Harpsichord vs Piano – What Are the Differences?

The harpsichord and piano may look very much the same, but they are, in fact, two very different musical instruments. Harpsichord vs. piano – what are the differences?

The harpsichord and the piano are both keyboard instruments with many differences. How you play them is different as the harpsichord’s strings are plucked, and those of the piano are struck. The two also have differences in mechanism, keys, pedals, and sound.

Read on to learn more about the harpsichord and the piano, their differences, and more.

Harpsichord vs Piano

harpsichord vs piano

The harpsichord and the piano are two very identical instruments, but they have many major differences in reality. Let’s take a closer look at the difference between the harpsichord and piano:


The piano works by striking or pressing its keys. You activate a little hammer after you press a key, and this hammer hits the string. The string then will vibrate and make a sound. The hammer will then go back immediately to its place so that it does not block the vibration.

The harpsichord works by pressing on its keys, the same as the piano. But unlike the mechanism of the piano, the key then plucks the string of the harpsichord. The mechanism of the harpsichord is closer to that of the guitar. When you press the key, the jack, a small piece of wood, will go up.

The plectrum, a part in the jack, will then pluck the string. The string will then vibrate and make a sound. Pianists will recognize a certain sound that harpsichords make when the jack falls back in place.


The keyboard of the pian and the harpsichord have major differences too. Pianos have only one keyboard, while harpsichords usually have two keyboards. Some harpsichords even have three keyboards. The basic harpsichord model is the only harpsichord with one keyboard, but these harpsichords are not that common.

The piano will usually have 88 keys. Some pianos, though, will have more, and some will have less. The piano has seven octaves: the number of tones the human ear can detect and hear. The harpsichord has anywhere from four to six octaves.


Pianos have pedals at the bottom. By pressing on the pedals with your feet, the sound of the keys pressed will change in various ways. Newer pianos will have three pedals – damper pedal, soft pedal, sostenuto pedal.

The harpsichord has a unique harmonic sound and gives it a melodic tone that the piano does not have. When you make harmonious sounds, you can hear a double frequency of the fundamental note.


With the piano, the sound will depend on how you strike the keys. Like, when you press the keys quickly and gently, the sound will be softer and more delicate. However, when you press the keys stronger, you’ll get louder and bolder sounds.

The force you apply to the keys directly affects the sound. The force goes to the hammer, and the hammer hits the strings according to the force applied. In this way, it is possible to control the desired dynamic and tones you desire by applying the needed force.

With the harpsichord, force applied to the keys does not affect the sound. The harpsichord’s tone is the same when you play it. Harpsichord players use different methods and become creative to control the dynamics and tones. They do this by using rolled chords, thrills, and other methods.

The harpsichord is a much quieter instrument than the piano. It is possible to play the harpsichord and people in the next room won’t hear the music.

The Piano

Piano is a shortened term for the word pianoforte. It is an acoustic keyboard instrument, classified under strings.

How does it work?

When you struck the keys, the small wooden hammers, then touch the string. Upon creating a vibration, the small hammers go back to their original position.

The keyboard has a total of 88 keys – 52 white and 36 black. The 52 white keys are the C major scale notes, C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. The 36 black keys are above the white keys. These black keys are for the sharps and flats, F♯/G♭, G♯/A♭, A♯/B♭, C♯/D, and D♯/E♭.

The piano originated in Italy in 1700. Bartolomeo Cristofori invented this piano. Before this, many other keyboard instruments existed, but Cristofori put all the essentials together to create the piano, where the modern piano comes from.

Later on, in the 18th century, Germans created the square piano, which was lighter and cheaper to produce. The instrument was very much popularized by well-known pianists Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Muzio Clemente.

By the mid-18th century, the square piano evolved into the upright piano, making it more manageable at home. The first models of the upright piano were patterned from upright harpsichords. They were, at first, very tall, but then, John Isaac Hawkins created pianos that were shorter and required less space.

The Harpsichord

The harpsichord was invented way before the piano – probably during the Middle Ages, in Italy. The instrument gained fame and popularity during the Renaissance and Baroque movements. It was used as an accompaniment to other instruments and then, later on, became a solo star.

When the piano was invented, the harpsichord took a backseat, but in the 20th century, it made a comeback. It returned as a popular choice to play older music with a newer twist.

It is played using a keyboard. The keyboard activates levers that then plucks the strings with a plectrum, a small flat object that plucks strings. It is common for harpsichords to have multiple keyboards and sometimes a pedalboard. Some harpsichords have a stop button.

