Keyboard instrument

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The piano, a common keyboard instrument D274.jpg
The piano, a common keyboard instrument
Hammond organ with part of a Leslie speaker shown Hammond b3 con leslie 122.jpg
Hammond organ with part of a Leslie speaker shown
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A keyboard instrument is a musical instrument played using a keyboard, a row of levers that are pressed by the fingers. The most common of these are the piano, organ, and various electronic keyboards, including synthesizers and digital pianos. Other keyboard instruments include celestas, which are struck idiophones operated by a keyboard, and carillons, which are usually housed in bell towers or belfries of churches or municipal buildings. [1]


Today, the term keyboard often refers to keyboard-style synthesizers. Under the fingers of a sensitive performer, the keyboard may also be used to control dynamics, phrasing, shading, articulation, and other elements of expression—depending on the design and inherent capabilities of the instrument. [1]

Another important use of the word keyboard is in historical musicology, where it means an instrument whose identity cannot be firmly established. Particularly in the 18th century, the harpsichord, the clavichord, and the early piano competed, and the same piece might be played on more than one. Hence, in a phrase such as "Mozart excelled as a keyboard player", the word keyboard is typically all-inclusive.

The term keyboard classifies instruments based on how the performer plays the instrument, and not on how the sound is produced. Categories of keyboard instruments include the following families (of which this is only a partial list):


Mosaic of the Female Musicians.jpg
Mosaic of the Female Musicians.jpg
Late 4th century AD "Mosaic of the Female Musicians" from a Byzantine villa in Maryamin, Syria.

The earliest known keyboard instrument was the Ancient Greek hydraulis, a type of pipe organ, invented in the third century BC. [2] The keys were likely balanced and could be played with a light touch, as is clear from the reference in a Latin poem by Claudian (late 4th century), who says magna levi detrudens murmura tactu . . . intonet, that is "let him thunder forth as he presses out mighty roarings with a light touch" (Paneg. Manlio Theodoro, 320–22). From its invention until the fourteenth century, the organ remained the only keyboard instrument. Often, the organ did not feature a keyboard at all, but rather buttons or large levers operated by a whole hand. Almost every keyboard until the fifteenth century had seven naturals to each octave. [3]

The clavicymbalum, clavichord, and the harpsichord appeared during the fourteenth century—the clavichord probably being earlier. The harpsichord and clavichord were both common until the widespread adoption of the piano in the eighteenth century, after which their popularity decreased. The first template to the modern piano was introduced in 1698 in Italy by Bartolomeo Cristofori as the gravicèmbalo con piano e forte ("harpsichord with soft and loud"), also shortened to pianoforte, as it allowed the pianist to control the dynamics by adjusting the force with which each key was struck. In its current form, the piano is a product of further developments made since the late nineteenth century and is distinct in both sound and appearance from the instruments known to earlier pianists, including Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. [1] Beginning in the twentieth century, early electromechanical instruments, such as the Ondes Martenot, began to appear as well. Later in the 20th century, electronic keyboards appeared.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Clavichord</span> Musical instrument

The clavichord is a stringed rectangular keyboard instrument that was used largely in the Late Middle Ages, through the Renaissance, Baroque and Classical eras. Historically, it was mostly used as a practice instrument and as an aid to composition, not being loud enough for larger performances. The clavichord produces sound by striking brass or iron strings with small metal blades called tangents. Vibrations are transmitted through the bridge(s) to the soundboard.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Harpsichord</span> Plucked-string keyboard instrument

A harpsichord is a musical instrument played by means of a keyboard. This activates a row of levers that turn a trigger mechanism that plucks one or more strings with a small plectrum made from quill or plastic. The strings are under tension on a soundboard, which is mounted in a wooden case; the soundboard amplifies the vibrations from the strings so that the listeners can hear it. Like a pipe organ, a harpsichord may have more than one keyboard manual, and even a pedal board. Harpsichords may also have stop buttons which add or remove additional octaves. Some harpsichords may have a buff stop, which brings a strip of buff leather or other material in contact with the strings, muting their sound to simulate the sound of a plucked lute.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Musical keyboard</span> Musical instrument component

A musical keyboard is the set of adjacent depressible levers or keys on a musical instrument. Keyboards typically contain keys for playing the twelve notes of the Western musical scale, with a combination of larger, longer keys and smaller, shorter keys that repeats at the interval of an octave. Pressing a key on the keyboard makes the instrument produce sounds—either by mechanically striking a string or tine, plucking a string (harpsichord), causing air to flow through a pipe organ, striking a bell (carillon), or, on electric and electronic keyboards, completing a circuit. Since the most commonly encountered keyboard instrument is the piano, the keyboard layout is often referred to as the piano keyboard.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Piano</span> Keyboard instrument

The piano is a keyboard instrument that produces sound when pressed on the keys. Most modern pianos have a row of 88 black and white keys: 52 white keys for the notes of the C major scale and 36 shorter black keys raised above the white keys and set further back, for sharps and flats. This means that the piano can play 88 different pitches, spanning a range of a bit over seven octaves. The black keys are for the "accidentals", which are needed to play in all twelve keys.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bartolomeo Cristofori</span> Italian maker of musical instruments

Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco was an Italian maker of musical instruments famous for inventing the piano.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Electronic keyboard</span> Musical instrument

An electronic keyboard, portable keyboard, or digital keyboard is an electronic musical instrument based on keyboard instruments. Electronic keyboards include synthesizers, digital pianos, stage pianos, electronic organs and digital audio workstations. In technical terms, an electronic keyboard is a synthesizer with a low-wattage power amplifier and small loudspeakers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fortepiano</span> Early version of the piano

