contributions to the harpsichord repertoire. While living in Spain, he composed 555 keyboard sonatas, most intended for the harpsichord.

16. It Influenced Modern Keyboard Design

The harpsichord’s design greatly influenced today’s keyboards. Its white and black key layout, designed to accommodate the diatonic scale, remains unchanged in modern keyboards.

Its plucking mechanism, where pressing a key produces sound, was a precursor to the piano’s hammer action. The harpsichord’s double-manual design, with two keyboards stacked, influenced organs and some synthesizers. This allowed for a greater playing range.

However, harpsichords lack certain features. For instance, the piano’s ability to vary sound intensity based on key pressure. It shows that modern designs also evolved in response to musicians’ needs and technological advancements.

17. Its Popularity Slowly Declined

With the advent of the piano in the 18th century, the harpsichord’s popularity waned. The piano’s ability to alter the volume of a note depending on the intensity with which a key was struck offered musicians greater expressive control. Unlike the harpsichord, which had a fixed volume for each note.

This dynamic range made the piano more appealing. The piano’s crisper, longer-sustaining sound also contributed to its preference. By the Classical period, composers like Mozart and Beethoven favored the piano.

18. It Experienced A Revival In The 20th Century

The 20th century saw a revival of the harpsichord. This was largely driven by interest in historically informed performances of early music. Musicians sought to recreate the original sound and style of music from the Renaissance to the Baroque periods.

Influential composers also expanded the instrument’s repertoire by creating new pieces for it. Additionally, developments in piano technology and shifting musical tastes indirectly spurred interest in the harpsichord.

Particularly in America, there was a newfound appreciation for the harpsichord’s unique qualities and historical significance. This marked a significant resurgence in its popularity.

19. There Are Many Famous Harpsichordists Now

A person who plays the harpsichord is called a harpsichordist. With the renewed interest in the instrument, many musicians have become notable for their talent on the harpsichord.

Prominent contemporary harpsichordists include Gustav Leonhardt. This Dutch musician was renowned for his recordings of Bach’s works. Another is the founder of The English Concert Trevor Pinnock.

Other notable figures include Richard Egarr, the Music Director of the Academy of Ancient Music. There’s also Pierre Hantaï, known for his Scarlatti sonatas. Lastly, there’s Andreas Staier, a German harpsichordist.

20. Many Popular Songs Feature The Harpsichord

Since its revival, the harpsichord has found its way into numerous popular songs. The Beatles’ “Fixing a Hole” is a well-known example, played by the band’s producer, George Martin. Another notable example is their “God Only Knows.”

Other popular songs featuring the harpsichord include “Lady Jane” by The Rolling Stones and “I Need You” by The Who. Even TV themes like “The Addams Family” have made use of this instrument, proving the harpsichord’s versatility and appeal across different genres.

Summing Up Our List Of Harpsichord Facts

As you can see, the harpsichord is a very interesting instrument with a rich history dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries.  With this, it holds a significant place in the world of music. It is considered one of the most beautiful sounding and looking musical instruments.

Whether you’re a seasoned musician or just someone with an interest in music and its history, we hope that this exploration of the harpsichord has been a rewarding journey. Keep exploring, keep learning, and most importantly, keep enjoying the wonderful world of music.

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.