There is a definite difference between the piano and harpsichord.
In fact, the differences between the two instruments are many and varied. Both may belong to the keyboard instrument group, bear a resemblance to one another, and have strings and a keyboard, but most of the similarities end there.
The 10 distinct ways the piano and harpsichord differ are as follows.
Table of Contents
- Piano and Harpsichord History
- Piano and Harpsichord Size Differences
- Piano and Harpsichord Sound Differences
- Piano and Harpsichord Octave Ranges
- Piano and Harpsichord Keyboard Differences
- Piano and Harpsichord Strings
- Striking vs. Plucking
- Piano and Harpsichord Keys
- Piano and Harpsichord Availability and Cost
- Piano vs. Harpsichord: Which One is Easier to Play?
- Wrapping Up the Comparisons
- Piano vs. Harpsichord: Which One is More Popular?
Piano and Harpsichord History
The harpsichord was invented centuries before the piano. In its heyday from around the 1400s to the early 1800s, the harpsichord was very popular in Western Europe. Now, contemporary harpsichords are used to play certain pieces of historically informed performances, new compositions, and some types of popular music.
The harpsichord started to die out around the beginning of the 18th century, corresponding with when the piano was invented. The piano was invented in Italy in the 1700s and became popular soon after that.
Since the harpsichord has existed in its original form since around 1400, it is around 300 years older than its successor, the piano.
Piano and Harpsichord Size Differences
In comparing the size of the piano and harpsichord, the harpsichord weighs less than the piano because of the lighter inner core and case of a harpsichord.
The harpsichord is wing-shaped and looks similar to a harp placed on a frame. It is also narrower than a piano.
Pianos can be one of 3 types: grand, digital, or upright piano. The weight of the average upright piano is approximately 520 pounds, and it is between 30″ and 50″ tall.
In contrast, a typical harpsichord weighs approximately 275 pounds and is 8 feet long and 3 feet wide.
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Piano and Harpsichord Sound Differences
The sound produced on a piano and harpsichord is very different. The harpsichord is quieter than the piano and more harmonious. The harpsichord has a lilting, beautiful sound that is the hallmark of the Renaissance Era when the harpsichord was popular.
When it comes to controlling sound on the piano and the harpsichord, it’s easier done on the piano.
The sound on the harpsichord is more rigid and formal, whereas the piano can play a variety of sounds simply by how hard or soft the player strikes the keys.
Playing crescendo or decrescendo is not possible on a harpsichord.
Piano and Harpsichord Octave Ranges
A normal harpsichord typically has a range of 4 to 6 octaves, whereas a piano has an octave range of around 7 octaves.
On a harpsichord, playing with two sets of strings can produce a sound an octave higher, known as the 4-foot register. The set of strings that produce sounds at a normal pitch on a harpsichord is called an 8-foot register.
Piano and Harpsichord Keyboard Differences
The keyboards on the piano and harpsichord differ as well: the harpsichord has two keyboards, while the piano has only one.
The piano has 88 keys or sometimes more, and a double keyboard harpsichord has between 96 and 144 keys.
The harpsichord has a soundboard under the strings, which vibrates and amplifies the notes being played.
The piano has a similar sound amplification system, but it is a hammer that strikes the string and produces sound when it vibrates.
Pedals exist on the piano, but not on the harpsichord.
A piano’s pedal is called a sustain pedal, and it’s typically found on the right side of the piano. When you press down on it with your foot, it lifts up all the dampers on the strings inside the piano, allowing the notes to ring out and sustain for longer. This gives you the ability to create a beautiful, rich sound that’s full of depth and warmth. It’s especially useful when playing chords or when you want to make a note last longer than the natural decay of the string.
Piano and Harpsichord Strings
There are 2 sets of strings on the harpsichord. Sound is produced by plucking the strings.
Some harpsichords have been made with more than 2 sets of strings, but most have 2 sets of 8 foot strings that vary in sound depending upon what type of material is used to make the plectrum.
It is more time-consuming and tedious to tune the strings on a harpsichord than it is to tune a piano. The harpsichord strings are weaker and thinner and must be tuned before each performance.
Tuning a piano does not have to be done as often, because the strings are harder and stronger.
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Striking vs. Plucking
The mechanics of how the piano and harpsichord produce sound is different.
The harpsichord sound is achieved by plucking. In other words, a mechanism known as a plectrum plucks the strings through the use of a tangent, a small metal piece attached to the inner part of the string.
On a piano, a lever with a hammer strikes the string and vibrates, causing a unique sound.
The difference between striking and plucking is that controlling sound on the piano is much easier than on the harpsichord.
Piano and Harpsichord Keys
Harpsichord keys are made of wood, while white piano keys are made of ivory or wood and a plastic-coated ivory substance.
The black keys on the piano are made of ebony or other types of darker wood. There are 88 keys on the piano, 52 of which are white and 36 of which are black.
How one strikes the keys on a piano can influence the sound greatly. By striking the keys forcefully, the sound becomes loud and bold.
