The harpsichord is just one of the instruments that make up the keyboard family. Though the harpsichord isn't as well-known as the piano, the organ, or the electronic keyboard, it has as much earned its place as one of the keyboard instruments!
The harpsichord is known by some quite wide-ranging names across Europe. For instance, the French call it a 'clavecin', the Italians a 'clavicembalo', while the Germans call it a 'Cembalo' and the Spanish a 'clavecín'.
Despite its various pseudonyms, the harpsichord as we know it is a musical instrument that is played using a keyboard.
Similar to an organ, the harpsichord may have two keyboards and may additionally feature stop buttons to remove or add octaves.
Others may have a lute stop, which is designed to make it sound like a plucked lute. Fascinatingly, this function actually activates a mechanism which plucks strings under tension with a small plectrum-like device. The strings from the soundboard are mounted in a case made of wood and this all adds to the way in which the sound is amplified through vibrations.
Experts believe the harpsichord was invented in the late Middle Ages. Yet, the harpsichord reached its height of fame during the Renaissance and Baroque movements, as an accompaniment instrument and also as a solo star. Following the invention of the piano during the late 18th century, the harpsichord became increasingly less popular, making way for the piano to take all the glory as a keyboard instrument.
However, in the 20th century, it made a comeback as a piece of historic equipment, being used to play older styles of music but with modern twists. The harpsichord remained a popular instrument throughout for opera recitals.
Harpsichord mechanism and function
Like most instruments, the harpsichord varies in shape and size from model to model. However, all harpsichords have the same mechanism which makes them work.
To give you an idea of what happens inside this majestic instrument when it is played, here is a description of the instrument's basic functions.
When the player presses a key, it hits a pivot in the middle of the key, lifting a long strip of wood called a jack at the other end which itself holds a plastic plectrum. This action makes the quill or plectrum pluck the string. When the player releases pressure on the key, the far end goes back to its resting position and the jack falls back. The plectrum swivels away from the string without plucking it again on release. Once the key is returned to its normal position, a felt damper on top of the jack puts an end to the string's vibrations.
What makes the harpsichord part of the keyboard family?
A keyboard instrument is actually a term that covers a range of individual musical instruments, from the modest keyboard itself to the accordion. So what do these pieces of music equipment all share in common? You've got it! The fact that they are all operated or played using a keyboard.
The part of the machine that is called the keyboard is made up of a row of keys, like levers, which you press with your fingers (or toes of you are very talented!) and produce musical notes.
The most common keyboard instruments are the piano, the organ, the keyboard (including electronic keyboards like synthesizers). However, the list is very long and you might hear music teachers talking about celestas or carillons.
If you want to know more about the keyboard family, particularly the harpsichord, then carry on reading to find out more!
Playing harpsichord: what makes it different
Playing any keyboard instrument is not all about where you place your fingers, it's a whole-body experience.
When playing a piano, organ, electronic keyboard or a harpsichord, you must sit straight at the centre of your device, preferably on a piano stool or bench, and maintain your posture throughout. You want your feet placed flat on the ground when playing unless you are playing an organ with foot pedals, in which case you'll keep your feet hovering over the pedalboard at all times.
Your arms, meanwhile, should be relaxed and supple, with your hands curved in a C shape over the top of the keys. Align your fingertips with the middle of the white keys, elbows at the same height. If playing a device that features buttons to press, you may have to come away from this hand position at intervals.
So what makes the harpsichord different, as up until now it all seems quite similar to playing the piano?
The piano is a hammered instrument, while the harpsichord is a plucked instrument. This may not affect you physically, yet it is good to know about the instrument you are playing and understand the mechanism.
What's more, did you know that the harpsichord is much quieter than a piano? This means you can practice playing the harpsichord at home (if you have one) without disturbing the neighbours, or anyone else in the house for that matter.
Transitioning to harpsichord from piano
One might think that being a pianist will make it easy to become a harpsichordist, however, that isn't always the case.
While knowing how to play keys is, of course, useful, switching from a piano to a harpsichord isn't a straight-up switch.
For instance, if you learned to play a Bach composition, you'll struggle to mimic that on a harpsichord, due to the lack of dynamics. As a harpsichord player, you must learn to hit the keys with a certain attack if you want to prolong a note because the plucking action is nothing like the hammering action on a piano.
That said, you can still these pieces of music on the harpsichord, but expect them to sound rather different than if you were sat at a grand piano.
Some experienced players of both instruments confess that the harpsichord, with its distinct lack of dynamics, is far less forgiving than the piano, which means that your playing is more transparent and makes you more vulnerable as a musician.
In conclusion, you simply need a different set of techniques when playing the harpsichord if you want to produce the best quality sound. The slightest motion or movement will make a difference on the harpsichord so the best thing you can do is to practice regularly and experiment with the sound by trying out different touches.
Watch and learn through videos of harpsichordists
You may not have considered watching videos as educational when it comes to learning to play an instrument, but actually watching individuals playing an instrument like a harpsichord can help you to discover the correct techniques, especially if you're used to playing the piano.
You can either watch videos of performers playing as part of a concerto or you can source videos of the instrument being played solo and really appreciate each and every sound. Meanwhile, some talented harpsichord teachers also upload videos of them teaching others to play the harpsichord, which could benefit you if you are a complete beginner.
For example, just search 'harpsichord demonstration' in your browser and see all the useful videos that are displayed!
Learn to play harpsichord with Superprof!
Always available for your learning needs, Superprof features a range of music tutors with varying levels of experience and offering different rates. You can search the website for keyboard tutors now.
With this platform, you can either choose a tutor based in your area, one who either has a studio or will come to your home. Another option would be online classes via video link, which could save you money in the long run - no travelling time to and from lessons, and your tutor might give you a discounted rate because s/he won't have to travel, either!
You might also be interested in knowing that most Superprof tutors give their first hour of lessons at no charge, just to see if you two would learn well together. With such an offer, how could anyone not choose that option?
Learning the harpsichord or any other instrument from the keyboard family over Internet connection is also great for those who have busy lives and need to schedule in lessons with minimal disruption to their routine like having to travel to a studio or tidy up in preparation for a visit from a tutor.
Did you know that the accordion is also a keyboard instrument?