Early Keyboard Instruments

Early Keyboard Instruments

Echiqüier, Clavichord, Harpsichord and Piano are each stringed keyboard instrument with various shape and sizes each having their own merits, strengths and weaknesses.


In French, Echiqüier means chessboard. In England, it was called a Checker. Echiqüier performers were in demand in their hey day and were well rewarded for their services. It is an instrument described as similar to the organ but was sounded by means of strings.

There was an ambiguous view of Echiqüier, some authorities regarded Echiqüier as a primitive Clavichord, others believed that it was the early ancestor of the Harpsichord.The name Echiqüier lost its popularity in the late 15th Century to the Clavichord.

History stretches back to 6th Century B.C when Pythagoras used a monochord for his experiment in musical mathematics. The monochord consisted of an oblong hollow box, ie the sound board above a string was stretched and tuned by a peg. More strings were added around 11th and 12th Century. The instrument was fretted with one string for several keys. As long as the music remained simple, it was satisfactory. As music started to get more complicated during the second half of the 17th Century, the Clavichord was gradually fretted with 2 strings to a key.


The Clavichord is capable of producing a flourishing melodic line with the strings activated by gentle pressure stroke from the metal tangents, however it has tonal power limits.

Bebung is one of the techniques used to produce a slight tremolo, a slight vibrato or fluctuation in pitch. The Clavichord remained popular throughout the 16th and 17th Century in Western Europe but lost its popularity in the 18th Century.

The Harpsichord, in French (clavecin) and in Italian (cembalo), was the king of keyboard instruments from 15th Century to circa 1750. The history of the Harpsichord can be traced as far back as the middle ages, a stringed instrument similar to the modern zither; the strings were plucked by the fingers.

By the 15th Century, the instrument had passed the experimental stage and was very popular.  During the 17th Century, it successfully rivaled the lute, which for a long time had been the favourite secular instrument and prevalent in many European countries.

The Harpsichord became a dominant instrument in many musical scenes throughout Europe. Two notable French composers and musicians, Chambonniéres and Louis Couperin were influenced by the regal instrument.

The Harpsichord held a prestigous place among all musical instrument during the 17th and 18th Century. Apart from achieving its position as an independent virtuoso, it also held a medium for sustaining and accompanying church choirs, provided amusement in salons, accompanied sonatas and chamber music, and found itself as an integral part in an orchestra.

Other plucked stringed instruments such as Spinet, that were usually in a triangular or pentagonal case with its string strung at acute angle to the keyboard. In England, the virginal was a preferred instrument during the 16th and 17th Century.


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