Because of the harpsichord’s long history and the culturally diverse contributions to its literature and design, there never was, nor can be, a standard harpsichord. Some designs, however, are more versatile than others. For the person wishing to obtain a harpsichord, whether for a specific performance or for purchase, there can arise many questions as to what is needed: which configuration of the instrument, how many sets of strings, what kind of tone, how many notes, how many keyboards, etc.? Simply getting an instrument that has "everything" is not always the answer, since it will ultimately need more attention to keep it in top playing condition, will be quite expensive, and will be rather cumbersome to move if it is to be used in different locations.

The early 20th century saw a rediscovery of the harpsichord with modern piano technology making contributions to the construction of new instruments. As the renewed interest in early keyboard instruments increased (along with research in musicology, interpretation, and performance practice) it became apparent that the 20th century-derived impressions of harpsichords did not meet the requirements of the pre-Classical music itself. The clear, resonant voice and the light, quick touch the music needs necessitated a return to the closed bottom, lightweight, resonant principles of construction used in the original instruments. The 200 to 500 year old harpsichords still in existence in museums and collections (many of them in playing condition) now serve as models for present day builders.

Paul Y. Irvin

Forms Stops
Choirs Manuals
Compass Transposing
Registers Styles



Just as the modern piano comes in different forms, such as the upright, spinet and grand, so too does the harpsichord. Different forms sound different and have different musical resources.

The grand harpsichord (often just referred to as "harpsichord") is the form similar in shape to the grand piano. It can have anywhere from one to five sets of strings at various pitch levels. These sets can be played singly or in various combinations so that different tonal colors and different volume levels can be used to contrast various pieces, or sections within pieces. Historically, these changes were almost always effected by hand lever, only rarely by pedals or knee levers. Nowadays, pedal changes, through their convenience, appear to tempt the player too easily to make more frequent registration changes than is good for the coherence of the musical line (something like changing singers every few measures throughout a song). Hand stops, because of their simple, direct action, are easier to adjust and maintain, and offer no more restraints to music making than were found acceptable by the original composers and performers.

The clavicytherium is essentially a grand harpsichord stood upright to save space. It has the same possibility as the grand of having multiple sets of strings for variety of tone and volume. Its more complicated mechanism, however, causes it to be more expensive than a grand of similar specifications and it has never enjoyed wide popularity.

The virginal appears to be the earliest form of the "compact" harpsichord. In fact, it quite possibly is the first form that the harpsichord came in, probably being derived from the psaltery which was plucked by hand with a feather. Its strings run from side to side of a rectangular or polygonal case, in a long side of which is a keyboard. It almost always has only one set of strings which makes it very easy to maintain, but limits it to one tonal color. Up to about 1700 this was the common form of the instrument to be found throughout England, France, Germany and Flanders. The grand harpsichord was a much more expensive instrument to build and was not within the fiscal means of the average middle-class person. (Incidentally, the early English used the term "virginal", as in Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, to generically refer to all the different forms of the harpsichord.)The major types of virginals reproduced nowadays are Italian, English, and Flemish (itself with two major variations).

Historically, the virginal was later largely replaced by the bentside spinet, which has a somewhat triangular or wing shaped case with one curved side and the strings running at an oblique angle away from the keyboard end. This form offers a more attractive and space-efficient shape than the virginal and has more equal-length keys and, hence, a more even action. The usual English, French, and German bentside spinets also have a more even sound, more like a grand harpsichord, with less of the distinctive tonal color of the virginals. "Bentside" is usually kept as part of the term since in the various language forms and periods, the word "spinet" was often used to refer to any small form of the harpsichord, including the form which we nowadays usually call a virginal.

While the term pedal harpsichord is sometimes used to refer to a harpsichord which changes registration by means of pedal levers similar to a piano (as discussed above), it is more usefully used to refer to a separate, complete harpsichord lying on the floor which is played by the feet working a pedalboard like that of an organ. Although there are historic references to this form of the harpsichord, no examples seem to have survived. With a one- or two-manual harpsichord above it, the pedal harpsichord is useful for playing organ music. (At least two historic examples of pedal clavichords do still exist, most likely also originally used by practicing organists -churches weren’t heated and somebody had to be paid to pump the bellows, making practice at the church an expensive, uncomfortable experience.)



