What Are Historical Keyboard Instruments?

Historical Keyboard Instruments

Keyboard instruments, as the name suggests, are musical instruments which are played by means of a keyboard that is, the pitches to be sounded are selected by means of a set of levers (the keyboard), which is manipulated by the fingers, hands, or feet of the player. Under the fingers and/or feet of a sensitive performer, the keyboard may also be used to control dynamics, phrasing, shading, articulation, and other elements of expression, depending on the design and inherent capabilities of the instrument.
Keyboard instruments fall principally into two distinct categories: stringed instruments (pianos, harpsichords, clavichords, etc.) and wind instruments (organs, harmonia, regals, accordions, etc.). Other types of keyboard instruments include celestas (struck metal bars), carillons (tower chimes), and non-acoustic instruments, such as the various electronic organs, synthesizers, and keyboards which were designed to imitate the sound of acoustic keyboard instruments or to create entirely new musical sounds.

The most familiar keyboard instrument of our time (disregarding the various electronic instruments of relatively recent invention) is the piano, with which virtually everyone is familiar. However, many are surprised to learn that the modern piano is actually only the current end product of a long period of evolution, dating back to the first years of the 18th century. In its current form it is a product of the 20th century, and is far removed in both sound and appearance from the “pianos” known to Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven.

In fact, the modern piano is significantly different from even the 19th-century pianos used by Liszt, Chopin, and Brahms. While it is fine to play music of these composers on our modern piano or organ, it must be remembered that the resulting sound, as well as the technique used to produce it, will be different to a lesser or greater extent from what would have been experienced in the composer’s own time.

It is that difference which defines the concept of “historical” keyboard instruments. A growing movement to re-create music of earlier times (i.e. music of antiquity through that composed in the early years of the 20th century) in as authentic a manner as is possible, has flourished in the 20th century and continues to the present day.

If we wish to create such an authentic performance today, we must employ an instrument similar to that which would have been utilized by or familiar to the composer. Historical keyboard instruments, then, are instruments of types which composers of earlier times and their contemporaries might have employed in performances of their own music. In a practical sense, these might be genuine antique instruments, or modern instruments built in the style of the antiques.

Important Types of Historical Keyboard Instruments


The clavichord is the oldest and most primitive keyboard instrument. It is typically a rectangular box with a keyboard set in one long side, with strings running horizontally across the box. The keys are simple levers with a fulcrum near the center. Depressing the end of a key raises the opposite end, where a small metal wedge (called a tangent) strikes a metal string. 

 At its loudest, the clavichord is a very quiet instrument, yet it allows the performer to control dynamics via touch within its limited dynamic range. And, because the tangent remains in contact with the string as it speaks, it is possible to add small variations in the pitch of the notes; a unique addition to the expressive palette. The clavichord is both the quietest and the most expressive of keyboard instruments.


 The harpsichord family includes a tremendous variety of instrument styles, types, and subtypes. Yet, all use an identical means of tone production, and all produce a characteristic kind of sound. Again, the key is a simple lever; when depressed, it lifts a shim (called a jack) at its far end. Each jack contains a small plectrum, which literally plucks a string. Thus, harpsichords produce a “plucked” sound envelope, distinct from both the clavichord’s and the piano’s more percussive “struck” quality.

The harpsichord family includes large, wing-shaped instruments with one keyboard (occasionally two, and very rarely three) at the short end, as well as smaller wing-shaped harpsichords (known as spinets) and rectangular or pentagonal-shaped instruments (muselars or virginals).

Particularly striking are the so-called “Mother and Child” virginals (a spectacular specimen is pictured on our main page)–actually two instruments in one, the smaller “child” (pitched an octave higher than the “mother”) fitting inside the mother like a drawer! Most harpsichords contain one or two “choirs” (sets) of strings; a few have three or even four.  Harpsichords with two or more choirs usually have a mechanism which works like the stops on an organ to control which choirs sound at any given time.

Considerably rarer are the lautenwerk, or lute-harpsichord (a harpsichord strung with gut strings rather than metal ones and intended to imitate the sound of the lute); and the clavicytherium–a tall, vertical wing-shaped harpsichord designed to stand against a wall.
It must be mentioned that during the first approximately 60 years of the harpsichord’s revival as a legitimate performance and concert instrument (corresponding roughly to the first 60 years of the 20th century) a type of harpsichord which has come to be known as the “revival” harpsichord was the norm.  In the early years of the 20th century, most antique harpsichords sat mute and unplayable in museums and private collections.  

