What Are The Differences Between Pianos & Harpsichords?

The history of keyboards has seen the emergence of many instruments with a great variety of attributes. Two instruments intimately related to each other are the piano and the harpsichord, and the former can even be said to derive from the latter.

What are the differences between pianos and harpsichords? The differences can be boiled down to the following:

  • Pianos are percussion chordophones. Harpsichords are chordophones.
  • Each instrument spawned entirely different families of instruments.
  • The piano has a stronger and more expressive tone than the harpsichord.

In this article, we'll be delving deeper into the differentiating elements of both harpsichords and pianos that were briefly outlined above. However, let's first review their histories in passing.

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The Backgrounds Of Pianos And Harpsichord

Two major events set the stage for the ultimate development of both instruments: The invention of the monochord and, later on, of the organ.

The monochord was initially utilized in Greece around the 6th century B.C. solely for scientific purposes. It consisted of a single piece of string stretched over a calibrated sound box with a freely moving bridge.

The organ, for its part, was invented in the 3rd century B.C. in Alexandria. It was originally a pipe organ that operated with the aid of water pressure to push air through the tubes. These instruments received the name “Hydraulis”. Later, bellows would replace the water system to pump air into the instrument.

The organ was introduced in Western Europe during the first years of the Carolingian period. Since then, it has helped shape modern keyboard instruments, with its keyboard setup adapted to various string and idiophone instruments.

The psaltery came into the European musical scene four centuries after the organ (possibly in the 12th century), most likely imported from the Middle East. It was a harp-type instrument consisting of strings of various sizes stretched over an open wooden soundboard.

Soon after, in the 14th century, a keyboard layout similar to that found in portative organs was added to the psaltery while still retaining a portable form.

However, by the 15th and 16th centuries, this new keyboard instrument would evolve into what is currently known as the harpsichord, especially at the hands of Italian instrument makers. These harpsichords incorporated a plucking mechanism consisting of simple sliding jacks (holding a wedged plectrum) and levers. The clavichord is also said to appear during that same period, though it was less popular.

The piano's appearance was delayed until around the year 1700. It was also developed in Italy by Bartolomeo Cristofori, who was dissatisfied with the lack of correspondence between the velocity (how hard the key was hit) and the volume of the notes in contemporary harpsichords. For this reason, he implemented a system of hammers that would replace the traditional plectrums.

That instrument would at first receive the name “clavicembalo col piano e forte” (harpsichord with soft and loud notes), later simply “piano” (meaning “soft”).

What Are The Differences Between Pianos And Harpsichords?

Next, we'll be elaborating on the distinctions between pianos and harpsichords that were shortly recounted at the beginning of this short analysis.

Difference 1: Class And General Design

The first thing I noted was that:

“Pianos are percussion chordophones. Harpsichords are chordophones.”

Both instruments share the status of keyboard and chordophone instruments – with sound originating from string vibrations. Nonetheless, they differ in the way said vibrations are provoked.

As emphasized earlier, the harpsichord relies on a plucking system consisting of plectrums (initially made of quill) that are fitted to sliding jacks that swivel away from the string as they move back down, avoiding downward plucking. The plectrum would pluck the string with the same intensity independent of how the key is hit, producing notes with little volume variation.

Conversely, the piano has a set of hammers resting under the strings that would strike as we push the keys. In light of this, the piano is considered a percussion instrument and a chordophone.

Furthermore, while sporting a similar dampening structure to that of the harpsichord, it also comes with pedals to deter or tweak the action of the dampers (producing longer-lasting notes) or to modify the general tone. Modern harpsichords can also come with tone-shifting pedals and levers, albeit they're not as common.

Difference 2: Types

Second, I pointed out that:

“Each instrument spawned entirely different families of instruments.”

Harpsichords, as they are known today, usually carry the same distinct design, with a horizontal soundboard and strings positioned at a 90º angle from the keyboard (same as with the grand piano). Nevertheless, the closest examples of harpsichord variants are:

  • The Clavicytherium, with a vertically-laid soundboard.
  • The Spinet, with a triangular soundboard bent towards the right-hand side.
  • The pedal harpsichord (developed in the 18th century), with a pedal board at the base for lower-pitched notes.

Admittedly, whether the Clavicymbalum could be deemed a type of harpsichord is disputed. However, most consider it a harpsichord ancestor instead, just as the harpsichord itself is considered an ancestor of the piano.

The piano, on the other hand, comes in basically four variants:

  • The grand piano, with a horizontal soundboard.
  • The upright piano which, as the name suggests, has a vertical soundboard.
  • The electric piano, with a joint acoustic/electric mechanism.
  • The digital/electronic piano, using analog sensors instead of an acoustic setup.

Difference 3: Sound

Finally, I stressed that:

“The piano has a stronger and more expressive tone than the harpsichord.”

This hearkens back to the previous observations on how both instruments operate.

In the harpsichord, the intensity of the sound is uniform across the board. You will not obtain nuanced notes as the velocity does not affect volume by any stretch.

In the case of the piano, the intensity does hinge more on how hard the key is hit, allowing performers more leeway to alternate between dramatic and soothing notes within the same piece without having to rely as much on levers and other contraptions.

In addition, pianos come with three pedals for colouring the tone further: Sustain, soft, and sostenuto. This broadens the range of expressions one may obtain with these instruments.

Lastly, the piano's tone is bolder towards the lower and middle frequencies. The harpsichord's sound is much brighter, leaning toward the higher end of the frequency spectrum.

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 the 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. For more info, please check out his YouTube channel and his music.

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