How many sets of strings - choirs - are needed can only be determined by a consideration of how much variety the music you like to play really needs, balanced against how much you are willing to tune and care for the instrument. The vast majority of the harpsichord literature, solo and ensemble, can be played on one set of strings of a resonant instrument. In fact, all but a few pieces of Louis Couperin were composed on a virginal, with one manual and one set of strings. The music and the style of playing was sufficient to keep the interest of the listener even though few players, nowadays, play his music without a double-manual harpsichord with three sets of strings.

One set of 8’ (standard pitch) strings is sufficient to play the vast majority of the literature. When another set of strings is desired it can either be an additional 8’ choir (which will have a different sound than the first one because of its slightly different length strings being plucked in a different position), or as a 4’ choir, which sounds an octave higher in pitch. A 2x8’ harpsichord has at least three different sounds: the 8’ plucked in the back playing alone, the front 8’ alone, or both played together. Since the 4’ is rarely played by itself, a 1x8’, 1x4’ harpsichord has two basic sounds (the 8’ alone, and the 8’ with the 4’), and the added inconvenience of more tuning of the less stable 4’ choir, but the most famous historical family of harpsichord builders, the Ruckers, built almost all their grand harpsichords this way, and it is probably the only way their sound can be properly reproduced.

The only way in which a 16’ choir (an octave below standard pitch) can sound good in a harpsichord seems to be when it is designed with its own separate bridge and soundboard. Historically, original choirs of 16’ strings were apparently only used in the multiple-keyboard instruments of one German builder and, perhaps, in some very long Italian instruments based on a 16’ pitch for opera use. Modern attempts to put a 16’ on top of the 8’ bridge have only resulted in a muddy 16’ sound, often with deleterious effects to the basic 8’ sound of the harpsichord. Indeed, much of the modern motivation for adding a 16’ to the harpsichord plan seems to come from the desire to add a satisfyingly low fundamental sound to the design. A properly designed 8’ will have all the bass needed for a full, balanced sound. The 16’ idea is based more in the organ tradition than the harpsichord tradition.



With the range of repertoire that the modern player, contemplating owning just one instrument, has at his/her disposal, a range of C-d3 (two octaves below middle c to two octaves and a second above middle c) would likely be a minimum requirement, and more than sufficient for most continuo work. Extending the bass range to GG would permit all the works of Bach, Handel, . . . up to about Francois Couperin, and all but the very last works of Rameau, to be played. Some of the earlier Italian works ascend to f 3 as do some of the late 18th century compositions (which also only occasionally descend to FF). Four of Scarlatti’s 550+ sonatas contain a top g3 although it is rather unusual to find an historical harpsichord that extended this far. It is also worth noting that there is some argument over just how much an instrument’s design suffers by being stretched from FF-g3 in order to contain the infrequently used notes of the literature.

16th century music did not have much need for the very lowest accidentals so those keys would often be tuned to sound as lower diatonic notes, an arrangement known as short octave tuning. [Two versions are found. The first to arrive was the C/E short octave, where the keyboard looked like it started on an E. Functionally, the E was tuned to be C, the F was an F, the apparent F# was tuned to be D, the G was a G, the apparent G# was tuned to be the E, and from then on up the appearance matched the pitch expected. Later when the F# and G# were needed in the music, the keyboard was extended down to BB for a GG/BB short octave. Here the apparent BB was tuned to be a low GG and the next two accidentals were tuned to AA and BB, leaving the rest of the keys to sound the notes they appeared to be.] This arrangement was transferred from organ building where it saved considerable money in not having to make large bass pipes that weren’t used. As music writing developed and those accidentals were needed to actually serve as accidentals, they were sometimes split into separate front and rear halves to serve their dual functions, an arrangement known as a broken octave. Some compositions from this period can only be played on such keyboards, because the span of notes required to be played in the left hand is too wide to be comfortably achieved on a chromatic keyboard (several pieces of Louis Couperin come to mind). While instruments with arrangements like these may seem quite foreign, they really don’t take very long to learn, although they are probably best left to players specializing in a particular period of the literature or to those who are interested in owning more than one instrument.

The 16th and 17th centuries often used a form of tuning which afforded more purity than our present system does, but less flexibility in the number of key signatures which could be played: a g# was fine as a g# but could not serve at all as an ab. To get around this restriction sometimes a keyboard of split sharps (front and back portions) would be built, usually splitting the g#/ab and d#/eb keys. Occasionally this idea would be extended further to the point that at least one instrument survives with thirty-one notes per octave! Needless to say . . . .



