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Musical Elements

Performing Media | Keyboards & Electronic Instruments

Peter Kun Frary


Keyboard instruments come in many sizes and forms but all use a keyboard as a control interface, i.e., a row of levers pressed by the fingers:

Piano Keyboard | Wikimedia Commons

Common keyboard instruments include the piano, organ and harpsichord. Although these instruments use a keyboard and similar playing technique, they produce sound differently. Keyboard family timbres are extremely varied since keyboards may be used to control pipes, reeds, plucked strings, hammered strings, bells and electronics. If classified according to sound production, piano and harpsichord are chordophones because they have strings, whereas a pipe organ is an aerophone due to vibrating air columns within its pipes.

Most members of the keyboard family are capable of producing both melody and harmony simultaneously, making them a favorite instrument of arrangers and composers.

Steinway & Sons Grand Piano, 1868 | Metropolitan Art Museum


The piano was invented in Italy during the early 18th century by the harpsichord builder Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731). Although based on the form factor of the harpsichord, the piano uses felt hammers to strike the strings rather than plucking them with a quill or pick. The hammer mechanism produces a darker tone and longer sustain than the harpsichord. It also allows control of dynamics with varied finger pressure. The piano superseded the harpsichord within a generation.

The original name of the piano was piano e forte (soft and loud), because, unlike its predecessor, the harpsichord, was able to produce dynamics from piano to forte. Eventually the name was shortened to pianoforte but is simply called the piano (soft) in North America although modern designs are louder than ever!

Étude in C Minor, Op. 10 No.12 "Revolutionary" (2:34) | Fréderic Chopin


The harpsichord has a similar keyboard and form factor to the piano but, instead of striking the strings with a hammer, a quill (pick) plucks the strings. The resulting tone is softer, shorter in sustain and more metallic than the piano. Significantly, the harpsichord is incapable of graded dynamics (e.g., crescendo) as the keys do not respond to pressure. Fancier harpsichords can render simple terraced dynamics (sudden change) by use of a string mute known as the lute stop.

Double Virginal | Hans Ruckers (c.1581) | Metropolitan Museum of Art | Small harpsichords such as this virginal were popular for home use during the Baroque.

Prelude in E Flat Major BWV 998 (2:56) | Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) | JungHae Kim, harpsichord


The oldest keyboard instrument, the organ, uses air flowing through pipes to create sound, qualifying it an aerophone. It was played in ancient Greece and Rome and eventually spread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. The earliest known pipe organ was the water powered hydraulis, invented in Greece during the third century BC. However, the oldest playable organs date from the 14th century. Organs were a common installation in Christian churches from the 15th century onwards.

Organ Pipes | Maria della Vittoria, Rome, Italy | The organ was an important instrument for churches and they often spared no expenses for these installations.

Most pipe organs have multiple keyboards for the hands and a pedal keyboard for the feet. Multiple keyboards allow playing of multiple banks of pipes. Each bank of pipes has a different timbre, e.g., flute, reed, brass, etc. Banks of pipes may be switched by opening and closing knobs known as stops. An accomplished organist is able to mix pipe timbres for expression and dynamic control.

Organ pipes need air to sound and, prior to electric air pumps, air flow was created for large church organs with bellows pumped by little boys inside the organs!

Small Organ c. 1692 | Simon Bauer | Museum of Fine Arts | This small organ or regal from late 17th century Germany was designed for home use and lacked the pedal keyboard of church organs. The two rear panels are bellows.

Sleepers Awake, BWV 645 (4:20) | J.S. Bach | Rodney Gehrke, organ

Cat Clavier | Anonymous 19th century | Seven cat range

Electronic Instruments

An electronic musical instrument, i.e., electrophone, produces sound using electronics: an electrical audio signal is output, processed and amplified through an audio system. Most electronic instruments are based on modified acoustic instruments, e.g., electric guitar and electronic organ, while some are purely electronic, e.g., computers and synthesizers. Electronic musical instruments were not significant until the second half of the 20th century and, indeed, have little to no role in classical, non-Western and traditional music. However, they are extremely important in popular music and film scoring but that's a topic for another course.

Synclavier PSMT (1984) | Wikimedia Commons | The Synclavier was the first really good digital music production work station and was used extensively in popular, jazz and movie scores during the 1980s and early 1990s.

The Black Page (2:05) | Frank Zappa | New England Digital Synclavier (synthesizer with computer interface, sampling and multitrack audio recording).


keyboard instruments, piano, harpsichord, organ, hydraulis, electronic musical instrument, electrophone

©Copyright 2018 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved