AskDefine | Define harpsichord

Dictionary Definition

harpsichord n : a clavier with strings that are plucked by plectra mounted on pivots [syn: cembalo]

User Contributed Dictionary



Latin harpicordium, from harpa harp + corda string


  • /ˈhɑɹp.sɪ.ˌkɔɹd/


  1. An instrument with a piano-like keyboard, which produces sound by plucking the strings

Derived terms


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Extensive Definition

A harpsichord is a musical instrument played by means of a keyboard. It produces sound by plucking a string when each key is pressed.
As well as the large instrument currently called a harpsichord, the harpsichord family also includes the smaller virginals, the muselar or muselaar virginals and the spinet (but not the clavichord which is a hammered instrument).
The harpsichord was widely used in baroque music. It became less popular following the invention of the piano, but is still used in contemporary music due to its distinctive sound.


Although harpsichords vary in size and shape, they all have the same basic functional arrangement. The player presses a key, causing the far end of the key to rise. This lifts a jack, a long strip of wood, to which is attached a small plectrum (a bit of quill or plastic), which on being lifted plucks the string. When the key is released by the player, the far end returns to its rest position and the jack is lowered. The plectrum, being mounted on a tongue that can swivel backwards away from the string, passes the string without plucking it again. As the key settles into its rest position, the string vibrations are halted by the damper, a bit of felt attached to the top of the jack.
These basic principles are explained in more detail below.
  • The keylever is a simple pivot, which rocks on a balance pin passing through a hole drilled through it.
  • The jack is a thin, rectangular piece of wood which sits upright on the end of the keylever, held in place by the registers (the upper movable, the lower fixed) which are two long strips of wood running in the gap from spine to cheek with rectangular mortises through which the jacks can move up and down.
  • In the jack, a plectrum juts out almost horizontally (normally the plectrum is angled upwards a tiny amount) and passes just under the string. Historically, plectra were normally made of crow quill or leather; most modern harpsichords based on historic instruments have plastic (delrin or celcon) quills.
  • When the front of the key is pressed, the back of the key rises, the jack is lifted, and the plectrum plucks the string.
  • When the key is lowered, the jack falls back down under its own weight, and the plectrum pivots backwards to allow it to pass the string. This is made possible by having the plectrum held in a tongue which is attached with a pivot and a spring to the body of the jack.
  • At the top of the jack, the felt damper keeps the string from vibrating when the key is not depressed.
  • The vertical rise of the jacks is stopped by the jackrail, which is covered with soft felt to muffle the jack's impact. The key-dip, which is the maximum depth the key may be pressed down, is usually set at the length of the jack. If the key-dip is too deep, which hinders quick repetition of notes and the execution of fast passages, the length of the corresponding jacks should be extended (by means of a pilot screw or other means).

Strings and soundboard

Simply plucking the strings would produce a very feeble sound. The full sonority of the harpsichord arises because the strings pass over a bridge (fig. 1, 9), which provides a sharp edge supporting one end of their vibrating length. The bridge is firmly attached to a soundboard (fig. 1, 14), a thin panel of wood usually made of spruce or (in Italian harpsichords) cedar. The soundboard and case-construction efficiently transduces the vibrations of the strings to the air, making them fully audible. Also, the vibrations of one string will invite its adjacent twin string to resonate in sympathy as long as the key is pressed. Some harpsichords have a 'damper off' position so that one choir of strings is undamped and may resonate freely in response to the tones played on the other choir(s).
The strings must be held at the proper tension to sound the correct note. At one end, generally closest to the keyboard, they are passed around tuning pins (fig. 1, 4), which may be rotated with an appropriate wrench (tuning hammer) to adjust each string to its proper pitch. The tuning pins are drilled in the pinblock or wrestplank (fig. 1, 23), an oblong hard-wood plank. The other ends of the strings are fitted with twisted loopholes that pass over the hitchpins (fig. 1, 10) which are driven into the liner.

