First keyboard instruments

When we think of keyboards in the modern sense, we tend of think of electronic, synthesized instruments used in jazz and rock groups. However, the true send of the meaning ‘keyboard’ is of an instrument with keys that are depressed to activate the sound. Keyboard instruments have actually been around since 300 BC have developed over the centuries into what we now call the Pianoforte.


The hydraulis is the earliest known example of a keyboard instrument. It originated in Ancient Greece around 300 BC, however the earliest known example of a hydraulis dates back to 100 BC. After the Ancient Greeks developed the instrument, the Romans and Byzantines also adopted it, and examples have been found as far as Hungary. The hydraulis ran on a tank of water mixing with air to produce air pressure which in turn produced the sound. In fact, the word ‘hydro’ means water in Ancient Greek. It had a row of pipes and keys or buttons; one for each pipe. The player depressed the particular key he wanted in order to open the pipe it was linked to. The hydraulis was widely used across Ancient Greece and beyond, and developed into what we know of the church organ.

Pipe Organ

The pipe organ remained the only type of keyboard instrument for a number of centuries after the hydraulis was invented. Whilst the hydraulis ran on water and air combined, from the 6th Century pipe organs ran on wind alone, produced by bellows. The pipe organ consisted of many pipes, each with a specific pitch and timbre, linked to a key on the keyboard. Pipe organs often had several keyboards, known as manuals, one above the other. They also had large pedals underneath, which were played with the feet. The pipe organ consisted of many pipes, each with a specific pitch and timbre, linked to a key on the keyboard. The sound of the pipe organ was produced by depressing a key on the manual, which would open the pipe valve and allow the pressured wind into it.


The clavichord originated around the early 14th century in what we now call Germany. The sound is produced by the key being depressed and pushing up the brass blade or ‘tangent’ to touch a pair of iron strings to make them vibrate. The strings were placed in pairs and the earliest clavichords were fretted to allow multiple notes to be played on the same strings. The clavichord was mostly used to aid composers whilst they worked or church organists when they practiced at home, since it was not loud enough for concert performances.


The harpsichord originated slightly after the clavichord in Italy. The earliest example is of a 1521 harpsichord made in Bologna, now residing at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The harpsichord can be traced back to the early 14th century in German literature, so there was some overlap with the development of the clavichord. The main hub of harpsichord development began in Italy but migrated to Antwerp towards the end of the 16th century with the Ruckers family.

The harpsichord differs from the clavichord in that the sound is produced through plucking the string much like the action of playing the harp. When the player depresses a key, the jack is lifted and on the end of the jack is a plectrum, which plucks the string. The pitch of the string is adjusted with a tuning pin, which can tighten or loosen the tension of the string, making it sound either higher or lower.

The harpsichord was hugely influential in Baroque music. J.S.Bach wrote a great deal of his music for the instrument, including 48 Preludes and Fugues. The harpsichord almost always featured in chamber music, being part of the ‘Continuo’, which usually included the cello. Because the harpsichord worked via plucked strings, it was considerably louder sounding than the clavichord and therefore made a better soloist instrument. It was commonplace during the baroque period that much writing for the harpsichord was somewhat virtuosic, particularly in the reprise and repeated sections of the music, where the performer was granted artistic license to show off their improvising skills.