Many digital pianos have a harpsichord sound option, which may inspire curiosity about the harpsichord. What are the differences between harpsichord vs. piano?
You may have seen some pictures of harpsichords, which look similar to pianos. They have keyboards and strings and soundboards in the back. However, they are very different instruments, including the mechanism of making sounds.
In terms of harpsichord vs piano, let’s take a closer look at the differences along with some exciting things about harpsichords.
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Origin and History
First of all, these instruments came from different periods. The harpsichord is much older than the piano. The harpsichord probably was invented in the 1500s during the Renaissance and the Baroque periods.
It is a very cool instrument. Composers like Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti, to name a few, wrote fantastic music for the harpsichord.
On the other hand, the modern piano was invented in the 1700s by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) of Padua, Italy. Cristofori’s first piano, the pianoforte, had a modern hammer action that allowed the player to produce a soft or loud sound. Still, the piano is not an updated version of the harpsichord.
They are very different regarding making sound, harpsichord vs piano. Essentially, one is a percussion instrument, and the other is a string instrument.
Striking vs. Plucking
The piano is basically a percussion instrument. It has hammers striking the strings to produce sound. The key and hammer are like a seesaw; when you press the key, the hammer hits the string. Of course, the hammer action is much more complicated than the seesaw.
It is the hammer action that enables a wide range of piano dynamics. The below picture shows an example of a piano hammer.
Contrastingly, the harpsichord makes the sound by plucking the strings, like plucking the guitar strings. Each key on a harpsichord is a long lever. When you depress a key, the other end of the lever pushes up the jack and plucks the string.
Most harpsichords have two keyboards, while the piano has one keyboard. However, there are many styles of harpsichord, and the smaller ones have one keyboard. For instance, a virginal is a small harpsichord with one keyboard, often in a rectangular case where the strings run parallel to the keyboard instead of perpendicular or angular like a piano.
Like pianos have many different styles from different countries, so do harpsichords. French Baroque harpsichords are very different from Italian Baroque harpsichords, which differ from German and English Baroque harpsichords. Additionally, the Baroque harpsichords are different from Renaissance harpsichords.
The early Italian harpsichords had one keyboard and no elaborate decorations like some French ones. The Italian harpsichords were lightweight in construction and typically had four octaves with one set of strings. However, late German Baroque harpsichords were more prominent, with more than five octaves and two keyboards. Moreover, some German harpsichords even had three keyboards.
Different Octave Ranges
One of the significant differences between harpsichord and piano is the number of octaves. A standard piano full keyboard has seven octaves, while harpsichords have four or five octaves.
On the other hand, harpsichords have more variations in their keys to somewhat compensate for their range.
- For example, some harpsichords have short octaves where the lowest notes of the instrument are tuned farther than a usual half-step or whole-step away from the keys next to them, such as the lowest notes are C and G instead of C and B.
- Other harpsichords could have a split octave in addition to or instead of a short octave, where some of the keys are split in half. The front halves and back halves play different notes.
Modern pianos have three pedals (sustain/damper, soft, and sostenuto pedals), and there is no pedal on harpsichords.
The piano pedals make the music richer and more colorful. The pedals enable the sound overlap to create more expressive music and warrant infinite sound possibilities. Check out our article about piano pedals for more details on their functions and how to use them.
Since the harpsichords do not have pedals, the Baroque composers used thrills, rolled chords, staccato, and legato to add more color and enhance the music articulation.
Difference in Playing
Even though harpsichord keyboards are like pianos with white and black keys, people might assume that the technique needed to play them is similar to the piano. However, this is not the case.
How you sit at a harpsichord and approach the instrument is quite the same as how you sit at a piano. A good posture is crucial to play either harpsichord or piano.
A few common elements, like
- Relaxed shoulders
- Sitting straight
- Forearms almost parallel with the ground
The distance between your body and the keyboard should be comfortable for you to reach the upper keyboard on a double-manual harpsichord or the top and the bottom keys of a piano.
In harpsichord playing, you use minimal motion; you usually use your fingers. In contrast to playing piano, you lift your fingers and push down the keys to make a sound on a harpsichord. You don’t strike the keys; you rest your hands on the keys, and then you release your weight, letting gravity do the work.
To avoid the delay in the string plugging in a harpsichord, you must find the “on the strings” position on the key. It is the position where the keys are slightly depressed, but before the plucking happens, you release the fingering weight to make a sound.
Moving on Keyboard
In order to move from one hand position to another on the harpsichord, you move your hands close to the keys sideways instead of lifting your hands to change positions in playing piano.
To leap the harpsichord, you have to relax down into the key after it’s played, and then curl your finger inward away from the keyboard, then move sideways to the position where you’re going. Hence, there is no leaping per se for playing the harpsichord.
Nowadays, the piano is considered one of the most popular musical instruments. You can buy a new or used piano relatively quickly. However, trying to buy a harpsichord is not as easy.
Since its invention, the piano has become more popular, especially the upright pianos that came out in the late 1700s. The low-cost and space-friendly upright pianos were welcomed by many pianists and casual players alike. Pianos are not only in private homes but also in schools, worship houses, and concert halls.
On the other hand, the harpsichords peaked during the Baroque period. They were nearly wiped out in the 19th century. In today’s world, there are still a few harpsichord makers, and you will find some harpsichords around. Therefore, harpsichords are much more expensive than pianos.
To conclude this harpsichord vs piano review, we know that the piano differs from the harpsichord. The only similarities are the keyboard and strings in the instruments.
The differences are:
- Different ways of making sounds
- Keyboard sizes and actions vary
- Players apply different techniques to play
- Pianos are much more popular than harpsichords
In the current digital era, if you are fond of harpsichord sounds, you can experience them in many digital pianos. The harpsichord is also a perfect sound for accompaniment that you can leverage in digital pianos.