Friday, November 07, 2008

Harpsichord, grand piano, spinet -- what's the difference?

A harpsichord is the earliest precursor to the piano, sharing many of the same qualities; it is a stringed instrument using a series of keys to access the strings. But unlike a piano, which uses a hammer to hit the strings, a harpsichord actually plucks them, creating a distinctive sound not unlike that of a plucked violin. It was a massively popular instrument from the time of its invention (dated back to the 14th century) until the popularization of the piano. And the love of the harpsichord didn't even end at that point; many composers continued to write specifically for the instrument and many musicians (even modern, 20th century ones) frequently use it in performance.

As the term harpsichord actually means to refer to an entire family of similar instruments, there are a variety of forms and styles. The most famous harpsichord is known simply as the harpsichord, a large wooden instrument that looks not unlike a grand piano; in fact, this type of harpsichord was indeed the grand piano of the instrument group, used for public and high-society performances. The spinet harpsichord, yet another popular type, is a harpsichord with angled strings; the size of this harpsichord prevents an entirely horizontal positioning.

But the spinet harpsichord is not the smallest in the family; a series of small harpsichords were produced. The virginal harpsichord is a very small version tailored for women; the muselar virginal harpsichord is slightly larger than the virginal, with the strings attacked from their mid-points; and the spinet virginal harpsichord is a small harpsichord with angled strings. Additionally, an upright harpsichord called the clavicytherium was produced for a short time before it fell out of favor; this harpsichord was the true inspiration for the upright piano.
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