In today’s lesson we are going to look at keyboard instruments.
As you can see, there are many different types of keyboard instruments. Unlike other families we have looked at, keyboard instruments produce sounds in vastly different ways. For this reason, they often sound nothing like each other. The only thing which connects keyboard instruments within one family is the keyboard itself – a repeating pattern of 12 keys arranged from low pitch (left) to high pitch (right) that you press down to make a sound.
What happens after you play a key is what gives the instrument its identity.
Inside Keyboard Instruments
Let’s take a look inside a grand piano so we can see what actually happens when you press a key on piano-type instruments.
The hammer strikes (hits) the string to produce the sound. This is what makes the instrument a piano. However, there are many ways that keyboards can produce sounds:
striking strings (piano, clavichord)
plucking (pulling) strings (harpsichord)
striking metal (celesta)
key allows air to flow through pipes (organs)
key allows air to flow across reeds (accordions)
key touches circuit to generate or playback sound (synthesiser, sampler)
With the exception of synthesisers and samplers, all these instruments are acoustic (the sound is physically produced within the instrument itself, no electricity). Electronic keyboards are a whole different topic, so we will look at these in more depth another day. For now, it’s enough to know that they produce sound when the key connects to an electronic circuit.
For this lesson we will focus on acoustic keyboard instruments, but here you can see an example of a digital (electronic) keyboard being used to play back samples (recordings) of acoustic instruments. You can start the video at 3:35.
Because digital keyboards and synths can be used to play back or create any type of sound there is no limit to the sounds the keyboard family can produce. They also have the largest range of possible notes they can play, and the possibility to play multiple notes at the same time. For these reasons, keyboards are by far the most versatile instrument group. This is why they are used in most styles of music, from classical and jazz to rock and dance.
Let’s have a look at some of the other acoustic keyboards.
The most well-known keyboard instrument is the piano, however this was only invented around 1770, and modern pianos weren’t developed until a hundred years later. Before the piano came the clavichord (1300s) and the harpsichord (around 1450), which looks like a piano but sounds completely different.
Unlike the piano, which strikes strings, the harpsichord produces sound by plucking (pulling) the strings with plectra. Here is a look at the harpsichord.
Do you notice that it sounds more like a guitar than a piano? This is because guitars also produce their sound by plucking strings. Quickly compare it to this video (you don’t need to listen to the whole thing).
Not all keyboards use strings. The celesta (which looks like an upright piano and was invented in the late 1880s) sounds like a glockenspiel. This is because, just like a glockenspiel, the sound is produced by hitting metal bars instead of strings. Compare these recordings of the same song.
Entirely different to what we’ve seen so far are keyboard instruments that use air to produce their sound like wind instruments. The pipe organ is an example of a wind keyboard instrument. They work by allowing air to travel through pipes, which makes them more like series of giant flutes than pianos.
Finally, we have squeezeboxes like accordions, which push air across reeds (similar to clarinets, which we looked at last week) by pushing and pulling bellows – start at 3:45.
We’ve already had a look inside a piano but there are some other interesting things to know before we move on. The early keyboard instruments like organ and harpsichord only played at one volume – it didn’t matter how hard or soft you pushed the key. The piano (full name: ‘pianoforte’) got its name because, unlike the older instruments, you could make individual notes louder or quieter depending on how hard you play them. Pianoforte literally means ‘softstrong’ (ie. quietloud), so a ‘piano’ is actually called a ‘soft’, or ‘quiet’. This is not the strangest instrument name of all – that probably goes to the cello (full name: violoncello – ‘small big violin’)!
Because the piano was invented quite late, all the music written by early composers like Bach would have been played on a harpsichord or organ. Even famous ‘piano’ composers like Mozart did not have access to pianos as we know them. Here is a short snippet of Mozart (at 3:10) played on a ‘fortepiano’ (a very early type of piano that he would have used).
Compare that to the sound of a modern grand piano – here is Yuja Wang playing a virtuosic (very, very difficult!) arrangement the same piece by Mozart, the Turkish March. It sounds much softer, has greater contrast in volume, and has many more notes.
Musical Examples and Questions
Now you’ve been introduced to the different keyboard instruments, see if you can figure out which ones are being used in these videos.
Sonata in Dm K.141 by Scarlatti, famous for its tricky, fast, repeating notes.
Schubert’s Moment Musicaux No. 3
A very famous piece by JS Bach, Toccata and Fugue in D minor. It’s quite long, but it’s worth watching at least the first 4 minutes to see this instrument in all its glory. Of course, if you like it watch more!
Some jazz now, Autumn Leaves featuring Beegie Adair on which keyboard instrument? Another long one, you can just watch the first few minutes.
Music from the film Amelie, by Yann Tiersen: La Valse d’Amelie.
Which keyboard instrument is Ludovico Einaudi playing in this song, Experience?
Here’s an unusual example of a pop song using a particular keyboard instrument, Golden Brown by the Stranglers.
Which non-piano keyboard instrument can you hear in Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy?
Some traditional music from Hungary for the next song.
Here’s some music by the band Muse, with their song Butterflies and Hurricanes. Which keyboard instruments can you see being used here? Be sure to check out the solo (3:45-5:05)!
Finally, to finish here’s some more jazz with Masahiro Sayama’s trio performing James by Pat Metheny. Which keyboard is being used here? Watch at least to his solo which finishes at 3:46. Can you also name the other instruments?
Okay, are you ready for the answers? Here they are!
- Harpsichord – you can tell because it sounds metallic like a guitar.
- The famous pianist Vladimir Horovitz is using a piano here.
- This huge instrument is a church organ.
- This jazz trio uses a piano.
- French music like this often uses an accordion, which is what you see here.
- Einaudi is a contemporary (modern) composer, using a piano as part of his ensemble (band).
- This song is famous for its unusual use of the harpsichord in a pop setting.
- An exemplary use of the celesta.
- This Hungarian Dance showcases the accordion.
- Matt Bellamy uses the grand piano for his solo. If you were watching carefully you will also have seen digital keyboards/synths being used in the background.
- Finally, Masahiro Sayama is on piano, accompanied by drums and the double bass (which is the huge, stand-up violin).
I hope this shows just how versatile keyboard instruments are – they can be used in many types of music, either as the solo instrument or as part of an ensemble or band.