Clavichord vs. Harpsichord (What’s the Difference?)

Pro Music Vault Home Comparisons Keyboard Comparisons Clavichord vs. Harpsichord (What’s the Difference?)

In the keyboard instrument family, there is the clavichord and the harpsichord.

The main difference between the clavichord and the harpsichord is that the clavichord is a stringed instrument, and the harpsichord is an instrument that uses a mechanism to produce sound.

Since the sound the clavichord makes is softer and more delicate, it cannot be used in front of large audiences or concert halls.

It is used mostly for composing music and practicing.

Since it is smaller and more compact, it can be moved more easily than the harpsichord.

The harpsichord resembles a piano with its tuned strings and keyboard. When you consider the clavichord and harpsichord, you will find that the music played on a clavichord is done by striking tangents, or small metal bars, that are attached to the inner ends of the strings.

In a harpsichord, the sound is made primarily by a plectrum plucking a tuned string while the keys on the keyboard are pressed.

This plectrum is similar in function to a guitar pick used to play the guitar. With a harpsichord, the strings are plucked by the plectrum and then muted.

Table of Contents

Sound/Octaves (Clavichord vs. Harpsichord)

The clavichord has a much gentler, softer sound than the harpsichord.

Because the sound produced on the harpsichord is mechanically produced, some think the harpsichord sound is more formal and less intimate than either the clavichord or the piano.

The harpsichord served as a model for today’s piano, but all 3 instruments have very unique, distinct sounds.

When a harpsichord is mechanically plucked and then muted, the result is a sound that is less like a piano and more formal and rigid than the clavichord.

Some harpsichords can be equipped with a buff stop which is buff leather, or something similar, which makes contact with the strings. This mutes the sound and makes it sound a lot like a plucked lute.

It is also widely known that the harmonic sound of the harpsichord is one of its most important features.

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In terms of octaves, the usual compass of the clavichord is from 3 1/2 to 5 octaves. The octave for some of the larger harpsichords is 5 octaves, and 4 octaves for some of the smaller harpsichords.

The clavichord features fretted, which is the term used to describe shared strings for adjacent keys. Independent strings on clavichord are called unfretted.

Just by touching the clavichord keys, sounds can be any of the following: piano, crescendo, forte, or diminuendo.

In addition, by placing pressure on the keys with one’s finger, the clavichord can make a vibrato sound.

The harpsichord uses techniques such as articulation, which connects and divides the sounds, and agogic, which gives variety to the sound by gently and intermittently playing fast and then slow.

The sound effect is a delicate, intimate sound.

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Shape/Looks (Clavichord vs. Harpsichord)

If you take into consideration the shape of the clavichord and harpsichord, the harpsichord resembles a piano more than the clavichord does.

The harpsichord is upright like a piano, and has horizontally placed strings, and a keyboard. The clavichord is smaller than the harpsichord, and some versions sit on a table. Hand-held versions have also been developed.

The clavichord has a keyboard and strings, and the keys on the keyboard do not move.

If you compare the clavichord vs harpsichord in appearance, both tend to be ornately decorated and designed, with the strings of the clavichord remaining open in contrast to the enclosed strings on the harpsichord.

The countenance of the harpsichord during the Baroque era had a dual purpose. It was used as an instrument in the home, and was ornately decorated to fit in with the furniture and decorations of its day. They were considered delicate and gorgeous works of art.

The clavichord is rectangularly shaped and more compact, weighing about 40 pounds. The harpsichord is shaped somewhat like a horizontal harp laid flat on a frame, with a raised lid.

How Easy Is It To Play the Clavichord and Harpsichord?

People often ask: Which is easier to play, the harpsichord or the clavichord? Both have sounds in stark contrast to the amplified sounds of today.

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If you are familiar with playing a piano, then playing a harpsichord shouldn’t be much of a problem for you.

As with any other instrument, there are some great books out there to get you up and running. We recommend starting with one of these bestsellers – you really can’t go wrong with any of these picks.

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The problems sometimes tend to arise with playing a fretted clavichord.

If you want to play the clavichord, then you must be aware of the differences between fretted and unfretted, and the different sound each one makes.

There are some musical pieces that cannot be played on a fretted clavichord, because the sequence as written cannot be performed.

This is because some of the natural notes on the string have sharp notes on the same string. Notes such as the A flat and G sequence are impossible to play on the fretted clavichord.

If the variance in playing the clavichord vs. harpsichord attracts you, then you have to learn how to successfully use the keys on the clavichord to create variants in pitch.

Overall, fretted clavichords have very unique sounds, and they are harder to play than the harpsichord.

As with the harpsichord, there are some great learning resources out there to get you started. We recommend dipping your toes in the water with a book along these lines.

[PRO TIP: Add some structure to your learning with our top pick for clavichord sheet music.]

In answering the question about which instrument is more popular, the clavichord vs. the harpsichord, we have to trace the history of each.

When the harpsichord was phased out by the development of the piano in the 19th century, the harpsichord was considered obsolete by some.

The harpsichord did manage a come back in the late 20th century (actually, it had never really disappeared from the opera).

Today, the harpsichord’s popularity is fueled by the writing of new musical pieces specifically for the harpsichord.

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Meanwhile, the soft sounding clavichord was largely obliterated in the 1800’s in favor of the piano and later electronic amplifiers.

It remained in use in some small circles around the world. During the Baroque era in Western Europe, the clavichord was very popular, until it was phased out in the late 1600’s.

Today’s clavichord includes a table top version and hand-held clavichords that were developed around 2007.

Also Read:


What is a clavichord?

A clavichord is a stringed musical instrument that produces sound by striking strings with small metal blades called tangents. It has a quiet and intimate tone and was popular in the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

What is a harpsichord?

A harpsichord is a keyboard instrument that produces sound by plucking strings with quills. It has a bright and percussive sound and was widely used in the Baroque era.

How does the sound of a clavichord differ from that of a harpsichord?

The clavichord produces a soft, intimate sound due to its method of striking strings, while the harpsichord has a brighter, percussive tone due to its plucked strings.

What era were clavichords popular in?

Clavichords were popular in the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

What era were harpsichords popular in?

Harpsichords were widely used in the Baroque era.

How does the volume of a clavichord compare to that of a harpsichord?

The clavichord has a much lower volume than the harpsichord due to its softer, more intimate tone.

What is the mechanism used to produce sound in a clavichord?

The clavichord produces sound by striking strings with small metal blades called tangents.

What is the mechanism used to produce sound in a harpsichord?

The harpsichord produces sound by plucking strings with quills.

What is the dynamic range of a clavichord compared to a harpsichord?

The dynamic range of a clavichord is much smaller than that of a harpsichord due to its soft, intimate tone.

What is the historical significance of clavichords and harpsichords?

Both clavichords and harpsichords played important roles in the musical traditions of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, and their unique sounds and styles have influenced classical and popular music for centuries.

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