Can You Tell the Difference?

“It’s a piano!” “No, it looks like a synthesizer to me.” “That’s definitely an organ!” “No, you are all wrong. It’s a harpsichord.” Just what is it?

ACTUALLY, the keyboards of all those musical instruments do look somewhat similar. But the sound that is produced and the method of producing that sound when one of the keys is depressed can vary enormously. So how did the keyboard originate and develop? Let us take a look at keyboards through the centuries.

What Was the Hydraulus?

The earliest-known primitive keyboard is believed to have belonged to an instrument called the hydraulus, or water organ. It is thought to have been developed by Ktesibios, an Alexandrian engineer, in the first half of the third century B.C.E. According to the book Musical Instruments of the West, “air was pumped . . . into a perforated vessel (pnigeus) standing in a cistern of water, and from the pnigeus it was further directed into the windchest below [a series of] pipes, pressure from the water maintaining its steadiness.” The pipes made sound by means of sliders operated with the help of several large keys. Because the notes were loud and coarse, the hydraulus was well suited for performances at circuses, fairs, and outdoor festivals. It reached the height of its popularity during the Roman Empire​—even Emperor Nero was described as being a skilled player.

Why the Pneumatic Organ?

The replacement of the water compressor with bellows that pushed air under pressure ushered in the age of the pneumatic organ. The bellows enabled the player to sit at the instrument, using the feet or hands to provide the wind supply. Excavated remains of the pneumatic organ have been dated as early as the third century C.E., and it continued to be used prominently for the next several hundred years. Because an elementary keyboard was still being utilized, melodies could be played only at very slow tempos. This  was because the size of each key had to be in proportion to its own organ pipe. To play a low note, the performer would probably have needed to use the whole hand or even the fist to press down the wide key.

By the 14th century, the organ had become “almost exclusively a church instrument in western Europe.” (The Encyclopedia of Music) The development of a roller mechanism drastically changed the appearance and function of the organ keyboard. This mechanism enabled the pipes to be positioned away from the keyboard and the keys themselves to become narrower. At last, using only one finger for each key, the performer could gracefully play faster passages of music. Mozart appreciated the organ so much that he called it the king of instruments.

Early Stringed Keyboards

The Bible’s first reference to a stringed instrument is found at Genesis 4:21, and repeated mention is made in connection with the Israelite nation. But it was not until about the 15th century C.E. that a marriage between stringed instruments (normally strummed or picked with fingers or struck with hammers or beaters) and the keyboard took place. The keyboard as we know it today made its first appearance on an instrument called the clavichord. It was a simple, boxlike instrument with strings running from left to right. When a key was pressed by the player, a brass blade rose and struck the string from below.

Next came the harpsichord, the spinet, and the virginal. * These, especially the harpsichord, became the principal keyboard instruments during the 16th and 17th centuries. The new mechanism of the harpsichord was revolutionary. The History of Musical Instruments describes it: “The strings were plucked by quills instead of touched by tangents as in clavichords. On the rear end of each key stood a jack, that is, a small upright piece of wood, from which projected a small quill or a leather tongue. . . . When the key was pressed the jack jumped up, making the quill pluck the string, and then, owing to a springing device, fell back without plucking the string again.”

This new mechanism gave the harpsichord its distinctive sound. One former concert pianist described the harpsichord sound, as distinct from the modern piano, this way: “It has a thin, metallic sound, and the notes are not sustained.”

The design of the harpsichord varied a great deal over the years. Earlier ones had a single keyboard and only one string for each key. Later, more elaborate models had two keyboards, multiple strings for each key, and other devices for changing the tone. Great composers of the day, such as Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), took full advantage of the tone and technical abilities of the harpsichord and contributed a wealth of music, much of which has survived down to our day.

Accordions were developed in the 19th century, and the piano accordion became especially popular in the 20th century. It is a combination of a keyboard and a wind instrument, since it has bellows that force air through reeds that vibrate. The modern accordion has up to 140 basses actuated by seven rows of buttons and a keyboard compass ranging from two to four octaves.

