What is a Harpsichord?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

A harpsichord is a stringed keyboard instrument, differing from the clavichord and the piano in having plucked, rather than struck, strings. Sometimes the name harpsichord is used to refer to the spinet and virginal as well as the harpsichord proper. The first known reference to the instrument appeared in 1397, and it became an important solo instrument, as well as being used in chamber music, orchestral music, and opera.

The harpsichord was popular during the Baroque period, and used by composers of the period, such as Georg Friederich Handel.
The harpsichord was popular during the Baroque period, and used by composers of the period, such as Georg Friederich Handel.

Because the sound is produced with a different mechanism, the plucking of the plectrum, it is not surprising that a harpsichord’s sound is quite different from a piano’s. First, a harpsichord may have two keyboards or manuals rather than one, as a piano does. Second, the harpsichord has a smaller range, typical modern instruments having five octaves from F1 to F6, to the piano’s seven-plus octave range, A0-C8. In addition, the harpsichord’s maximum dynamic is softer than a piano’s—making crescendos, decrescendos, and accents impossible—and its notes have very little sustain.

If a harpsichord has two manuals, the upper manual will have two sets of strings, while the lower has three sets of strings. Stops or registers are used to change string sets, either by means of a lever, knob, or foot pedal. A coupler links the manuals, so that playing the lower also engages the upper. The upper manual is fitted with a damper, which changes the quality of the sound when employed, giving it a sound like a guitar.

The harpsichord was at its greatest heights in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Well-known favorites include Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, as well as works by Antonin Vivaldi, Arcangelo Corelli, François Couperin, Henry Purcell, Georg Friederich Handel, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Domenico Scarlatti.

Buying a harpsichord figures in the movie Ripley’s Game, while harpsichord is one of the instruments in the soundtracks for The Queen by Alexandre Desplat, John Williams’s The Screaming Woman and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Noted harpsichordists include Anssi Mattila, Zuzana Ruzickova, Wanda Landowska, and Trevor Pinnock.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


In a harpsichord has two manuals, the upper manual has just one set of strings, the lower two sets, normally one sounding an octave higher (that is 4'). With the "shove coupler" the player can couple the two keyboards, playing three sets of strings.

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