Multiple choirs of strings

It is not unusual for a harpsichord to have exactly one string per note. However, there are several reasons why it is considered desirable to have more.
  • When there are two choirs of strings at the same length, it is possible to give them different tonal qualities and thus increase the variety of sound that the harpsichord can produce. This is done by having one plucked close to the nut (the bridge-like device that terminates the sounding length of the strings), the other farther away. Plucking close to the nut emphasizes the higher harmonics, producing a "nasal" sound quality.
  • When two strings are carefully tuned to be the same pitch, or an octave apart, and are plucked simultaneously (by a single keystroke), the ear will hear a single note, louder and enriched by virtue of being sounded by two differently arranged strings. The quality distinction is particularly noticeable when the one string is an octave higher or lower than the other.
Thus, in describing a harpsichord, it is customary to specify its choirs of strings, often called its disposition. Strings at eight foot pitch sound at the normal expected pitch, strings at four foot pitch sound an octave higher, and similarly for the rare 16-foot pitch (one octave lower) and two-foot pitch (two octaves higher).
When there are multiple choirs of strings, it is desirable for the player to be able to control which ones are played at any given time. This is generally done by having multiple sets of jacks (one per string), "turning off" a choir of strings by moving the upper register (through which the jacks slide) sideways a bit, so that their plectra no longer touch the strings.
In simpler instruments, this function was performed directly by hand, but as the harpsichord evolved various inventions arose making it easier to change the registration, for example with levers next to the keyboard, knee levers, or pedals.
Particular flexibility in selecting the strings to be played could be obtained in instruments that had more than one manual (keyboard), since each manual could control the plucking of a particular set of strings. In addition, makers often produced arrangements whereby the notes of one manual could optionally be sounded with the other manual. The most flexible system was the French shove coupler, in which the lower manual could slide forward and backward, and in the backward position "dogs" attached to the upper surface of the lower manual would engage the lower surface of the upper manual's keys, causing them to play. Depending on choice of keyboard and coupler position, the player could select the set of jacks labeled in the diagram as A, or B and C, or all three.
The English dogleg jack system was less flexible, in that the manuals were immobile. The dogleg shape of the set of jacks labeled A in fig. 5 permitted A to be played by either keyboard, but the lower manual necessarily played all three sets, and could not play just B and C as in the French shove coupler.
Curiously, the use of multiple manuals in a harpsichord was not originally for the purpose of flexibility in choosing which strings would sound, but rather for transposition; for discussion see History below.

The case

The case holds in position all of the important structural members: pinblock, soundboard, hitchpins, keyboard, and the jack action. It usually includes a solid bottom, and also internal bracing to maintain its form without warping under the tension of the strings. Cases varied greatly in weight and sturdiness: Italian harpsichords often used very light construction, while heavier construction is found in the later Flemish instruments and those derived from them (see History, below).
The case also gives the harpsichord its external appearance and protects the instrument. A harpsichord of the 18th century is, in a sense, a kind of furniture, as it stands alone on legs and is usually styled in a manner similar to the furniture of its place and time. But this conception emerged only gradually. Early Italian instruments were so light in construction that they were treated rather like violins: kept for storage in protective outer cases and played by extracting them from their cases and placing them on a table. (Such tables were often quite high, since until the late 18th century people usually played standing up..
Even after harpsichords had become self-encased objects, they often were supported by separate stands, and only gradually came to have their own legs.
In the fully evolved instrument, there is lid that can be raised, a cover for the keyboard, and a stand for holding music in place.
Harpsichords were decorated in a great many ways: plain buff paint (e.g. some Flemish instruments), paper printed with patterns, leather or velvet coverings, chinoiserie, and occasionally highly elaborate painted artwork.


While the terms used to denote various members of the family have been quite standardized today, in the harpsichord's heyday, this was not the case.


In modern usage, a harpsichord can either mean all the members of the family, or more specifically, the grand-piano-shaped member, with a vaguely triangular case accommodating long bass strings at the left and short treble strings at the right; characteristically, the profile is more elongated than that of a modern piano, with a sharper curve to the bentside.


The virginals is a smaller and simpler rectangular form of the harpsichord with only one string per note running parallel to the keyboard on the long side of the case.


A harpsichord with the strings set at an angle to the keyboard (usually of about 30 degrees) is called a spinet. In such an instrument, the strings are too close to fit the jacks between them in the normal way; instead, the strings are arranged in pairs, the jacks are placed in the large gaps between pairs, and they face in opposite directions, plucking the strings adjacent to the gap.


A clavicytherium is a harpsichord of which the soundboard and strings are mounted vertically and thus face the player. Since the strings run vertical, the jacks must move in the horizontal plane, which is why the action of clavecytheria is more involved than in harpsichords since the direction of the key-movement (up and down) must be made to go forward and back. The same space-saving principle was later embodied in the upright piano.
Curiously, some of the earliest harpsichords for which we have evidence are clavicytheria. One surviving example from the late 15th century is kept at the Royal College of Music in London..


Several harpsichords with heavily modified keyboards, such as the archicembalo, were built in the 16th century to accommodate variant tuning systems demanded by compositional practice and theoretical experimentation.

Compass and Pitch range

Generally, earlier harpsichords have smaller ranges and later ones larger, though there are frequent exceptions. In general, the largest harpsichords have a range of just over five octaves and the smallest have under four. Usually, the shortest keyboards were given extended range in the bass using the method of the "short octave". Tuning Pitch in nowadays' practice is taken often at a=415 Hz, a semitone below modern standard concert pitch of a=440 Hz. An accepted exception is for French baroque repertoire which is often performed from a=392 Hz, yet again one semitone lower. No doubt this is overly simplified, but common practice. Historically, tuning would commence on C or F.