The stop button can add or remove additional octaves. The common harpsichord has two or more string sets, and each one makes different tone qualities. A normal set of strings with normal pitch is called an 8-foot register. The other set may have a higher pitch and is known as a 4-foot register. The harpsichord’s tone is amplified by a soundboard that you can find beneath the strings.

piano vs harpsichord

Is Playing the Harpsichord Like Playing the Piano?

Does it automatically follow that if you can play the piano, you can play the harpsichord too? If you haven’t yet played the harpsichord, you’ll immediately feel that the touch is different from the piano. Pressing the keys of the harpsichord will sort of feel brittle. It has more resistance than the piano.

Aside from this, there are other dissimilarities that you will notice if you’re a pianist playing the piano for the first time. Let’s take a look at what they are:

Key Size

The harpsichord’s keys are slimmer than that of the piano’s. The length of one octave will be a 9th on the harpsichord. Black keys are slimmer, too, making it a little bit harder to hit the keys accurately. However, if you keep playing harpsichord, your hand will adjust to the dimensions of the harpsichord’s keys.


Most harpsichords have 4 to 4 ½ octaves only as compared to the piano’s seven.

Keyboard Material

Most harpsichords have keyboards that are made from wood as compared to the piano’s ivory or plastic. The feel to your fingers may seem strange at first on the harpsichord keyboard, but, again, your hand will adjust to this.

Some harpsichords (usually the older ones) have a keyboard that is reverse. This means the sharps are colored white, and the natural keys are colored black. This may confuse you at first.


The harpsichord lacks dynamics as compared to the piano. You’ll discover that some pieces that sound well on the piano will sound quite strange on the harpsichord. Take, for example, and Bach compositions can be quite dynamic on the piano, but the harpsichord, it will be a bit challenging to mimic that. You’ll need to attack the keys differently to prolong notes. But, most piano pieces can still be played on the harpsichord, albeit sounding a bit differently.

How to Sit While Playing the Piano and the Harpsichord

Proper piano and harpsichord playing actually starts with the proper posture. When playing the piano and the harpsichord, your posture will be the same. You must sit straight in front of your device, at the center. You’ll need to be on a bench or a stool, as a chair with a backrest will restrict your movements. You’ll need to maintain this straight-back posture the whole time you are playing.

Your feet have to be flat on the ground, but you’ll need to have your feet over the pedals if your instrument has pedals. You have to put your arms in a relaxed and flexible position. Your hands should follow the C curve over the top of the keys. Moreover, you should align your fingertips with the white keys, and your elbows should be at the same height.

Classical Music That Sound Good Both on the Piano and the Harpsichord

difference between a harpsichord and piano

As mentioned earlier, some music pieces would sound different when they’re played on the harpsichord because of the lack of dynamics. There are differences between the two instruments.

Although they are both keyboard instruments and they may look the same, they are two very different instruments. The main difference is in the way you play them. The strings of the harpsichord are plucked and, those of the piano are struck. The two also have differences in mechanism, keys, pedals, and sound.

Here are some music pieces that sound good on both the piano and the harpsichord:

1. Handel: Keyboard Suite in B flat major, Aria con Variazoni

Brahms used this classic piece’s third movement. It has a set of five variations. This piece is quite charming but not too complicated.

2. J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 – Aria da capo

This marks the culmination of Bach’s ClavierUbuna, his collection of organ and harpsichord music. The variations have a simple, song-like melody.

3. F. Couperi: Pieces de clavecin, Book 1 – 1st Ordere in G minor-major La Milordine

Couperin was a master in playing the harpsichord. “Le Grand” was his other nickname because of his exceptional performance on the harpsichord. La Milordine is an energetic piece for playing on the harpsichord but sounds just as good on the piano.

4. Rameau: Nouvelles suites de Pieces de clavecin – Suite in A minor-major – L’Enharmonique

Jean-Philippe Rameau was the composer for King Louis XV. He wrote more than 60 pieces for the harpsichord. This piece sounds dreamy and wistful both on the piano and the harpsichord.

5. Byrd: Ut re mi fa sol la in F major

Byrd created innovative music for the keyboard during the Elizabethan era. He was famous for making music that was based on dances. Ut re mi fa sol la in F major is light, fantasy music.

Conclusion: Piano vs Harpsichord

The harpsichord and the piano are both keyboard instruments that produce melodic music. Visually, they may look very similar, but they are different in many ways.

The main difference between a piano and harpsichord is in the way they make a sound. Inside, after you touch the keys, the harpsichord’s strings are plucked while those of the piano are struck. The two also have differences in mechanism, keys, pedals, and sound.

Although not that popular today, the harpsichord still is regarded as an excellent instrument by some musicians.

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Did Beethoven Play the Piano or Harpsichord?