A fortepiano, sometimes referred to as a pianoforte, is an early piano. In principle, the word "fortepiano" can designate any piano dating from the invention of the instrument by Bartolomeo Cristofori in 1698 up to the early 19th century. Most typically, however, it is used to refer to the mid-18th to early-19th century instruments, for which composers of the Classical era, especially Haydn, Mozart, and the younger Beethoven and Hummel, wrote their piano music.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Manual (music)</span> Musical keyboard played with the hands

A manual is a musical keyboard designed to be played with the hands, on an instrument such as a pipe organ, harpsichord, clavichord, electronic organ, melodica, or synthesizer. The term "manual" is used with regard to any hand keyboard on these instruments to distinguish it from the pedalboard, which is a keyboard that the organist plays with their feet. It is proper to use "manual" rather than "keyboard", then, when referring to the hand keyboards on any instrument that has a pedalboard.

Keyboard expression is the ability of a keyboard musical instrument to change tone or other qualities of the sound in response to velocity, pressure or other variations in how the performer depresses the keys of the musical keyboard. Expression types include:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Johann Andreas Stein</span> German maker of keyboard instruments

Johann (Georg) Andreas Stein was an outstanding German maker of keyboard instruments, a central figure in the history of the piano. He was primarily responsible for the design of the so-called German hammer action. Pianos with this hammer action, or its more developed form known as the Viennese action, may be said to be appropriate for the performance of the piano music of Haydn, Mozart, and the early Beethoven.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gottfried Silbermann</span> German instrument builder (1683–1753)

Gottfried Silbermann was a German builder of keyboard instruments. He built harpsichords, clavichords, organs, and fortepianos; his modern reputation rests mainly on the latter two.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Soft pedal</span>

The soft pedal or una corda pedal, is one of the standard pedals on a piano, generally placed leftmost among the pedals. On a grand piano this pedal shifts the whole action slightly to the right, so that the hammers which normally strike all three of the strings for a note strike only two of them. This softens the note and also modifies its tone quality. Tone quality is also affected by forcing the remaining two strings being struck to make contact with a part of the hammer felt which is not often hit ; this results in a duller sound, as opposed to the bright sound which is usually produced.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Piano pedals</span> Foot-operated levers at the base of a piano

Piano pedals are foot-operated levers at the base of a piano that change the instrument's sound in various ways. Modern pianos usually have three pedals, from left to right, the soft pedal, the sostenuto pedal, and the sustaining pedal. Some pianos omit the sostenuto pedal, or have a middle pedal with a different purpose such as a muting function also known as silent piano.

Americus Backers, sometimes described as the father of the English grand pianoforte style, brought the hammer striking action for keyboard instruments from his master Gottfried Silbermann's workshop in Freiburg to England in the mid-18th century. Unlike the eleven other ex-apprentices of Silbermann who followed him to England and built square pianos with his action, Backers developed Silbermann's action into a reliable, powerful and responsive form that he built into a grand harpsichord case and added two tonal effects – una corda and damper lift – activated by pedals built into the dedicated trestle stand, again his original innovation. This new instrument altered the landscape of English music, causing composers and musicians to consign the plucked string harpsichord and its music to history. It is upon Americus's design that the modern grand pianoforte we know today is based.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alfred James Hipkins</span>

Alfred James Hipkins was an English musician, musicologist and musical antiquary.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Music technology</span> Use of technology by musicians

Music technology is the study or the use of any device, mechanism, machine or tool by a musician or composer to make or perform music; to compose, notate, playback or record songs or pieces; or to analyze or edit music.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Music technology (mechanical)</span>

Mechanical music technology is the use of any device, mechanism, machine or tool by a musician or composer to make or perform music; to compose, notate, play back or record songs or pieces; or to analyze or edit music. The earliest known applications of technology to music was prehistoric peoples' use of a tool to hand-drill holes in bones to make simple flutes. Ancient Egyptians developed stringed instruments, such as harps, lyres and lutes, which required making thin strings and some type of peg system for adjusting the pitch of the strings. Ancient Egyptians also used wind instruments such as double clarinets and percussion instruments such as cymbals. In Ancient Greece, instruments included the double-reed aulos and the lyre. Numerous instruments are referred to in the Bible, including the horn, pipe, lyre, harp, and bagpipe. During Biblical times, the cornet, flute, horn, organ, pipe, and trumpet were also used. During the Middle Ages, hand-written music notation was developed to write down the notes of religious Plainchant melodies; this notation enabled the Catholic church to disseminate the same chant melodies across its entire empire.

The Antunes family were Portuguese harpsichord- and early piano builders in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The history of home keyboards lies in mechanical musical instrument keyboards, electrified keyboards and 1960s and 1970s synthesizer technologies.


  1. 1 2 3 Kelzenberg, David. "What are Historical Keyboard Instruments?". Archived from the original on 2013-02-12. Retrieved 2012-10-25.
  2. Apel, W.; Tischler, H. (1997). The History of Keyboard Music to 1700. Indiana University Press. p. 9. ISBN   978-0-253-21141-5 . Retrieved 2019-03-25. According to almost unanimous reports, Ctesibios, a Greek engineer who lived in Alexandria during the 3rd century B.C., was the inventor of the first organ, the so-called hydraulis.
  3. "Keyboard instrument". Encyclopedia Britannica.

Further reading