What Are The Differences Between Pianos & Clavinets?

Continuing with My New Microphone's showdown of keyboard instruments, we will take a close look at two examples that are of relatively recent date: The piano and the clavinet. While sharing an extensive number of similarities, these instruments are also highly different in several respects.

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

  • The clavinet is much smaller than the acoustic piano and has a different way of producing sound.
  • The piano has a narrower sound palette than the clavinet.
  • The piano has a broader pitch range than the clavinet.

In this article, we'll discuss more details on the distinctions just laid out between pianos and clavinets. However, it's worth reviewing the history of both instruments for further illustration.

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The Backgrounds Of Pianos And Clavinets

Both the pianos and the clavinets are keyboard instruments, as well as chordophone instruments. Both categories owe their existence to two primitive instruments: The organ and the monochord.

The organ is arguably the first keyboard instrument ever to exist. It was a pipe organ devised in Alexandria in approximately the 3rd century B.C. It operated via water pressure capable of propelling air across pipes of different sizes. The mechanism later evolved to feature bellows that would feed air into the pipes.

The monochord preceded the organ by around 300 years, and it was conceived by Pythagoras to study the relationship between tension and frequency in sound. It consisted of a wooden soundboard with one piece of string stretched over it. It had a movable bridge and a tuning peg at one extreme. The monochord concept will get refined, with a number of monochord variants emerging around the middle ages.

Back to the organs, the first organs to arrive in Western Europe were donated to King Pepin the Short (the first Carolingian king) by the Byzantine emperor of that time (Constantine V). Since then, they have evolved and grown in size to fill the acoustic requirements of large church buildings. The keys on the organ would afterward be adapted to other types of instruments, particularly pitched percussion and string instruments like the dulcimer.

These developments led to the creation of the first clavichords in the 14th century. These instruments worked by means of brass blades positioned under the strings that percussed them, causing them to vibrate and produce soundwaves that would interact within the soundboard.

The clavichord allowed players to convey a broad range of expressions, but it lacked the necessary volume to be heard in larger environments.

The harpsichord was created roughly two centuries later in an attempt to come up with an instrument that could generate notes at higher decibels. This keyboard included a plucking mechanism to deal with the volume issue, but at the expense of velocity.

It also improved upon the clavichord's string layout by introducing an unfretted design in which each string would play only one note instead of two (a setup implemented in later clavichord models). This permitted players more control over their harmonic delivery and allowed two adjacent notes to be trilled in quick succession more easily or to be played at the same time.

The piano was developed at the turn of the 18th century by Bartolomeo Cristofori using a similar percussive system as the clavichord but with the general acoustic and string structure of the harpsichord. It also had an escapement mechanism that enabled the strings to vibrate more freely, but that also sacrificed aftertouch control in the interim.

The clavinet came to the scene much later than the acoustic piano but in closer proximity to the electric piano (around the middle of the 20th century). Ernst Zacharias (the clavinet's lead designer) preserved many of the traits of the clavichord (of the unfretted variety) and focused mainly on improving the resonance aspect by using electrical currents and an amplifier instead of a resonant box.

What Are The Differences Between Pianos And Clavinets?

Now, we will dive deeper into the distinctions between pianos and clavinets outlined at the beginning of this writing.

Difference 1: Design And Mechanism

I affirmed that:

“The clavinet is much smaller than the acoustic piano and has a different way of producing sound.”

The first clavinets (Hohner models) were made with electromagnetic pickups that captured the signals of the strings' vibrations, which were, in turn, actioned by a small rubber pad instead of the traditional tangents used in the clavichord.

The energy captured by the pickups is transferred to an amplifying device, meaning it doesn't have to include a large soundboard. This also permits the clavinet to retain a slim and portable design.

On the other hand, acoustic pianos rely on a mechanical vibrating chamber that accommodates the strings while also being tasked with amplifying the sound.

The grand piano needed a large soundboard to be capable of being heard in large venues. For this reason, grand pianos and even the smaller upright pianos required a moving van or truck to be taken from one place to another, while clavinets could fit into smaller personal vehicles and stowed in flight cases.

Difference 2: Sound

Later, I emphasized that:

“The piano has a narrower sound palette than the clavinet.”

In this instance, again, I'm only using acoustic pianos as a reference. While these are equipped with various pedals for texturing the sound, namely sustain, soft, and sostenuto – they're not as versatile as the clavinet due to the latter's ability to equalize tone via a control panel.

Moreover, you can render extra effects on the clavinet by installing additional pedals, such as an overdrive or wah-wah pedal, just like you would on an electric guitar. What's more, you'll find models that sport a “whammy bar” for aggressive pitch bends (nicknamed the “whammy clavinet”).

To learn more about wah-wah pedals, check out my article What Are Wah-Wah Guitar Effects Pedals & How Do They Work?

Difference 3: Pitch Range

Lastly, I mentioned that:

“The piano has a broader pitch range than the clavinet.”

In a typical grand piano, you will have access to 88 keys spanning more than seven octaves (from A0 to C8). The piano is arguably the keyboard instrument with the broadest range out of all existing instruments.

On the flip side, the clavinet has a few variants, but the most common one ranges from F1 to E6 and has 60 keys (5 octaves).

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 producing music. Check out his music here.

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