Keyboard instrument

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The piano, a common keyboard instrument D274.jpg
The piano, a common keyboard instrument
An electronic keyboard YamahaKeyboard-2.jpg
An electronic keyboard
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A keyboard instrument is a musical instrument played using a keyboard, a row of levers which 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. Keyboard instruments include idiophones such as the celesta, wind instruments such as the organ, string instruments such as the harpsichord and piano, and electronic instruments such as synthesizers.


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 . . . intent, that is “let him thunder forth as he presses out mighty roarings (shifa) 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.[ citation needed ]

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 piano was revolutionary because a pianist could vary the volume (or dynamics) of the sound by varying the vigor with which each key was struck. The piano's full name is gravicèmbalo con piano e forte meaning harpsichord with soft and loud but can be shortened to piano-forte, which means soft-loud in Italian. In its current form, the piano is a product of the late nineteenth century, and is far removed in both sound and appearance from the "pianos" known to Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. In fact, the modern piano is significantly different from even the 19th-century pianos used by Liszt, Chopin, and Brahms. [1] See Piano history and musical performance .

Keyboard instruments were further developed in the early twentieth century. Early electromechanical instruments, such as the Ondes Martenot, appeared early in the century. This was a very important contribution to the keyboard's history. [3]

Modern keyboards

Much effort has gone into creating an instrument that sounds like the piano but lacks its size and weight. The electric piano and electronic piano were early efforts that, while useful instruments in their own right, did not convincingly reproduce the timbre of the piano. [4] [5] Electric and electronic organs were developed during the same period. More recent electronic keyboard designs strive to emulate the sound of specific make and model pianos using digital samples and computer models. Each acoustic keyboard contains 88 keys; however, smaller arrangements have a minimum of 61 keys. [6]

Types of keyboard action

A simple keyboard has light plastic keys with springs that return them to their initial position after being played. The action of such a keyboard is similar to the feel of an acoustic organ. Weighted keys are designed to simulate the resistance of a key on an acoustic piano keyboard. See Keyboard action in Electronic keyboard#Concepts and definitions.

See also

Related Research Articles

Clavichord Musical instrument

The clavichord is a Western European 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.

Harpsichord 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.

Musical keyboard 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. Depressing 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.

Piano Musical instrument

The piano is an acoustic, stringed musical instrument invented in Italy by Bartolomeo Cristofori around the year 1700, in which the strings are struck by wooden hammers that are coated with a softer material. It is played using a keyboard, which is a row of keys that the performer presses down or strikes with the fingers and thumbs of both hands to cause the hammers to strike the strings.

Celesta Struck idiophone operated by a keyboard

The celesta or celeste, also called a bell-piano, is a struck idiophone operated by a keyboard. It looks similar to an upright piano, albeit with smaller keys and a much smaller cabinet, or a large wooden music box (three-octave). The keys connect to hammers that strike a graduated set of metal plates or bars suspended over wooden resonators. Four- or five-octave models usually have a damper pedal that sustains or damps the sound. The three-octave instruments do not have a pedal because of their small "table-top" design. One of the best-known works that uses the celesta is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from The Nutcracker.

Digital piano

A digital piano is a type of electronic keyboard instrument designed to serve primarily as an alternative to the traditional acoustic piano, both in the way it feels to play and in the sound produced. Digital pianos use either synthesized emulation or recorded samples of an acoustic piano, which are then amplified through an internal loudspeaker. They also incorporate weighted keys, which recreate the feel of an acoustic piano. Some digital pianos are designed to also look like an upright or grand piano.

Electric piano Electro-mechanical keyboard musical instrument

An electric piano is a musical instrument which produces sounds when a performer presses the keys of a piano-style musical keyboard. Pressing keys causes mechanical hammers to strike metal strings, metal reeds or wire tines, leading to vibrations which are converted into electrical signals by magnetic pickups, which are then connected to an instrument amplifier and loudspeaker to make a sound loud enough for the performer and audience to hear. Unlike a synthesizer, the electric piano is not an electronic instrument. Instead, it is an electro-mechanical instrument. Some early electric pianos used lengths of wire to produce the tone, like a traditional piano. Smaller electric pianos used short slivers of steel to produce the tone. The earliest electric pianos were invented in the late 1920s; the 1929 Neo-Bechstein electric grand piano was among the first. Probably the earliest stringless model was Lloyd Loar's Vivi-Tone Clavier. A few other noteworthy producers of electric pianos include Baldwin Piano and Organ Company and the Wurlitzer Company.

Electronic keyboard

An electronic keyboard, portable keyboard, or digital keyboard is an electronic musical instrument, an electronic or digital derivative of keyboard instruments. Broadly speaking, the term electronic keyboard or just a keyboard can refer to any type of digital or electronic keyboard instrument. These include synthesizers, digital pianos, stage pianos, electronic organs and digital audio workstations. However, an electronic keyboard is more specifically a synthesizer with a built-in low-wattage power amplifier and small loudspeakers.


A fortepiano[ˌfɔrteˈpjaːno] is an early piano. In principle, the word "fortepiano" can designate any piano dating from the invention of the instrument by Bartolomeo Cristofori around 1700 up to the early 19th century. Most typically, however, it is used to refer to the late-18th to early-19th century instruments for which Haydn, Mozart, and the younger Beethoven wrote their piano music. Starting in Beethoven's time, the fortepiano began a period of steady evolution, culminating in the late 19th century with the modern grand. The earlier fortepiano became obsolete and was absent from the musical scene for many decades. In the 20th century the fortepiano was revived, following the rise of interest in historically informed performance. Fortepianos are built for this purpose today in specialist workshops.

Pedal keyboard Musical keyboard played with the feet, usually used for low-pitched notes

A pedalboard is a keyboard played with the feet that is usually used to produce the low-pitched bass line of a piece of music. A pedalboard has long, narrow lever-style keys laid out in the same semitone scalar pattern as a manual keyboard, with longer keys for C, D, E, F, G, A and B, and shorter, raised keys for C, D, F, G and A. Training in pedal technique is part of standard organ pedagogy in church music and art music.

Manual (music) 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:

Johann Andreas Stein 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.

Polyphony is a property of musical instruments that means that they can play multiple independent melody lines simultaneously. Instruments featuring polyphony are said to be polyphonic. Instruments that are not capable of polyphony are monophonic or paraphonic.


The claviorgan is a combination of a stringed instrument and an organ. Its origin is uncertain but its history can be traced back to the fifteenth century.

Keith Richard Hill is a prize winning American maker of musical instruments He has conducted research into the acoustical technology employed by musical instrument makers from 1550–1850, and used this knowledge to create hundreds of harpsichords, clavichords and other instruments.

Music technology

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, play back or record songs or pieces; or to analyze or edit music.

Music technology (mechanical)

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 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. "Piano Notes - Notes of the Piano". Retrieved 2012-03-30.
  4. “Digital Pianos and Electronic Keyboards: What's the Difference between Pianos vs Keyboards?” acoustic February 18, 2019.
  5. Gayhardt, Don (2017) The Differences between Classical and Contemporary Piano Don Gayhardt's Blog.
  6. “Best keyboards and pianos for beginners"

Further reading