The previous blog covered the guitar family. This blog is all about the keyboard family.
The keyboard family has been around for rather a long time. The interesting thing is that most keyboard instruments look the same with white and black keys (though some swap the colours around). But their sounds are hugely varied, especially as technology keeps developing at a presto pace!
The first form of harpsichord was invented in Western Europe around 1400. It was heavily featured in Renaissance and Baroque music, as well as some early classical music (especially in opera). The steel strings are plucked with a quill and because of this dynamics aren’t really possible. The sound is quite tinny and because of the way the strings are made long notes aren’t really possible either. To get around this composers would decorate their melodies with trills, turns, mordents and the like (more on that in a later blog). The harpsichord was used a lot to provide the basso continuo but they also have their own moment in the spotlight as solo instruments. The harpsichord has a range of just under four to just over five octaves. Fun fact, the first electronic instrument made was an electronic harpsichord. It was made in France during Mozart’s life time.
This is a small table-top version of the harpsichord. They were very popular in the 16th century, especially in England. The range is just under three octaves.
This is a small keyboard instrument. Unlike the harpsichord (and virginal) the strings are struck with hammers (blades). This produces a soft sound and enables limited dynamics to be played. Initially their range was two and a half octaves. Over time that expanded to five or six octaves.
The pianoforte, was invented around 1700. A felt hammer hits the string when a key is struck. The harder you strike the key, the louder the sound. This means that a wide range of dynamics are available. The first pianos had a very light action which meant virtuosic playing (such as in Beethoven’s ‘Pathetique’) was quite so strenuous as it is on today’s modern piano. It’s cousin, the fortepiano, has a mellower sound.
It varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, but as a rule the bottom octave (or two) will have thick, single string notes. After that the notes will use two strings for an octave or so. After that the remaining notes will have three strings. This helps with the resonance of the instrument as well as helping to provide volume. Some German models have four strings at the very top and that fourth string is simply there to resonate.
The piano also has pedals.
A grand piano will have three pedals. The one on the left is called the Una Corda pedal which softens the sound made. This happens by shifting the whole keyboard (on some instruments) a little to one side so that only one string (which is what Una Corda means) is played. The pedal on the right is called the damper pedal and it sustains all the notes that are played (and makes the other string resonate too). It’s called the damper pedal because depressing the pedal lifts the dampers off the strings. The middle pedal is called the sostenuto pedal. The function is quite clever in that you can play a chord or notes, depress the middle pedal and those notes will hold and then any other notes you play won’t sustain.
An upright piano as a rule will have two pedals. The one on the left is an Una Corda pedal but rather than moving the keyboard, the hammers move closer to the strings to give a similar effect of only hitting one string. (Some models bring down some thin felt that lowers to cover the strings). The right pedal is the damper pedal doing exactly the same as it does on a grand piano. Sometimes, an upright will have a middle pedal but this is a “practise pedal”. When that pedal is pressed it muffles the sound so it’s very quiet.
There are around seven and a half octaves on a piano.
A massive organ is impressive, not only to look at but to hear as well! You’ll see these impressive beasts in churches, cathedrals, and some concert halls. When you start analysing how they’re built you come to realise just how impressive, and complicated, these instruments are.
The organ is unique in a few ways. First it generally has more than one keyboard (called a manual on an organ). Second it has pedals that can play about two octaves of notes. Finally the uniqueness is the way the sound is created (air).
The traditional organ is made with hundreds of metal pipes, and sometimes they use wooden pipes too. Air is blown through the pipes (which are called ranks). In days of yore the air was pumped by hand or foot but as time went on electric pumps were used.
When you press a key or pedal, air passes through the pipe(s) and sounds a note. The longer the pipe the lower the note (and forgive stating the obvious here, the shorter the pipe the higher the note!).
The organ is capable of playing different sounds including “trumpet” and “flute”. You select the sounds you want by pulling out things called stops. (This is where the phrase “pulling out all the stops” comes from (to make a great effort) - as doing so makes a very loud and full sound).
Electronic organs don’t have (working) pipes. They use technology to reproduce the desired sounds making them much lighter…and cheaper (compared to a full sized church organ).
There are other “keyboard” instruments such as digital pianos and MIDI keyboards (more on MIDI in a future blog). You can also get piano accordions (which are a portable instrument powered by air as you contract and expand the bellows, one side is a small keyboard and the other has buttons to produce chords), glass harmonicas (essentially wine glasses with water in that get rubbed to produce a tone), and many others…but as long as you can remember how the three main ones (listed above) sound you’re onto a winner.
Sir Thomas Beecham was a very famous conductor known for his burns (snide, humorous comments). He once commented that the harpsichord sounded like two skeletons copulating on a tin roof (in a thunderstorm).