''Main article: History of the harpsichord
The harpsichord was most probably invented in the late Middle Ages. By the 1500's, harpsichord makers in Italy were making lightweight instruments with low string tension. A different approach was taken in Flanders starting in the late 1500s, notably by the Ruckers family. Their harpsichords used a heavier construction and produced a more powerful and distinctive tone. They included the first harpsichords with two keyboards, used for transposition.
The Flemish instruments served as the model for 18th century harpsichord construction in other nations. In France, the double keyboards were adapted to control different choirs of strings, making a musically more flexible instrument. Instruments from the peak of the French tradition, by makers such as the Blanchet family and Pascal Taskin, are among the most widely admired of all harpsichords, and are frequently used as models for the construction of modern instruments. In England, the Kirkman and Shudi firms produced sophisticated harpsichords of great power and sonority. German builders extended the sound repertoire of the instrument by adding sixteen foot and two foot choirs; these instruments have recently served as models for modern builders.
Except for being used for continuo-playing in opera performances, in the late 18th century the harpsichord was supplanted by the piano and disappeared from view for most of the 19th century. 20th century efforts to revive the harpsichord initially involved much importation of piano technology, in the form of heavy strings and metal frames. Starting in mid century, ideas about harpsichordmaking underwent a major change, when builders such as Frank Hubbard, William Dowd, and Martin Skowroneck sought to re-establish the building traditions of the Baroque period. Harpsichords of this type of historically informed building practice dominate the current scene.

Music for the harpsichord

From the 16th century to the Baroque

The first music written specifically for solo harpsichord came to be published around the early 16th century. Composers who wrote solo harpsichord music were numerous during the whole Baroque era in Italy, Germany and, above all, France. Favorite genres for sole harpsichord composition included the dance suite, the fantasia, and the fugue. Besides solo works, the harpsichord was widely used for accompaniment in the basso continuo style (a function it maintained in opera even into the 19th century). Well into the 18th century, the harpsichord was considered to have some advantages over the piano.

After the Baroque

Through the 19th century, the harpsichord was virtually supplanted by the piano. In the 20th century, however, composers returned to the instrument, as they sought out variation in the sounds available to them. Under the influence of Arnold Dolmetsch, Violet Gordon-Woodhouse (1872-1951) and in France, Wanda Landowska (1879-1959), were at the forefront of the instrument's renaissance.
Concertos for the instrument were written by Francis Poulenc (the Concert champêtre, 1927-28), Manuel de Falla, Bertold Hummel, Henryk Górecki, Philip Glass and Roberto Carnevale. Bohuslav Martinů wrote both a concerto and a sonata for the instrument, and Elliott Carter's Double Concerto is scored for harpsichord, piano and two chamber orchestras.
In chamber music, György Ligeti wrote a small number of solo works for the instrument (including "Continuum"), while Henri Dutilleux's "Les Citations" (1991) is scored for harpsichord, oboe, double bass and percussions. Both Dmitri Shostakovich (Hamlet, 1964) and Alfred Schnittke (Symphony No.8, 1998) wrote works that use the harpsichord as part of the orchestral texture.
Harpsichordist Hendrik Bouman has composed pieces in the 17th and 18th century style, including works for solo harpsichord, harpsichord concerti, and other works that call for harpsichord continuo.

Popular music

In modern times, the harpsichord has been used in popular music. Examples include Tori Amos' "Caught a Lite Sneeze" (as well as many other song from her 1996 album Boys for Pele), Joanna Newsom's "Peach Plum Pear", Emilie Autumn's album Opheliac uses the harpsichord in most of the songs, the Rolling Stones' "Yesterday's Papers" and R.E.M.'s "Half a World Away".


The type of instrument now usually called harpsichord in English is generally called a clavicembalo (sometimes in the corrupt form gravicembalo, both masculine) or simply cembalo in Italian, and this last word is generally used in German as well (Cembalo, neuter). The Dutch word is klavecimbel (neuter). The typical French word is clavecin (masculine), though in French historical sources the word épinette (feminine, cognate with English spinet) is sometimes used, in a global sense, meaning any instrument with a harpsichord-like action. The standard Spanish word is clavecín (masculine), with clavicémbalo as an alternative (along with the rarer forms clavicímbalo and clavicímbano; all masculine). The Portuguese words are espineta (feminine) and cravo (masculine, cognate with the element clav- in the Italian words for the instrument).



