Instruments | Keyboards


The zither is part of a group of instruments which are linked by the fact that sets of strings run parallel to their main body, and that – unlike the lute, lyre or harp – they can still be played even without a resonating device. In the concept’s least advanced state, native instruments exist which are little more than a stick carrying strings along its length.

Closely identified with the Alpine region of Europe – particularly the Austrian Tyrol – the zither is a closed wooden box which has anything from 30 to 40 strings lying across its surface. A number of these strings are placed over frets and can be stopped by the thumb of the left hand, while the right plucks the strings with a plectrum to pick out melodies or chords. In performance, the zither is usually placed on a table or on the knees of the performer.

Because the construction of the zither resembles keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord, it is sometimes seen as a relative of theirs. Other variants include:
• The dulcimer: struck by small wooden beaters, and popular in Hungarian and Romanian folk music.
• The cimbalom: a concert version of the dulcimer used for orchestral purposes.


The clavichord affirms its place as the earliest of the string keyboard instruments in its very name, taken from the Latin for, simply, key and string. Chronologically older than the virginal and spinet – it is first mentioned in the 1400s – the clavichord differs from both since its strings were not plucked, and from the piano because they were not hit by hammers. Instead, small brass blades known as tangents would strike the strings from underneath.

The tangent would lift, strike and then hold the string in position, acting like a guitarist’s or violinist’s finger to determine the length of the vibrating string. This lessened the power of the instrument. What the clavichord lacked in volume it made up for in its response to the player’s touch: the harder the key was pressed, the louder the note. After striking the string the player could also move the key up and down while the string continued to vibrate, creating a vibrato effect called ‘bebung’.

Co-existing with the harpsichord from the sixteenth century onwards, the clavichord was popular for solo recitals throughout Europe, but particularly in Germany, where it continued to be played until the early nineteenth century. Arnold Dolmetsch championed its twentieth-century revival, as he did for many early instruments.


The clavinet is essentially an electric version of the clavichord. Designed in the 1960s by Ernst Zacharias of the German company, Hohner, the clavinet evolved from the Cembalet, an instrument Zacharias had developed some years earlier as an electronic counterpart to the harpsichord. The clavinet’s distinctively bright percussive sound ensured that the instrument became a firm favourite with players of funk and rock music. John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin used the instrument extensively on the...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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