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Chapter 3: Keyboard Instruments



These are a set of instruments possessing levers which enable the performer to play with both hands a series of simultaneous sounds (e.g. pianoforte, or harmonium) or 2 hands and the feet (organ) These sound combinations can be easier to control from a larger number of strings/reeds/pipes than would be possible by other families of instruments.  The keyboard family is tuned to semitone distances, which is the standardised progression of sounds at present.  Thought is being given to “microtone” progression which would necessitate a totally new adaptation of the keyboard instrument.


The earliest keyboard was apparently that of the Organ melodic planning was in vogue.  The sounds are produced by inflating bellows which force air through pipes graduated as to length and bore which affects the pitch of the sound produced.  

These pipes some of which are of (1) wood, some (2) metal, (3) whistle or flue pipes and (4) others supplied with a vibrating tongue of metal called a “reed” and are used for this instrument producing a variety of sounds. Some effects emulate other instruments like the Flute, Clarinet, Oboe,  others range from Basic Profundo to high Treble voices. The effects are produced by opening out various stops.


The organist at the ‘console’ controls 3 sections of the Organ through the keyboards or manuals. The Great Manual operates the 1) Great Organ; The Small Manual,( 2) The Swell Organ and the Pedalboard, the (3) Pedal Organ Air is supplied to the Bellows either by an electric generator or a manual operator by means of a Fan. Through the Organ stops on the Console that controls sliders in the Great and Swell organs, the organist selects a rank of pipes   - open, stopped or reed. When a key or pedal is pressed air passes from the reservoir into the wind chest through open pallet holes and then into the selected pipes. Gradual changes of volume are achieved through the swell pedal which opens and closes shutters in the swell box. A complex coupling system enables all sections of the organ to be sounded simultaneously.


An early form of keyboard instrument used domestically between the 15th and 18th centuries. It developed from the monochord and was finally displaced as a popular home instrument during the 18th c.

The gentle and ethereal tone of the clavichord made it unsuitable for public performance except on a very small scale. The greater power of both the Harpsichord and the Piano led to its replacement by these instruments, but it has been revived from time to time in the 20th c.

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The Clavichord resembles a small rectangular piano often in the form of a box which can be placed on a table if it does not have its own legs. The long side faces the player and the strings run horizontally parallel with that side.


When the key is depressed the tangent strikes a pair of strings and makes them vibrate. The tangent remains in contact with the strings for as long as the key is depressed and so a variation of finger pressure enables a vibrato effect to be achieved.


A group of key board instruments in which strings are plucked using a keyboard operated mechanism. Various types of harpsichord are known as: -

France : Clavecin

Italy:       Clavicembalo.

The simplest and oldest form is often called a Virginal. This was in the form of an oblong box with one string per note running in parallel to the key board. Thus was evolved a wing shaped style known as Virginal up to the end of the 17th c. but from 18th c. onwards became known as SPINETS . However, in the Spinets the strings are at a 45-degree angle to the key board. 

The developed Harpsichord now   had its strings running parallel to the key board with 2 to 3 strings per note. In some larger Harpsichords there can be seen 2 or 3 keyboards and later types even added a swell pedal which opens and closes slats to contr5ol sound.

However, with all these devices the instruments response to the players attempts to add expression to the music was still very limited and at the beginning of the 18thc. The piano replaced the Harpsichord, although it has been revived for a small amount of modern baroque music written in the 20th c.

Scarlatti, Bach and Handel wrote extensively for the Harpsichord, but the music is now performed on the piano.


The plucking action of a Harpsichord: When a key is depressed the quill or leather plectrum attached to the Jack plucks the string as the jack rises, When the key is released the pivot to which the quill is attached enables the jack to fall back without touching the string.   


A versatile key board instrument derived from the Harpsichord and the hammer action based  on that of the dulcimer. The first Piano was made in Florence in 1709 by Bartolomeo Cristofori. He called it a “Gravi cembalo” col piano e forte” (harpsichord with soft & loud) because of its ability to play softly or loudly according to the force with which the notes are struck--- a facility lacked by the plucked strings of the Harpsichord. Gottfried Sibemann improved on this idea and Bach on seeing these instruments suggested a few improvements. Johannes Zumpe settled in London bringing designs for the Square Piano. 

These became popular especially in Continental Europe. The square piano was lighter and cheaper than the wing shaped ones and took up less space. However, by the beginning of the 19th c. this was replaced by the Upright Piano in homes with vertical strings.  The Upright was originally developed in 1800 in Philadelphia by John Hawkins. Since the middle of the 19th c. both the Grand Piano with Horizontal strings and the Upright with Vertical strings have been in use.

In about 1800 the modern Grand Piano emerged with its iron frame and overstrung heavy strings. 

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A portable reed organ containing a set of metal reeds which are forced to vibrate by air from the bellows operated by the player’s arms.  The notes are selected by buttons operated by the player’s fingers or, in the case of the Piano Accordion by a piano-type key-board for the Right Hand and buttons for the Left Hand.  It was invented in 1822 by Friedrich Buschmann and is used extensively for playing informal music not having found a pace in serious music.



A type of accordion with hexagonal or octagonal ends and a relatively small number of notes.  It is not a keyboard instrument, being merely an introducation of the Accordian.  It was patented in 1829 a few years before the Accordian.

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A Type of accordion in which the melody is placed by the Right Hand buttons arranged to play diatonic scales in one or 2 keys.  The Left Hand as a set of accompanying chords and notes produced by 4 buttons.  Popular in Germany and Central Europe.



A reed organ with a keyboard and a small number of stops.  It has a set of free reeds bu

No pipes.  Air from the bellows sets the individual reeds in motion when the appropriate key is depressed. The bellows are either operated by the feet via pedals or in later more sophisticated by means of an electric motor.  It was invented early in the 19th c and has been widely used as a substitute for an organ, especially as an accompaniment to hymn singing.


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