Introduction | Keyboards

In the history of musical instruments, the keyboard is something of a Johnny-come-lately, having first appeared some 2,250 years ago.

The earliest instrument of all is the human voice, and some form of rudimentary percussion probably came next. The plucked string – ancestor of the harpsichord family – is likely to have arrived with the firing of the first arrow, if not before; the wind family with a blade of grass clasped between the thumbs; the brass with the sounding of a conch shell, a ram’s horn with the tip broken off, or something similar. What binds all these together, models and families alike, is the direct contact between the player and the source of sound – something the keyboard player entirely lacks.

Keyboard Construction

In construction, keyboard instruments range from the relatively simple (virginals and clavichord) to the incredibly complex (the grandest organs and the most advanced electronic instruments), but the basic principle of them all can be seen in action in every children’s playground containing a see-saw: a rigid bar (key) pivoted on a fulcrum. When one end goes down, the other goes up, and vice versa. The complications and greatest subtleties arise from what is attached to that hidden end of the key.

The player’s end is generally covered in ivory (now rare) or a plastic imitation. Mounted on the hidden end is the mechanism through which the strings or pipes of a keyboard instrument are sounded when the key is depressed. The technical term for this device is ‘action’, though the same term is used to describe the whole set-up – bar, fulcrum and sound-producing mechanism as a single unit.

In the harpsichord family, the name ‘jack’ is given to that part of the action that carries the plectrum upwards, causing it to pluck the string. In the clavichord, the plectrum is replaced by a tangent, which remains in contact with the string for as long as the key is depressed. In the piano, the sound-producer is a hammer whose head is covered in felt, some lighter fabric, or leather. The much-used term ‘dampers’ refers to the pads of felt or other cloth that normally rest on the strings, preventing them from vibrating unless the key is depressed or, in the piano, when the sustaining or sostenuto pedal is depressed, lifting all or some of the dampers as desired.

Organ History

The earliest keyboard instrument was the organ, but when contemplating the youth of this ‘king of instruments’, as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91) called it, visions of parish choirmasters, devout Kapellmeisters or cathedral virtuosos should be banished. Some scholars believe that the German term klavier or clavier – a generic term for all keyboard instruments – may have derived from the Greek word celava which means ‘club’. The keys in most of the earliest organs were not so much played, in the modern manner, as roundly thumped. Nor did they much resemble keys as we know them. In the...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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