Classical Music For Dummies, 3rd Edition
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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.)

About This Article

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About the book authors:

David Pogue is a musician, author, and journalist for both print and television. He's authored or coauthored more than 120 books, including six Dummies books. He has been a conductor on Broadway, worked as a tech columnist at the New York Times, and is a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. Scott Speck has conducted hundreds of ballet performances throughout the United States and Europe. He is music director of the Joffrey Ballet, artistic director of the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra, and former conductor of the San Francisco Ballet.

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