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Early Keyboard Instruments

Clavichord | Virginals | Spinet


The clavichord was popular from the fourteenth to the early eighteenth century by which time it had been overtaken by advances in the technology, manufacture and performance of the pianoforte.

Being a small instrument, some clavichords were portable and could be placed upon a convenient table though some were built with legs as an integral part of the instrument.

Clavichord The overall appearance was that of a rectangular, flat box with the keyboard positioned along one of the longer edges. The strings were strung parallel to the keyboard and were sounded by being struck from below by keyboard-activated, metal wedges known as tangents.

The clavichord provides a fascinating link between the antique and simple monochord and the modern, sophisticated pianoforte.


The antiquity of monochords is evidenced by there being proof of their existence at the time of the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Greeks.

The principle involved in producing sound from a monochord was that a single string was mounted along a sound box and pitch could be influenced by means of a moveable bridge. This bridge could be aligned alongside predetermined calibrations that indicated the ratio of string required for any given note. (By medieval times, monochords might have two or three strings.)

The relationship between a monochord and a clavichord is that several notes could be produced from one string and, in this respect; a similarity exists between them and the hurdy gurdy, lute, viol, guitar and all members of the violin family.

The method by which the sound was produced is worthy of some consideration.

In early clavichords, keys outnumbered strings and as a consequence, individual strings could be activated by more than one key to produce notes of different pitch. This fact, that a string was required to produce more than one note, meant that some notes could not be played simultaneously.

Depression of a key caused the tiny, arm-mounted, metal wedge (the tangent) to hit the selected string at the point where the ratio of productive string length allowed a note of the required pitch. Thus, the tangent served a dual purpose inasmuch as it both "stopped" the string at the desired point and acted as the agent responsible for string vibration.

This ability to "stop" an individual string in different places appeared to be synonymous with the fretted fingerboards of lutes and viols so, as a consequence, early clavichords were deemed to be "fretted."

The result of a clavichord string being "stopped" was that it was divided into two lengths, one of which was permanently damped by means of being set upon a piece of felt. The other portion of the string, uninfluenced by a damping device, was able to resonate at the required pitch.

By the late seventeenth century, the number of strings in clavichords increased until its own individual key could activate each string. In these "unfretted" clavichords, however, the principle remained the same: the tangent hitting the string would simultaneously select the string length and initiate the sound. It is the hammer action of the clavichord that confirms it as a genuine ancestor of the pianoforte thus forging the link between the antique monochord and the modern concert grand.

The action of a clavichord did not match that of the pianoforte because, without an escapement mechanism, the tangent remained in contact with the string. This characteristic enabled clavichord players to develop a technique whereby a vibrato effect could be gained by quivering the key. Also, depending on the severity or lightness of touch, the volume of sound could be influenced.

The dual function of the tangent (stopping and sounding) meant that the clavichord did not produce a "big" sound; certainly not a big enough sound for the performance of concerti in large spaces. Its soft sound made it suitable for solo, domestic performance and it was mainly in this fashion that it coexisted with the harpsichord until they were both replaced by the pianoforte.

As with many early instruments, enthusiasts for authentic performance have caused a revival in the use of the clavichord.


The plural sounding virginals was, in fact, a single instrument in the same way that "pair of trousers" and "flight of stairs" refer to one item only.

Virginals was a name particular to England and it referred to an early and less complex form of harpsichord. (Virginals was sometimes used as a name to include all quill-plucked instruments.)

Virginals Reference to virginals appeared in mid fifteenth century English documents but it was at its most popular during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when it was widely used for domestic entertainment.

It was well documented that Elizabeth I of England (the Virgin Queen) could list playing the virginals amongst her many accomplishments but the instrument was not named after her, as the name might suggest, since reference to it had been made before her time. The true origin of its name is not known but it has been suggested that it was so named because it was an instrument suitable for young women.

Though an early form of harpsichord, the virginals did not resemble the harpsichord proper; this being a wedge shaped instrument, tapering from the keyboard end with the strings mounted at right angles to said keyboard.

The virginals, on the other hand, was of a rectangular box shape with the keyboard set into one of the longer sides. The strings each produced a single note and were set parallel to the keyboard.

Being a small, sometime portable instrument, the virginals was placed upon a table for performance though some were mounted on four-legged frames.

Method of sound production confirms that the virginals is a type of harpsichord and the characteristic of all harpsichords is that the strings are mechanically plucked, unlike clavichords, in which the strings are hammered.

Plectra, mounted on pieces of wood known as jacks, responded to the action of keying by moving upwards to pluck the strings. An escapement mechanism allowed the plectra to avoid contacting the strings as they returned to default setting.

The quantity and quality of music composed for the virginals is indicative of its popularity and importance.


Being a member of the harpsichord family, the strings of the spinet were plucked by plectra attached to jacks.

In terms of shape, the spinet provides the link between the box-like virginals and the elegant harpsichord proper.

The evolution in shape tends to be a response to specifications decreed by the variable string lengths needed to produce the required range of notes. From rectangular it became triangular, thus accommodating longer bass strings that ran along the length of the hypotenuse.

Strings were now set at an angle, running away from the keyboard rather than parallel to it as in the virginals. The keyboard maintained its position within one of the longer sides.

The spinet was not table-based, having developed into an instrument mounted permanently upon an integral base-frame.


The triangular shape, which attracted the soubriquet couched harp, evolved onwards through an irregular polygonal shape into almost that of the harpsichord proper.

There is no accepted explanation for the derivation of the name but three possibilities have been suggested:

  • From Giovanni Spina, a late fifteenth century instrument maker.
  • Because of thorn like plectra. Spina (Latin) = thorn
  • The quills looked like spines. (Derivation as above.)

The spinet was in use from the late seventeenth century until the end of the eighteenth century so it was, for a while, contemporary with the virginals and the harpsichord proper.

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