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Old 08-26-2013, 08:54 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default The Origins of Stringed Keyboards

While stringed instruments and wind instruments and percussion instruments as drums, bells, blocks and cymbals are found in all cultures and are quite ancient, keyboards appear to be solely European/Western. Indeed, the keyboard is a strange instrument because the key being pressed does not directly make the tone. With the other instruments, the player’s input is directly linked to the sound produced—blowing into the tube makes the sound, hitting the object with a hand or stick makes the sound, plucking or bowing the string makes the sound. But with a keyboard instrument, pressing the key merely actuates the device that truly does make the sound—it activates a hammer that strikes the string or the quill that plucks it or the bellows that blows the air into the pipes making them vibrate and produce a sound. Even with a synthesizer, the keyboard merely triggers a control-voltage or a binary number that is routed through an oscillator which is what produces the tone (some synths as the Buchla don’t even have keyboards on them). In all cases, the key can be said to be a trigger for something that produces the sound but does not directly produce the sound itself.

This being established, the classification of “keyboard” is really a bit of a misnomer. The piano is both a stringed instrument as well as a percussion instrument because the sound is produced by a hammer striking the string. Really, if one removes the keyboard from the piano, it is not really any different than a hackbrett or hammered dulcimer where the player strikes a tuned string with a spoon-like mallet. A hackbrett is considered a stringed instrument yet a marimba is considered a percussion instrument even though it too involves a player striking a tuned block of wood with a type of mallet. For that matter, the marimba could also be considered a type of keyboard—a direct-action keyboard where striking the key (the tuned wooden block) actually does produce the sound. If one ignores the piano keyboard and simply strums the strings with the fingers then one now has a harp. The pipe organ is really a wind instrument.

Then what purpose does the keyboard serve? Just remove it and make the sound directly. Of course, we know the keyboard does serve a purpose. The most obvious one being that a keyboard enables polyphonic play of up to 10 voices at once. Also the strings can be stopped instantly and repeatedly allowing for lightning fast play of a highly complex and harmonically rich type. A hackbrett could do neither of these things. Also, the sound is different. A piano does not sound like a hackbrett or a harp. Its sound is distinct. With a harpsichord, one simply cannot pluck 10 strings with quills all at once without the keyboard. Nor could one blow air into even one enormous pipe much less dozens at once as with a pipe organ. So despite only being a trigger, the keyboard serves a very important function.

Some think the harpsichord is simply an early kind of piano that utilizes a quill to pluck the string instead of a hammer to strike it. While this is true enough, it does not recognize a far bigger difference: a harpsichord is tuned differently than a piano.

The problem with keyed and fretted instruments is that they must be tempered. What is tempering? Pythagoras, the Ancient Greek philosopher and musical theorist, determined that an octave had to a 2:1 or 1:2 ratio. In other words, a string divided exactly in half but maintaining the same tension played an octave higher than the undivided string. Likewise, a string extended to twice its original length and maintaining the same tension played an octave lower. This octave had to be precisely 2:1. Being even a tiny amount off sounded imperfect, out of tune. Pythagoras also discovered the ratios of other intervals than just the octave. A whole step, for example, has a ratio of 9:8, a major third has a ratio of 5:4, a perfect fourth is 4:3, a perfect fifth is 3:2, etc. So how many whole steps in an octave? Six. So raise 9:8 to the power of six, it should equal exactly 2. Does it? No. It is approximately 2.027 which may sound small but the human ear can easily hear the difference. So even though there are six whole steps in an octave, they do not fit exactly and so the octave will sound out of tune. What to do? To make them fit, they must be tempered, that is, each whole step must be shrunk by the identical amount—the barest minimum needed—to make them fit exactly into the pure 2:1 octave. No matter which intervals we use, we find we must temper them.

Because of the need to temper, a chord or interval played on a keyboard or on a fretted instrument isn’t perfect. A violin or fretless bass wouldn’t have that problem since one can finger anywhere along the length of the fingerboard to play a note. With a keyboard, we are struck with the note we have. We cannot finger a guitar fingerboard anywhere along its length or we might end up fingering on top of a fret so the notes we have between each set of two adjacent frets are the notes we have—like it or not.

