Robert Estrin - piano expert

What is a Harpsichord?

Discover the Harpsichord and its fascinating characteristics

In this video, Robert talks about the Harpsichord and how it is different from the modern piano.

Released on April 22, 2015

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Welcome to I'm Robert Estrin. Today's question is what is a harpsichord? Well, we've got a gorgeous instrument here in front of us, and I thought it was a great opportunity to show you a little bit about what the harpsichord is. You know, I have a program that I have performed countless times called Living Pianos: Journey Through Time: Historic Concert Experience where I show the whole evolution of the piano, and I travel with my harpsichord and my fortepiano. And audiences are thrilled with this instrument.

Well, did you know there was a time before the piano was invented? You probably realized that but never really gave it much thought. Well, during that period, the harpsichord reigned supreme. Of course, the organ was also a very developed instrument earlier than the piano was, but the harpsichord has its roots going back to the 12th century.

Now, this is a very deluxe instrument. Most harpsichords only have one manual, that is, one keyboard. So later the harpsichord evolved to have more complexity. So the two manuals you notice are lined up. The early instruments, one keyboard was shifted about a fifth from the other keyboard, which is very interesting. All harpsichordists, by the way, are also harpsichord tuners because these instruments are not as robust as the piano so you have to learn how to tune them.

Now, what really separates the harpsichord from the piano? It has so many similarities, you might wonder. Well, the primary difference is on a harpsichord, when you push a key, it plucks the string instead of hitting it with hammers. Why is this so important? Well, because it plucks the strings, you can hit the key very gently or you can hit it hard and it's exactly the same volume, which is why many harpsichord have what are called stops. Stops are ways of changing the tone with either levers or pedals.

So for example, I could play that same note that I played before and so play a note like this, and then put this stop on and get that tone. Or in this case, this one even has pedals, which is very unusual for a harpsichord, but if I play that same note and then put this pedal down, you can hear it adds an octave. So there are all sorts of registrations just like an organist can achieve.

Now, the harpsichord is a much more delicate instrument in terms of volume. It was usually used not as a solo instrument so much, although Scarlatti wrote a lot of sonatas for the harpsichord. And the harpsichord really was the de facto performance instrument during the Baroque era because unlike other keyboards like the virginal and others, it has much more volume. A clavichord, for example, can't even be heard across the room because it's so delicate in its volume.

So that in a nutshell is what a harpsichord is. And if you want to know more about the harpsichord, explore my Living Piano Journey Through Time. I'll have links for you. And you're welcome to contact me with any questions you have about the harpsichord. Thanks so much for joining me. Robert Estrin here at
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on April 22, 2015 @2:36 pm PST
Very interesting lecture! Up here in Northern Virginia we have a couple who build harpsicords and sometimes there are concerts at the Theatre in Little Washington, VA sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute. I never miss those.
Oluwaseun Collins on April 22, 2015 @1:22 pm PST
But are there upright Harpsichords?
Oluwaseun Collins on April 22, 2015 @1:00 pm PST
Thanks for bringing this topic, it's very helpful.
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