From Young Composers
Jump to: navigation, search
Cone.png This article is a work in progress and may have some incomplete or missing content.

The harpsichord is a keyboard instrument that produces its sound by plucking the strings with a quill when a key is depressed. Due to the limitations of this mechanism, variations in volume by key pressure, or dynamics, are unfeasible. To overcome this, harpsichords are often equipped with multiple sets of strings that can be engaged by a system of stops similar to a pipe organ. Most harpsichords have two different keyboards, or manuals, so that two different stop settings may be employed at once.

Couples and stops

The simplest harpsichord is equipped with only one manual and a single set of strings that provide the basic harpsichord sound are referred to as an 8' (eight foot) choir. A harpsichord with only one manual may be equipped with more than one choir of strings. The second set of strings may be employed by use of a stop that is pulled. The second set (or front gate) is also 8' and therefore tuned in unison first set (called the back gate). It is simply plucked nearer the nut for a more nasal, and slighter more powerful sound. Additionally, both stops may be pulled at once such that both choruses of strings are sounded simultaneously. Most harpsichords today feature stops that are pulled out to engage a lever and pushed in to disengage. The stops are usually placed on the far left and far right sides of the backboard such that the amount of time taken to turn a stop on or off is only slightly more than it would take to reach the highest or lowest key on the instrument - the distance is similar.

In a harpsichord with two manuals, the bottom manual traditionally operates the darker back gate 8' choir and the top manual operates the brighter front gate 8' choir. This allows for the musician to alternate manuals for immediate dynamic contrast. Additionally, the bottom manual can have an additional 4' stop that employs a set strings tuned an octave higher for added weight and volume. In this fashion the lower manual is more powerful and the upper manual is used for softer passages. Finally, both manuals may be coupled together. When the top manual is physically shifted toward the backboard, the result is that the bottom manual will operate both manuals and their set stops simultaneously but the top manual will only operate itself. This allows for the greatest possible volume the instrument can produce - the 8' back gate, 4' choir, and the coupled 8' front gate of the top manual.

Extra stops

A number of harpsichords may be equipped with a stop then when pulled places a strip of leather against strings. This muted sound very much resembles that of a lute or nylon strung guitar and as such is called a lute stop. It only affects the back gate on single manual instruments but on double manual instruments it only works for the top manual. The bottom manual may feature a peau de bouffle stop, which when employed plucks the strings with leather quills instead of the more modern plastic plectrums.

Playing style

Due to the difficulty in changing the volume of the instrument note by note, a specific style of playing evolved for the instrument. The rolling of chords and playing of various ornaments have been introduced and perfected as a way to add expression to harpsichord playing.

Instruments and Voices
Woodwinds Flute (Piccolo/Alto/Bass)RecorderOboe (Cor Anglais/Oboe D'amore/Heckelphone)Clarinet (E♭/Bass/Contrabass)

Bassoon (Contrabassoon)SaxophoneBagpipes

Brass HornCornetTrumpetTromboneEuphoniumTubaSaxhorns
Keyboards PianoOrganHarmoniumHarpsichordClavichordCelestaAccordion
Percussion Tuned: TimpaniGlockenspielChimesVibraphoneXylophoneMarimbaCrotalesMusical sawHammered Dulcimer

Untuned: Snare drumBass drumTriangleCymbalsGongsTom-tomsShakersDrumset

Electronic ThereminOndes MartenotSynthesizerElectronic Wind Instrument
Stringed Bowed: ViolinViolaVioloncelloContrabass

Plucked: HarpGuitarMandolinBanjo

Voices Female: SopranoMezzo-soprano (often mistaken with Alto)Contralto (often mistaken with Alto)

Male: TrebleCountertenorTenorBaritoneBass-baritoneBass