In Bach’s time, the piano did not exist and he wrote for the pipe organ and the harpsichord. The harpsichord was designed to use perfect, non-tempered intervals. There were a number of ways to tune a harpsichord for this depending on which intervals one used the most. The problem was that even if one used perfect major third intervals, one was still forced to temper other intervals to achieve it. One could tune a harpsichord to have true perfect fifth intervals but other intervals would have to be stretched or shrunk to achieve it. No matter how one tempered the intervals on a harpsichord, there was going to be one interval—generally a fifth—that was going to be completely out of whack and unusable. This particular interval was called a wolf. The solution was to put the wolf where it was not going to ever be played. This was called “hiding the wolf.” There is a spot on the keyboard where fifths are not ever played so this was the ideal place to hide the wolf.

When one listens to harpsichord pieces, they sound very sweet and pure because their tunings use perfect intervals. The piano, by contrast, does not use any perfect intervals. All piano intervals are tempered. In fact, every key is off by exactly the same amount. In Bach’s day, the technology to temper in this way did not exist. The piano, however, was made specifically for this tuning which we call 12-TET or 12-Tone Equal Temperament (the term “equal temperament” was used in Bach’s day but this a different tuning). With a piano, there is no wolf to hide but all intervals sound out of tune compared to the same intervals played on a harpsichord. People in Bach’s time would find our piano music discordant and out of tune. If you play a Bach harpsichord piece on the piano, you can’t help but notice that it simply does not sound quite the same.

So these early keyboards did not use 12-TET, could not have, because it didn’t exist then except as an abstract ideal. When Wendy Carlos made her Switched-On Bach albums (there is the original, which she made as Walter Carlos, and an updated digital remake in 2000), she had to tune the oscillators to the tunings used in Bach’s time. The trouble is, we don’t know what tunings Bach used. They had various names as quarter-comma meantone, Kirnberger II, Kirnberger III and so on. Another was called well temperament. We do know Bach used this at least sometimes due to his composition The Well-Tempered Clavier.

A clavier, by the way, is generic name for any stringed keyboard including the piano. An organ, however, is not a clavier, although some say the keyboard portion of any instrument that employs one is a clavier. The term comes from the Latin clavis or key-bearer. It is related to clavichord (literally “key string”), clavicle (the collarbone), claves (a percussion instrument) and clef (key).
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Old 08-26-2013, 09:00 PM   #2 (permalink)
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The earliest known stringed keyboard instrument appeared in Europe in the 14th century and called a “chekker.” The problem is, we have no idea what this keyboard is today and so no idea of the action used to vibrate the strings. It may be the same instrument mentioned in 1388 in a letter written by King John of Aragon in which he makes reference to “an instrument seeming like organs, that sounds with strings” but he did not mention this instrument by name. Likening its appearance to an organ indicates that it may have had an upright sound chamber and so might have been early upright harpsichord called a clavicytherium.



The shape is similar to the water organ known as a hydraulis:



Galpin thought the chekker was a synonymous with a hammered instrument called a dulce melos (literally “sweet limb”). In that day, however, hammered stringed instruments were very rare while references to the chekker abound in literature of this period indicating that it was common. Moreover, the dulce melos was closer to being a hackbrett and was certainly not a keyboard:



We know that chekker was not a generic term like clavier being that instruments as the clavichord, harpsichord, spinet and virginal were not known in those days and so there could have been no general title to know them under. Chekker had to be the name of an actual instrument. Some think it may have been an alternate or early name for the clavichord and I think this is probably true or it was an instrument very similar to the clavichord.

