Classical Music For Dummies, 3rd Edition
Book image
Explore Book Buy On Amazon

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

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

About David Pogue David Pogue is a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and has performed magic at parties, special events, on TV, and even over the radio for 25 years. He created and taught the beginning magic programs at the New School for Social Research and the Learning Annex. He has been known to mesmerize audiences with his magic tricks while on tour promoting his many bestselling books, including Macs?? For Dummies??, 5th Edition, Opera For Dummies??, and Classical Music For Dummies??. Contributor Mark Levy, magic consultant, has levitated and read spectators' minds for nearly 30 years. His writings have appeared in some of magic's most revered literary sources, including Richard Kaufman's CardMagic, Apocalypse magazine, and Magic.

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. Evelyn Cisneros danced for the San Francisco Ballet for 23 years and is the Artistic Director of the National Dance Institute of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

This article can be found in the category: