What Are The Differences Between Pianos & Clavichords?

Keyboard chordophones have been around for a relatively long time, since the first harpsichords and clavichords entered the scene. On this occasion, we'll turn our attention to clavichords and pianos, two instruments with a proportionate number of similarities as well as distinctions.

What are the differences between pianos and clavichords? The differences are as follows:

  • While the piano and clavichord are both technically percussion/chordophone instruments, they have slightly distinct mechanisms.
  • The piano has a much stronger tone than the clavichord.
  • The clavichord has a narrower pitch range than the piano.

In this article, we'll go over the differences between pianos and clavichords that were just concisely outlined. First, however, let's revisit both instruments' histories.

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The Backgrounds Of Pianos And Clavichords

Both the clavichord and the piano are considered chordophone keyboards, which means they can trace their ancestry back to the first instruments in both categories: The monochord and the organ.

While the monochord may not have been the first string instrument, it was crucial in the development of chordophones in general due to its advanced technology (at least for the time). It was presumably designed by Pythagoras in Greece (6th century B.C.) to showcase the relationship between mathematics and music by studying the different frequencies attained at distinct lengths and tension levels.

The pipe organ, for its part, is deemed the first keyboard instrument. The first models were constructed in Alexandria during the time of the Ptolemaic Kingdom and delivered notes with the aid of water pressure. The water system would slowly lose relevance in favour of bellows over time.

The organ began appearing in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, more specifically in the proto-Carolingian period. It soon rose in prominence in more religious contexts.

The clavichord appeared around the 14th century, with a keyboard incorporated to activate a series of brass blades (tangents). These blades would strike the strings' underside to produce the vibration, consequently producing the sounds.

The clavichord was developed with a similar keyboard layout as the organ and drew inspiration from the medieval monochord and other string instruments of Middle Eastern origin, like the dulcimer.

The harpsichord evolved from the 14th-century psaltery and had a different system consisting of plectrums that pulled the strings. It generated a much louder sound than the clavichord and would become much more popular in the Reinassance also due to its ability to play chromatic notes simultaneously (as it was not fretted like the clavichord).

The piano (originally called “clavicembalo col piano e forte”) was created by Bartolomeo Cristofori around the year 1700 in an attempt to create an instrument similar to the harpsichord with improved sound and expressive capabilities.

The piano's design took the unfretted design of the harpsichord and the striking mechanism of the clavichord (using hammers instead). The notes' volume and colour were velocity-sensitive, so the instrument could convey different tonalities depending on how the keys were hit.

With the rise of the piano, the clavichord and harpsichord slowly began falling into disuse, although they coexisted for a while.

What Are The Differences Between Pianos And Clavichords?

Let's now go into greater detail on the distinctions mentioned at the beginning of this writing.

Difference 1: Mechanism

In this respect, I argued that:

“While the piano and clavichord are both technically percussion/chordophone instruments, they have slightly distinct mechanisms.”

The piano and the clavichord are classified as percussion instruments because they rely on concussion to elicit vibration of the resonant component – namely, the string. Both instruments lift a beating device that strikes from below when the key is pressed.

However, the piano has a far more complex action. It doesn't operate as a simple lever as in the case of the clavichord.

To illustrate, the clavichord doesn't have an “escapement” mechanism like the piano, which means that the tangent (the brass blade located at the opposite end of the key) is in contact with the string for as long as the key is pressed. In contrast, the hammer in the piano is lowered once it hits the string.

This tangent's action allowed clavichord players to generate additional effects that the modern piano would not be capable of reproducing, such as vibrato. Nonetheless, this would require the player to hit the key in a specific way by trilling or waving the finger as the key remains pressed. This also means that the string will be more restricted and won't be capable of rendering notes with the same sustain and strength as the piano.

Initially, clavichords were “fretted”, meaning that two tangents would hit the same string to produce chromatic notes. However, this came at the expense of the inability to play two chromatic notes simultaneously or in quick succession. In the 17th century, the first unfretted clavichords emerged, allowing players more freedom to play legato without the difficulties posed by their fretted counterparts.

However, the unfretted clavichord, having more strings attached to the soundboard, had a more restrained acoustic response due to the increased tension. Furthermore, its portability was likewise a concern because there had to be more space for the strings, resulting in a bulkier design.

Lastly, pianos incorporated felt., leather, or cork-covered hammers (among other materials) instead of tangents, which heavily contributed to their more bell-like sound.

Difference 2: Sound

Later, I stated that:

“The piano has a much stronger tone than the clavichord.”

This distinction in decibels can be attributed to the piano's bulkier body, as well as its hammer design and the steel frame that holds up its wooden case, all of which account for the instrument's ringing sound, especially bold around the middle of the range.

The clavichord is, by contrast, much more austere in volume than even the harpsichord, only capable of being audible enough in small gatherings and private practice sessions.

Hence, while you could theoretically play softer notes on the clavichord, you were almost forced to stick to “strong” notes (which were still soft by today's standards) for the instrument to be barely heard, a hindrance that the modern piano would not suffer from. The sound of the clavichord is described for this reason as “always soft” and that of the harpsichord as “always loud”.

Also, the velocity had hardly any effect on the clavichord's spectral richness, which was provided by the aftertouch actions (once the key was pressed). Conversely, the aftertouch control and overall spectral richness are higher on the clavichord because of what was explained earlier regarding its lack of an escapement mechanism.

Lastly, since the tangents in the clavichord are much lighter than the piano's hammers, it requires much more mastery to alternate between hard and soft notes within a single musical phrase on the clavichord due to the keys' lower resistance. Meanwhile, the weight of the hammers and the subsequently lower key sensitivity on the piano enables players more control over their instrument's volume and tone.

With all that said, as much of the difference in the sound department was already covered in the previous section, let's move forward with the last major distinction.

Difference 3: Pitch Range

Finally, I affirmed that:

“The clavichord has a narrower pitch range than the piano.”

The clavichord can come with ranges of 3 1/2 and 5 1/2 octaves. The lowest and highest notes can vary depending on the model.

On the flip side, acoustic pianos have a much wider range encompassing more than 7 octaves (88 keys from A0 to C8), making them suitable for a wider array of musical pieces.

Read How Pianos Compare To Other Instruments

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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