The term "register" is often used to refer to one set of jacks. Each choir of strings has at least one set of jacks plucking it. A different tonal color can be achieved by plucking the same set of strings at a different place along their length with another set of jacks. This can be arranged as two registers positioned in the usual place in the harpsichord, or by placing one register through the tuning pin block to get the jacks to pluck much closer to the end of the strings, imparting a rather nasal quality. This arrangement is best called a nazard, but often misleadingly called a lute register (it sounds nothing like a lute). Another method of getting a different sound from the same choir is by using a different plucking material, such as the soft water buffalo leather used in the late 18th century French peau de buffle register. Often these added registers are also confusingly referred to as "stops".



Tonal variety can also be achieved on a single choir of strings by moving a wooden batten lying next to one end of the strings so that the strings are lightly touched either by small metal hooks, as in the twanging arpichordum stop (usually found only in a few Flemish virginals), or by the more common felt or leather pads, as in the muted buff stop, sometimes called a lute stop (not to be confused with lute register). This arrangement, at least, can sound similar to a lute if it is regulated well.



The vast majority of the harpsichord literature (including solo, continuo and ensemble) can be played on a harpsichord with a single-manual, i.e. one keyboard. While some continuo players find two keyboards a convenient way of quickly changing volume levels without having to reach for the register lever change necessary with a single manual instrument, a double-manual (two keyboard) harpsichord is actually needed for only two types of music: that where the left and right hands are frequently crossing and their musical lines need to be kept distinctly separated (such as Couperin’s pieces croisees and some of Bach’s Goldberg Variations) and that music where the two hands must simultaneously play at different dynamic levels (such as Bach’s Italian Concerto, French Overture, Fantasy in c minor, etc.). If these types of music are a significant portion of one’s repertoire then it will be necessary to forego the significantly less expensive, lighter, and easier to maintain single-manual harpsichord for the advantages of the second keyboard.



Until recent times, performing pitch varied from town to town (even from player to player) and from decade to decade. Any modern player anticipating playing with instruments at various old and modern pitches (a=440, 415, 409, 392 Hz etc.) should consider getting a harpsichord with a transposing keyboard, which can be moved a semitone or two to the right or left to change the pitch of the instrument. This permits the strings to remain at the tension for which the instrument was designed, thereby preventing a major cause of broken strings and eliminating the usual two or three retunings needed to stabilize a new pitch level. Instruments with short octave or broken octave tuning, as discussed above, do not take well to transposing keyboards since shifting the keyboards would necessitate retuning some of the bass notes by a rather wide margin which seriously shortens the life of those strings.



Harpsichords are, for convenience, often categorized into five national styles: Italian, Flemish, French, English, and German. This identification is intended to refer to a particular type of sound, keyboard response, and approximate scheme of decoration. This convenient system of labeling, however, can carry with it a great deal of misinformation by implication: 1) that these were the only areas of building, ignoring the contributions of the Scandinavians, Irish, Spanish, Portuguese, etc., 2) that there was, for instance, an Italian or German culture when, in fact, there was no Italy or Germany, but only broad areas containing separate cultures which sometimes shared a common language, but where sometimes even the languages were mutually incomprehensible, 3) that 16th century culture was the same as the 18th century version, and so had the same expectations and purposes. One glance at the music would dispel this notion, but does not necessarily make obvious the corollary that these different artistic conditions were also expressed by, and derived from, different tonal resources.

There is as much difference in sound between south German and north German harpsichords as between early English and late English harpsichords, as there is between Italian and Flemish harpsichords of the 18th century. Each culture, and each period of a culture’s existence, has its ideas about tone, feel and appearance. The tonal resources of an instrument determine how a composer writes for it and, in turn, the demands of the music effects how the instrument maker develops his designs. The counterpoint of J.S. Bach is better delineated by a tone different from that which best complements the lush, harmonic writing of Francois Couperin.

Just because an instrument is decorated in an Italian style does not mean that it has an "Italian" sound or is good for playing Italian music. Just as not every person with an Italian name, or who looks Italian, speaks Italian. Similarly, one doesn’t need to have an instrument with a flowered soundboard surrounded by rinceau borders and a gold banded case in order to play 18th century French music, one just needs a sound which complements the music or, at the very least, does not get in the way of it.

The variety available and the choices which sometimes need to be made concerning harpsichords may seem to be too complex and too demanding at times. This diversity, however, gives richness to the legacy of the instrument, its music, and its performance. It is a richness that can excite and motivate by offering fresh insights into ways of listening, interpreting and playing. Enjoy.