The harpsichord and the piano are very different instruments, even though they both have a keyboard and look rather similar. The difference is in the action, or the way the sound is produced. The harpsichord is a plucked instrument. When the key is pushed down a jack is pushed up. The jack has a quill attached (originally a bird quill, although today it is common to use a plastic substitute). The quill plucks the string, producing the sound. It is best to think of the harpsichord as a lute or a guitar with a keyboard. The first harpsichords in the 15th and 16th centuries were used to accompany solo singing. The harpsichord probably developed from the desire to have a lute-like instrument where a single player could produce a greater number of notes somewhat louder. One of the reasons the harpsichord and the piano are confused has to do with history. Although the harpsichord was already centuries old, the first piano (with a hammered rather than plucked action) was built by a harpsichord maker in 1720. Both instruments were used for a time, but with changing taste at the end of the 18th century, the harpsichord died out and the piano evolved with the industrial age of the 19th century. Most music written for the harpsichord, therefore, is associated with the Baroque period in music. J.S. Bach (1685-1750) may be the most famous composer who wrote for the harpsichord, but in point of fact, Bach came near the end of the development music for the harpsichord, and so only represents the tip of the iceberg of available music. Since World War II, there has been much interest in reviving the harpsichord so that it would be possible to play and hear Baroque keyboard music on the instruments that composers of the era would have known.

During the baroque period, the harpsichord existed in numerous shapes and sizes, and today harpsichord builders reproduce all of them. Except for the defining plucking action, a late 18th-century English harpsichord was very different from a 16th-century Italian instrument. The major styles of harpsichord construction are defined by the countries where they were originally built: Italian, Flemish, French, German and English. Harpsichords were exported all over Europe and to the Americas, Africa and Asia during the 17th and 18th centuries. So the nationality of the instrument generally explains where it was designed and built, not where it was played. All harpsichords were hand-built, and so each instrument is unique. Single manual (i.e. single keyboard) instruments were most common throughout the period, although double manual (i.e. two keyboard) instruments were more common in France in the 18th century. A single-manual instrument usually had two sets of strings, either with both sets of strings tuned to the same pitches, or with one set of strings tuned an octave higher. Double-manual instruments generally have three sets of strings: a unison set for each keyboard, and an addition set tuned an octave higher. A coupler (a devise that connects the keyboards together) makes it possible to play one, two or three sets of stings simultaneously at the discretion of the player. The strings of the harpsichord are made of iron (or steel) and brass. A sub-species of the harpsichord, the lautenwerk (or “lutework”), is strung in gut. Today, every new harpsichord is still hand-built by a harpsichord builder producing a few dozen instruments a year. Usually builders make modified replicas of historical instruments preserved in museums. In concerts and on recordings today, one hears harpsichords based on French, Italian, Flemish and all the other designs.

In the Baroque period, the harpsichord was used as a solo instrument and as a member of an ensemble. In an ensemble, the harpsichord plays the basso continuo or figured bass part. The notation of the continuo part consisted of the bass line with a short hand system of numbers or figures indicating the chords. The bass line was played by a low instrument such as the ‘cello or bassoon, and the keyboard player improvised the harmony from the figures.

After the French Revolution, the harpsichord died out completely as the newer piano became the standard keyboard instrument. In the early years of the 20th century, Wanda Landowska (1879-1959) became interested in reviving the harpsichord, and in 1912 she had the piano builder Pleyel construct a keyboard instrument with a plucking action. The instrument that Landowska played is no longer considered to be appropriate for Baroque music (it was a piano with a plucking action, not an authentic harpsichord), but her exceptional musical ability has allowed her recordings to remain of interest from a purely musical standpoint. Landowska’s role in reviving the instrument was of great importance, and she inspired the interest of other players. The revival of museum-replica baroque instruments since World War II has lead to the development of a technique for the instrument that employs a different touch and fingering that that used on the modern piano. Landowska’s instrument had a very soft tone and keys that were hard to push down, but the antique instruments yielded a much bigger and varied sound. Gustav Leonhardt (b.1928) of Amsterdam is a leader in the development of baroque harpsichord technique and interpretation, and he has been the teacher of virtually every professional harpsichordist active today.

One of the oddities of contemporary harpsichord is that in the 1950s and 1960s when instruments were not readily available, many harpsichords were homemade by amateurs working from kits. Kit instruments still exist, although the kits in recent years have become much more sophisticated. The harpsichord in its baroque heyday was also an elaborate piece of furniture and decorated paintings were made inside the lids, which would be displayed when the instrument was opened. The soundboards were also decoratively painted, and opening a decorated harpsichord and revealing its inner visual treasure is a joy that is only enhanced by the beautiful acoustic sound. The harpsichord is difficult to record, and it is only recently that some recordings have captured a reasonably true representation of the sound of the instrument. The harpsichord has yet to be sampled adequately on electronic instruments.