One clue would be in the very word “chekker.” What does it mean? Galpin thought it meant that the movement of the keys were checked or stopped. But since the motion of any keyboard is stopped, it does not seem likely that this would be seen as any kind of distinguishing characteristic. Chekker in French was often rendered as eschaquier and other closer variations. In Argonese Spanish, the spelling is eschaquer. The spellings are very close to exchequer. The normal definition of exchequer as a department or office involved in the collection and management of national or royal revenues (basically a treasury) is not the original meaning. An exchequer is actually a rectangular abacus as shown below:



A person playing a clavichord does resemble someone working an abacus and since the clavichord is small and rectangular and an abacus was a familiar device to musical theoreticians and composers.




Last edited by Lord Larehip; 08-26-2013 at 09:59 PM.
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Old 08-26-2013, 09:10 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Clavichord:
The oldest of the stringed keyboard instruments, it was very popular throughout Western Europe until the 19th century. The clavichord is the simplest of the stringed keyboards but very expressive. It is generally a solo instrument but goes well with voice. It is touch-sensitive for both volume and pitch. The harder one plays, the louder the instrument but the pitch will also change. This is because pressing the key harder causes the string to bend. The purpose of this is that it provides a wonderful vibrato effect by pressing repeatedly harder on the keys while holding them down. An unusual instrument in that a pair of strings might serve several keys. This reduces the number of strings. The strings are contained in a rectangular frame and strings run transversely along the length of the long sides and so are at right angles to the player.






Bach on replica of 1670 Gellinger clavichord (Preludio from Violin Partita No. 3, played by Ryan Layne Whitney) - YouTube

Virginal:
The virginal is a small harpsichord having only one set of strings and one keyboard console. Exactly how the instrument acquired its name is under dispute. Some thought it might have been named in honor of Elizabeth I known as the Virgin Queen but this is unlikely. Probably the name is linked to female performers or some feel that the sound of the instrument is like that of a maiden girl. Regardless, it is an exquisite instrument. Like the clavichord, it is a rectangular instrument but far more complex. Some virginals are rather polygonal in shape to suit the transverse direction of the strings. The clip below uses the term “muselar” which means that the keyboard is placed on the right side of the machine. There are also left-sided virginals which are called “spinett.” There is only one known center-mounted keyboard on a virginal which belonged to the Duke of Cleves. No one knows if this was the only one made or whether it was an early design that was later ignored. Unlike the clavichord, the virginal and harpsichord are not touch sensitive. As the key is pressed, a wooden slat called a jack which has a quill or plectrum mounted on it moves up and plucks the string. When the key is released, the jack falls into its original position plucking the string again on the way down producing a double note. Touch sensitivity would produce a muddled tone if the keys were played hard. Likewise the double action precludes the ability to add vibrato.






Muselar Virginal Demonstration - YouTube
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Old 08-26-2013, 09:11 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Epinette:
Another rectangular frame keyboard. It has the same action as harpsichord and virginal. Like the virginal, it has one keyboard and one set of jacks and strings. Unlike the other rectangular keyboards, its strings run directly across from left to right. It is higher pitched than the virginal. Another variation of the name epinette is spinet but on one is sure of the origins of the word. Not all spinets are rectangular, however, the so-called bentside spinets are rather popular:



Other bentsides are trapezoidal:



In fact, we are not even sure what constituted a spinet as opposed to a virginal. They appear to be variations of a theme. For that matter, neither is that different from the harpsichord.






Henry Purcell: Three little pieces, played on replica 1677 Epinette à l'octave of Jean Denis, played by Ryan Layne Whitney - YouTube

Harpsichord:
Around since the late 14th century, the harpsichord is shaped like a piano—a kind of wing shape—even though the strings are plucked rather than hammered. The wing shape allows for the different length strings which run parallel to the player’s line of sight. Another name for the harpsichord is cembalo. The instrument appears to have its genesis in Italy although the premier harpsichord-crafting family were the Ruckers of Antwerp. Harpsichords often had double consoles and double sets of jacks and strings (but then, so did some virginals).





Clavinet:
A clavinet is an electric harpsichord which were ubiquitous is funk throughout the 70s. If you want to hear one, just listen to Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.”



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