By striking the keys softly, the sound is lighter and more delicate. The force with which you strike keys on the harpsichord does not affect the sound. It is generally the same tone and sound. That being said, there are techniques such as using rolled chords or trills to produce more variants in sound using the keys on the harpsichord.
Piano and Harpsichord Availability and Cost
In today’s world, purchasing a piano or harpsichord can be challenging.
A harpsichord can often be built for anywhere around $5,000 to $20,000. Pianos are more available and more accessible to find than harpsichords, although the harpsichord is making a comeback after nearly being obliterated in the 19th Century.
Most pianos range from a low of $4,500 to as much as $190,000 for a high-end, well-built piano.
Piano vs. Harpsichord: Which One is Easier to Play?
Knowing that the harpsichord has 2 keyboards and 2 sets of strings might lead some to believe it is harder to play.
This is in many ways false, because when playing the harpsichord the sound cannot be changed by how hard or soft one strikes the keys – one less thing to master.
Performers and composers have mastered certain techniques that change the tone and sound on the harpsichord, but the complexity of the piano compared to the limited techniques used in playing the harpsichord generally makes the piano a harder instrument to play.
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Two of the techniques used in playing the harpsichord are articulation and agogic.
These techniques vary the tone and sound of the harpsichord somewhat, but it is not as pronounced as the variations in touch, pressure, or use of the pedal that are used to produce sound on the piano.
Therefore, mastering the nuances of the piano is more difficult than its counterpart, the harpsichord.
The harpsichord remains a rigid, formal instrument, while the piano is considered more expressive, therefore making the simpler, more formal harpsichord the easier instrument to play.
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Wrapping Up the Comparisons
The piano and harpsichord are not the same, even though the forerunner to the piano is the harpsichord. The variety and number of sounds one can make on a piano and harpsichord is one major difference.
Today, the piano has evolved into a major and popular instrument that is used worldwide. The harpsichord is considered the preferred instrument on which to play certain musical pieces and fantasias, like those written by Bach, for example.
Because one is developed from the other, they have certain similarities. Nonetheless, the use of plucking and striking remains the major difference in how sound is produced on the piano and harpsichord.
Although piano and harpsichord mechanisms are similar in some aspects, the hammer on the piano is effective in striking the string and making a louder sound.
On the other hand, the mechanism in the harpsichord gently plucks the strings, making the sound lighter, softer, and more delicate.
Piano vs. Harpsichord: Which One is More Popular?
The piano is considered the more popular instrument, although the harpsichord is still in use today in similar ways as it was during the peak of its heyday in the Renaissance Era.
The harpsichord was considered a must for the upper class and aristocracy. The piano, however, had little or no ornate design or decoration, like the harpsichord did, and therfore appealed more to the middle class.
The piano became popular by reaching the mainstream and being used in schools, concert halls, churches, and private homes.
The harpsichord was in large part phased out in the 19th century, and was revived in the 20th century, but trails the piano in popularity today.
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What is the main difference between a piano and a harpsichord?
The main difference is in the way the strings are struck. A piano has hammers that strike the strings when a key is pressed, while a harpsichord has plucked strings that are activated by pressing keys.
Which instrument has a louder sound, piano or harpsichord?
Generally, pianos are louder than harpsichords. This is because the hammers in a piano strike the strings with greater force than the plectra in a harpsichord.
Which instrument is better for classical music, piano or harpsichord?
Both instruments have their place in classical music, but the piano is more commonly used in modern classical music. Harpsichords are often associated with Baroque music and earlier periods.
Can you play the same music on a piano and a harpsichord?
Yes, many pieces of music can be played on both instruments. However, the different tonal qualities of the two instruments mean that some pieces may sound better on one than the other.
Which instrument is more expensive, a piano or a harpsichord?
Pianos are generally more expensive than harpsichords. This is because pianos have more complex mechanisms and require more materials to build.
Can a harpsichord be used in a modern band or ensemble?
Yes, harpsichords are often used in modern ensembles, especially those that focus on early music. They can add a unique sound and texture to a performance.
Which instrument is easier to learn, piano or harpsichord?
This is subjective and depends on the individual. Some people may find the piano easier to learn because of its more familiar layout and the ability to control dynamics with the force of the keys. Others may prefer the simplicity of the harpsichord’s mechanics.
Can you play jazz music on a harpsichord?
Yes, jazz musicians have experimented with using harpsichords in their music. However, the instrument’s limited dynamic range and lack of sustain make it less suited to jazz than the piano.
Do pianos and harpsichords require different maintenance?
Yes, pianos and harpsichords require different types of maintenance. Pianos require regular tuning and regulation of the action, while harpsichords require maintenance of the plectra and other parts unique to the instrument.
Which instrument should I choose if I’m just starting to learn keyboard?
If you’re just starting to learn keyboard, a piano is generally the best choice. It’s a versatile instrument that can be used in many different genres, and it will provide a solid foundation for learning other keyboard instruments in the future.