Understanding the Role of the Harpsichord in Classical Music

By David Pogue, Scott Speck

Every instrument plays a role in classical music, including the harpsichord. Not all keyboard instruments are touch-sensitive like the piano. Your basic cheapo portable $75 electronic keyboard isn’t, for example. Nor was the piano’s predecessor, the harpsichord. On this keyboard, every note comes out at a medium volume, no matter how hard you hit the key.

Here’s why it’s worth getting to know the harpsichord.

Winning the Baroque gold medal

The harpsichord was the number-one keyboard instrument for music of the Baroque and early Classical periods, and you still often hear it played in music from those periods. A lot of the music of such great composers as Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi would be difficult to perform without it. It’s the veritable gold medalist of the Baroque Olympics.

A harpsichord with a double keyboard. [Credit: Source: © Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images]

Credit: Source: © Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images
A harpsichord with a double keyboard.

Instead of sounding mellow or rich as a piano sounds, a harpsichord sounds — well, tinkly, twangy, or sometimes even crunchy. And for good reason: In a harpsichord, the strings are not hammered, but plucked.

Whereas the piano has very soft felt hammers to touch the strings, producing a variety of sounds, the harpsichord has little hooks (known as plectra) that rest near the strings. If you press a harpsichord key, the corresponding hook (or plectrum) reaches over and plucks the appropriate string, like a fingernail twanging an archery bow.

Hearing the harpsichord

Check this out to hear a prelude and fugue by Bach, played on the harpsichord (Track 02).

If you particularly love the harpsichord, here are some more pieces you simply must hear:

  • Bach: Concerto in D Minor for Harpsichord and String Orchestra

  • François Couperin: Les barricades mystérieuses

  • George Frideric Handel: Suite in E major, G 145-148 (includes delightful variations on “The Harmonious Blacksmith”)

  • Domenico Scarlatti: 550 sonatas (They’re all great. Take your pick.)