How the Clavichord & Harpsichord Became the Modern Piano: The Evolution of Keyboard Instruments, Explained

Though dif­fer­ent mod­ern pianos may not sound exact­ly the same as one anoth­er, they all sound more or less like pianos to our ears. But the piano did­n’t appear ful­ly formed in the world of music as the instru­ment we know today: it has a vari­ety of pre­de­ces­sors, not all of which sound very sim­i­lar to the mod­ern piano at all, and a few dis­tinc­tive-sound­ing exam­ples of which you can hear demon­strat­ed in these videos from Baro­que­Band. In the first, musi­cian and edu­ca­tor David Schrad­er plays the first two: a repli­ca of a Ger­man clavi­chord, “the old­est stringed key­board instru­ment we know of,” dat­ing from around 1600, and a harp­si­chord, built accord­ing to plans dat­ing back to 1617.

The clavi­chord strikes its strings like a mod­ern piano, but the harp­si­chord plucks them, using a series of “tiny lit­tle gui­tar picks” called plec­trums. Schrad­er explains this while offer­ing a look inside the work­ings of these instru­ments, just as he does with their descen­dants in the sec­ond video: a repli­ca of an ear­ly Vien­nese piano built by Alton Wal­ter, who in the 1780s built an instru­ment for a cer­tain Wolf­gang Amadeus Mozart, and a mod­ern Stein­way grand piano made in Ham­burg.

The eight bars of one of Mozart’s piano sonata we hear on the Stein­way sound good, espe­cial­ly per­formed by Schrader’s skilled hands, but the Vien­nese piano offers addi­tion­al con­trols that enable the play­er to achieve a kind of “tone col­or” that mod­ern pianos don’t.

Hence the inter­est some musi­cians and groups (such as the Orches­tra of the Age of the Enlight­en­ment, recent­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture) have in play­ing clas­si­cal music with the same instru­ments from the eras in which the pieces were com­posed. “Each of these his­tor­i­cal instru­ments served the music of its own time best,” as Schrad­er puts it. “After all, you would­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly restore an old oil paint­ing with acrylic paint. Even if you choose not to play the his­tor­i­cal instru­ments, if you study them and how they work, it will mod­i­fy your approach to make for a clear­er, nicer per­for­mance on the mod­ern instru­ment.” But of course, “those of us who choose to eat every­thing on the plate will play all the instru­ments” — and will enjoy a per­form­ing expe­ri­ence clos­er to that which the com­pos­er intend­ed as a result.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Does the World’s Old­est Sur­viv­ing Piano Sound Like? Watch Pianist Give a Per­for­mance on a 1720 Cristo­fori Piano

New­ly Dis­cov­ered Piece by Mozart Per­formed on His Own Fortepi­ano

Hear Music Played on the Vio­la Organ­ista, a Piano That Sounds Like a Vio­lin, Which Leonar­do da Vin­ci Invent­ed, But Nev­er Heard

Vis­it an Online Col­lec­tion of 61,761 Musi­cal Instru­ments from Across the World

Hear the Sounds of the Actu­al Instru­ments for Which Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, and Han­del Orig­i­nal­ly Com­posed Their Music

How an 18th-Cen­tu­ry Monk Invent­ed the First Elec­tron­ic Instru­ment

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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  • Rick Sanborn says:

    I learned at the Schu­bert Soci­ety in St. Paul, Min­neso­ta, last year that harp­si­chord plec­trums were made of crow talons. It’s a great lit­tle muse­um and per­for­mance place if you’re ever in the neigh­bor­hood.

  • Mehdi Javanfar says:

    Excel­lent demon­stra­tion. Infor­ma­tive, well-exe­cut­ed, even “musi­cal.”

    Thank you!

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