Most musicians will tell you that there is a definite difference between the piano and harpsichord.
The differences between the two instruments are many and varied. Both belong to the keyboard instrument group, bear a resemblance to one another, and both have strings and a keyboard. However, most of the similarities end there.
The 10 distinct ways the piano and harpsichord differ are as follows:
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.
The harpsichord started to die out around the beginning of the 18th century when the piano was invented.
The piano was invented in Italy in the late 1700s and became popular soon after that.
Contemporary harpsichords are used to play certain pieces of historically informed performances, new compositions, and some types of popular music.
Since the harpsichord has existed in its original form since around 1400, it is more than 400 years older than its successor, the piano.
In comparing the size of the piano and harpsichord, it would seem that the harpsichord weighs less than the piano because the inner core and case of a harpsichord are generally lighter.
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 the upright piano. The weight of the average upright piano is approximately 527 pounds, and it is between 30″ and 50″ tall.
In contrast, the harpsichord weighs approximately 274 pounds and is 8 feet long and 3 feet wide.
The sound produced on a piano and harpsichord is very different. The harpsichord is quieter than the piano and more harmonious.
Controlling sound on the piano and harpsichord is easier 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.
The octave range on a normal harpsichord is between 4 and 6 octaves. The piano’s octave range is approximately 7 octaves.
When playing the harpsichord with 2 sets of strings, one set of strings may produce a sound an octave higher.
This is known as the 4 foot register. The set of strings that make sounds at a normal pitch on the harpsichord is called an 8-foot register,
The keyboard on the piano and harpsichord is as follows: 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 96-144 keys.
The harpsichord has a soundboard under the strings which vibrates and amplifies the note 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 on the piano and harpsichord exist on the piano but not on the harpsichord. The harpsichord has a lilting, beautiful sound that is the hallmark of the Renaissance Era when the harpsichord was popular.
The pedal on the piano is used primarily to create a sound when pressed that is best described as making an audience believe that sound travels.
Since the harpsichord does not have a pedal, its harmonious sound is often recognized as being just as important as the sound effects of the pedal on the piano.
There are 2 sets of strings on the harpsichord. It is known to be an instrument whereby sound is produced by plucking the strings.
Some harpsichords have been made with more than 2 sets of strings. There are harpsichords that 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.
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.
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 you strike keys on the harpsichord does not affect the sound.
It is always the same tone and sound. There are techniques in existence such as using rolled chords or thrills to produce more variants in sound using the keys on the harpsichord.
Availability and Cost
In today’s world, purchasing a piano or harpsichord can be challenging.
A harpsichord can be built for around $14,000 to $18,000. 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.
There is what’s known as the Piano Blue Book which is similar to the Kelley Blue Book for cars.
Consulting the Piano Blue Book can give you a good idea of how much a new or used piano would cost in todays marketplace.
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 false because when playing the harpsichord the sound cannot be changed by how hard or soft one strikes the keys.
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 would make the piano a harder instrument to play.
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 and numerous 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.
Are they the same?
It is true that 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 a 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 written by Bach.
Because one is developed from the other, they have certain similarities. The use of plucking and striking remains the major difference in how sound is produced on the piano and harpsichord.
Although the piano and harpsichord mechanism is similar in some aspects, the hammer on the piano is effective in striking the string and making a louder sound.
The mechanism in the harpsichord gently plucks the string making the sound lighter, softer, and more delicate.
Which one is more popular?
The piano is considered the more popular instrument, although the harpsichord is in use today as much 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 and appealed to the middle class.
The piano became popular by becoming mainstream and being used in schools, concert halls, churches, and private homes.
The harpsichord was phased out in the 19th century and was revived in the 20th century but trails the piano in popularity.