The Electronic Age

The 20th century introduced the age of electronic keyboards. The oldest of these was the telharmonium, developed in 1906 by Thaddeus Cahill. Electric organs appeared in the 1930’s and were soon followed by electric harpsichords and electric pianos. In stark contrast with the mechanism of the hydraulus, when a key is depressed on an electric organ, an electronic signal produces a note, which is modified and amplified.

One of the most popular electronic keyboards today is the synthesizer, which began  to be developed in the 1940’s and has become the basic instrument favored by most modern bands and groups. When a key on the synthesizer is pressed down, literally any sound imaginable can be heard​—from a barking dog to a symphony orchestra.

Not surprisingly, the computer is also playing a prominent role in modern music. Today’s synthesizers often contain a computer, or a computer can be used as a sound generator and thus as a musical instrument in its own right. Although a musical keyboard is often used as a computer controller, today’s musician also has the choice of programming his computer with a mouse or a standard computer keyboard. “Today almost every recording studio has an abundance of computer-related equipment. The music is digitally saved on to a hard disk and then edited on a mixing desk using sophisticated software before the final version is mastered on to digital audio tape.”​—The Encyclopedia of Music.

Does this latest development mean that the days of the musical keyboard are numbered? That is hardly likely when we remember the emotive simplicity of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” his “Für Elise,” or Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” But reflecting on the hundreds of years of keyboard music and the effect it has had on the lives of countless millions of people, we are bound to recognize the tremendous contribution the keyboard has made to the world of music and to human happiness down through the centuries.


^ par. 11 The virginal dates from the 15th century. It had 32 metal strings and had the form of the clavichord but with the sound of the harpsichord. The spinet was a small version of the harpsichord.

[Box/Pictures on page 20, 21]

Why the Pianoforte?

During the last quarter of the 18th century, the harpsichord was gradually replaced as the keyboard of choice by the pianoforte, commonly known as the piano. How did it get that name? There has been much discussion as to who invented this instrument and when, but an Italian named Bartolomeo Cristofori was experimenting with the pianoforte in the early 1700’s. Cristofori’s name for the instrument, gravicembalo col piano e forte (harpsichord with soft and loud), emphasized one of its advantages over the harpsichord, which had allowed the performer very little control over the volume of the music. When a key on the pianoforte was depressed, a newly developed mechanism sent the hammer from below against the string. The volume of the note corresponded to the force used to press the key. This now allowed the performer great freedom in expressing the desired feeling and volume in the music, whether piano, softly, or forte, strongly.

Another factor was the use of three types of pedals​—the sustaining, the sostenuto, and the soft. Respectively, these allow the sound to have duration, to be held over, and to be diminished.

Throughout the 18th century, the pianoforte continued to be developed and modified in Europe. In the early 1740’s, the square piano was developed, a smaller and more economical model. The larger grand, or concert grand, occupies more space, as it has the strings of varying lengths extended horizontally. At the beginning of the 19th century came the upright piano, which is still a popular model today.

Awake! asked one pianist about the main differences in sound between a grand piano and an upright. She said: “In three words, sound, clarity, and brilliance. The grand piano has a broader range of resonance. There is a purity and strength to the sound. By comparison, the upright is smaller in sound. This is also due to the fact that the upright is often against a wall, which dampens the rear soundboard.”


Nine-foot [2.7 m] concert grand

 [Pictures on page 18]

Virginal with park scene, 1666, England

Harpsichord, with tortoiseshell keys (inset), 1760, Germany

Clavichord, 1906, U.S.A.

Piano accordion, 1960, Italy

Modern synthesizer and computer

[Credit Line]

Top four photos: Courtesy of the Yale University Collection of Musical Instruments

[Picture on page 19]


[Credit Line]

Courtesy Macedonian Heritage

[Picture on page 19]

Organ, Sydney Opera House, Australia

[Credit Line]

By courtesy of Australian Archives, Canberra, A.C.T.