  • Boalch, Donald H. (1995) Makers of the Harpsichord and Clavichord, 1440-1840, 3rd ed., with updates by Andreas H. Roth and Charles Mould, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-318429-X. A catalogue, originating with work by Boalch in the 1950's, of all extant historical instruments.
  • Dearling, Robert (ed.) (1996) The ultimate encyclopedia of musical instruments, London : Carlton, ISBN 1-858681-85-5
  • Hubbard, Frank (1967) Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making, 2nd ed., Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-88845-6. An authoritative survey by a leading builder of how early harpsichords were built and how the harpsichord evolved over time in different national traditions.
  • Kottick, Edward (2003) A History of the Harpsichord, Indiana University Press, ISBN 0-253-34166-3. An extensive survey by a leading contemporary scholar.
  • Lewisohn, Mark (1988) The complete Beatles recording sessions : the official story of the Abbey Road years, 1st pbk ed., London : Hamlyn, ISBN 0-600-55798-7
  • O'Brien, Grant (1990) Ruckers, a harpsichord and virginal building tradition, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-36565-1. Covers the innovations of the Ruckers family, the founders of the Flemish tradition.
  • Puterbaugh, Parke (1991) "R.E.M. - Out of Time", Review, Rolling Stone, 600 (21 March), accessed 15 March 2008
  • Russell, Raymond (1973)The Harpsichord and Clavichord: an introductory study, 2nd ed., London : Faber and Faber, ISBN 0-571-04795-5
  • Scaruffi, Piero (1999) "Rolling Stones", in: A History of Rock Music, personnal web page, accessed 15 March 2008
  • Skowroneck, Martin (2003) Cembalobau: Erfahrungen und Erkenntnisse aus der Werkstattpraxis = Harpsichord construction: a craftsman's workshop experience and insight, Fachbuchreihe Das Musikinstrument 83, Bergkirchen : Bochinsky, ISBN 3-932275-58-6. A study (written in English and German) of harpsichord building by a leading figure in the modern revival of historically authentic methods of building.
  • Spitz, Robert (Bob) (2006) The Beatles : the biography, London : Aurum, ISBN 1-84513-160-6
  • Zuckermann, Wolfgang (1969) The Modern Harpsichord: twentieth century instruments and their makers, New York : October House, ISBN 0-80790-165-2
harpsichord in Bulgarian: Клавесин
harpsichord in Catalan: Clavicèmbal
harpsichord in Chuvash: Клавесин
harpsichord in Czech: Cembalo
harpsichord in Danish: Cembalo
harpsichord in German: Cembalo
harpsichord in Modern Greek (1453-): Τσέμπαλο
harpsichord in Spanish: Clave (teclado)
harpsichord in Esperanto: Klaviceno
harpsichord in French: Clavecin
harpsichord in Western Frisian: Klavesimbel
harpsichord in Friulian: Clavicembal
harpsichord in Scottish Gaelic: Cruit-chòrda
harpsichord in Galician: Clavicémbalo
harpsichord in Korean: 하프시코드
harpsichord in Croatian: Čembalo
harpsichord in Italian: Clavicembalo
harpsichord in Hebrew: צ'מבלו
harpsichord in Latin: Clavicymbalum
harpsichord in Lithuanian: Klavesinas
harpsichord in Macedonian: Чембало
harpsichord in Dutch: Klavecimbel
harpsichord in Dutch Low Saxon: Klavecimbel
harpsichord in Japanese: チェンバロ
harpsichord in Norwegian: Cembalo
harpsichord in Norwegian Nynorsk: Cembalo
harpsichord in Occitan (post 1500): Clavecin
harpsichord in Polish: Klawesyn
harpsichord in Portuguese: Cravo (instrumento)
harpsichord in Russian: Клавесин
harpsichord in Sicilian: Clavicèmbalu
harpsichord in Simple English: Harpsichord
harpsichord in Slovak: Čembalo
harpsichord in Slovenian: Čembalo
harpsichord in Serbian: Чембало
harpsichord in Serbo-Croatian: Čembalo
harpsichord in Finnish: Cembalo
harpsichord in Swedish: Cembalo
harpsichord in Thai: ฮาร์ปซิคอร์ด
harpsichord in Turkish: Klavsen
harpsichord in Ukrainian: Клавесин
harpsichord in Chinese: 羽管键琴

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Klavier, Steinway, baby grand, cembalo, clarichord, clavicembalo, clavichord, clavicittern, clavicymbal, clavicytherium, clavier, concert grand, cottage piano, couched harp, dulcimer harpsichord, grand, grand piano, hammer dulcimer, harmonichord, manichord, manichordon, melodion, melopiano, monochord, pair of virginals, parlor grand, pianette, pianino, piano, piano-violin, pianoforte, sostinente pianoforte, spinet, square piano, upright, upright piano, violin piano, virginal
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