Wanda Landowska and others who wished to experiment with the sound of the harpsichord (and eventually to perform on them) turned to piano manufacturers of the day, asking them to create “harpsichords” that could be used for these purposes. 

 These “revival” instruments actually had little in common with antique harpsichords, resembling more closely modern pianos with a plucking action. While many today dismiss these instruments due to their dissimilarity to antique instruments, they represent what was available to those pioneers of the harpsichord revival, and they played a vital role in the revitalization of the harpsichord as a legitimate concert instrument in modern times.

Insofar as they served this important function, and insofar as a body of literature was composed specifically for this type of instrument, they may be legitimately considered “historic keyboard instruments.”


 Fortepiano and Pianoforte (forte = loud, piano = soft) are two terms which were used in earlier times to describe earlier relatives of our modern piano. These terms are now used to describe historical pianos as distinguished from the modern concert grand or spinet piano. When the fortepiano was invented in the earliest years of the 18th century, it bore a much greater resemblance both in sound and appearance to the harpsichord than it did to the modern piano. However, the fortepiano employed a new and entirely different kind of action, wherein the strings were struck by leather and/or felt hammers. This action allowed the performer to change the dynamics of the music at will, as with the clavichord (but with a much greater dynamic range), merely by changing the amount of force used at the keyboard. This advantage, along with a significant change in musical taste which was occurring at the same time, effectively sounded the death-knell for the harpsichord.
From its earliest years, the fortepiano was built (as was the harpsichord) in a variety of different sizes and shapes, from small table-top rectangular (“square”) pianos to larger rectangular or wing-shaped, horizontal or vertical pianos. Over two centuries, these fortepianos gradually evolved into our modern spinet and grand pianos. While the modern piano can be used to effectively communicate all of the music which has been written for the fortepiano (as well as much of what has been written for all other keyboard instruments!), many scholars, performers, and students of piano history now recognize that different kinds of pianos are more appropriate and effective for interpreting the music of different composers, countries, and eras. For example, the 5-octave, wood-framed Viennese fortepiano might be just right for music of Mozart and Haydn, while a much larger, metal-framed Erard grand might be perfect for that of Chopin. By the same token, a square Chickering of the same vintage would produce just the right sound and feel for music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, or to accompany songs of Stephen Foster.


The organ, the most complex and complicated keyboard instrument of all, produces musical tones by admitting pressurized air into pipes of various sizes and shapes. The pipes, made of metal or wood, are arranged in sets or ranks which produce specific kinds of musical tones. Devices called stops are used to determine which ranks will speak at a given time, while the keyboard–of course–determines which pitches will sound.
Like the piano (and unlike the harpsichord and clavichord), the organ has experienced no hiatus in its construction or popularity. And like the piano, it has continuously evolved throughout its history. That evolution has produced a modern concert instrument which is significantly different from earlier organs. As with our other historical keyboard instruments, the “historical” organ encompasses both antique instruments and modern instruments built in the style of the old ones. The differences between this type of organ and its “modern” counterpart are comprehensive, and affect everything from the smallest details of pipe construction and voicing, to major considerations such as stop specifications, divisional placement, and key action. In general, they represent a return to the use of only that technology possible before electricity was readily available. These organs would likely exhibit features such as low wind pressure, suspended mechanical (“tracker”) action linking keyboards and stop mechanisms with the pipes, and flexible winding, often provided by hand-pumped bellows.
Smaller (and less complex) wind keyboard instruments include the portativ (a portable organ of antiquity, pumped with one hand and played with the other); positiv (chamber organ); regal (a loud portable organ with reed pipes), and harmonium or reed organ (a popular 19th-century instrument with free reeds rather than pipes, often excited by vacuum rather than pressurized air).


Other kinds of historical keyboard instruments are rarely encountered today, but each played its own small role in the historical development of keyboard instruments. Interesting examples of these extremely rare instruments–still awaiting their re-discovery!–include the tangent piano, an early rival of the hammered fortepiano; and the geigenwerk, which attempted to imitate the sound of the violin in a keyboard instrument using spinning, rosin-coated wheels.

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