Harpsichord vs Piano – What Are the Differences?

Have you heard of such an instrument as the harpsichord? You must have played or listened to clavier works by Bach, Handel, and Rameau. And you probably imagined how these great composers performed their works. Do you think they sounded the same?

No, of course not. These composers did not perform their compositions on the piano, as we are used to hearing them. They played the harpsichord.

What is a harpsichord? This is an ancient keyboard musical instrument that was very popular during the Baroque and Renaissance. It is the forerunner of the well-known modern piano.

The harpsichord looks very similar to the piano, but there are many differences between them.

Harpsichord vs piano – what are their differences and similarities?

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7 Main Differences Between Harpsichord vs Piano

The harpsichord is a keyboard instrument with a plucked string mechanism. It appeared in Europe in the 15th-16th century and was very popular until the appearance of the piano in the 18th century.

The piano is a keyboard instrument with a string-percussion mechanism. The modern piano was invented by the Italian master Bartolomeo Cristofori in 1709.

How is a harpsichord different from a piano?

Let’s look at the 7 main differences between these musical keyboard instruments.

Historical Periods

The very first mention of the harpsichord dates back to 1397. This instrument was widespread throughout Europe until the 18th century.

Composers such as Rameau, Couperin, Scarlatti, Bach, Handel, and others wrote for the harpsichords.

The piano appeared at the beginning of the 18th century and soon completely replaced the harpsichord. The piano is one of the most popular instruments of our time.

Who wrote the piano pieces? The composers of the classical era – Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, the composers of the era of romanticism – Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Grieg, and others, and many composers of the 20th and 21st centuries.


Both of these musical instruments have keys, that is, they are keyboard instruments. But the main difference between them is the principle of work.

The piano is not only a string instrument, it is also a percussion instrument. When a key is pressed, a special hammer strikes the string and we hear the sound.

 The harpsichord is a stringed keyboard instrument. The harpsichord mechanism is a bit like playing the guitar. When we press a key, a special handle plucks the harpsichords strings like the fingers on a guitar. The string starts to vibrate and we hear a sound.


A full-size modern piano keyboard has 88 keys or just over seven octaves.

The harpsichord keyboard usually has 4 or 5 octaves. However, harpsichords have another interesting feature. This instrument can have 2 or 3 keyboards with different sound ranges.


Does the harpsichord have the same keys as the piano?

The piano and harpsichord keys are also different. First, the harpsichord’s keys were made of wood, while the piano keys were made of ivory, and later of plastic.

The harpsichord’s keys are smaller. One piano octave (7 keys) corresponds to 9 harpsichords’ ones.

Also, the keys are reverse-colored. Those keys that we used to see on the piano as white becomes black, and the black keys, on the contrary, become white.

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The sound of the harpsichord is brilliant, jerky – which means that it is not subject to dynamic change, the change in the strength and timbre of the sound doesn’t depend on the nature of the strike on the keys. The sounds produced are different from the piano.

 To enhance the sonority, double, triple, and even quadruple strings (for each tone) were used, which were tuned in unison or octave.

On the piano, we can control the volume of the sound by pressing the keys. This is not possible on the harpsichord. To achieve diversity in sound were used arpeggiated or rolled chords, trills, and other musical techniques.


When playing the harpsichord, it is not possible to adjust the sound volume by pressing. No matter how you play, the sound will always be the same volume.

It was this feature that inspired Bartolomeo Cristofori to invent the piano. He wanted to get a musical instrument with a variety of volumes.

On the piano, we can play quietly or loudly, we can gradually increase the sound – crescendo or calm down – diminuendo.

Also, the overall sound of the harpsichord is much quieter than that of the piano. It is designed for small venues, not large concert halls.


The piano has pedals underneath the keyboard. Usually, there are three of them – damper pedal, soft, and sostenuto. With their help, we achieve even greater diversity in sound.

The harpsichords have no pedals.

Comparison Table Between Musical Instruments

Parameters of comparisonHarpsichordPiano
DefinitionThe harpsichord is a keyboard instrument
with a plucked string mechanism.
The piano is a keyboard percussion instrument.
The sound is produced by
striking the strings with a hammer.
Historical periodThe harpsichord appeared in the 14-15th century in Italy.The piano appeared at the beginning of the 18th century in Italy.
MechanismHarpsichord’s mechanism is plucking the strings to produce sounds.The piano mechanism lies in striking the strings to produce sounds.
FamilyHarpsichord comes from the family of instruments named Psalterium.Piano comes from the family of Clavichord.
TypeHarpsichord is a string instrument.A piano is a percussion instrument.
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Is Playing the Harpsichord Like Playing the Piano?

We have already covered the differences between these two instruments. Harpsichords and pianos playing also differ markedly. Since both instruments have similar keyboards, you might think that since you play the piano, the harpsichord is not difficult.

But don’t be fooled by this. Playing the harpsichord requires a special technique. Regular practice on this instrument is essential to success in this instrument.

Is harpsichord easier than piano?

No, it’s not. I can’t say that playing the harpsichord is more difficult. But it is different. Smaller keys, two keyboards, no change in dynamics – all require their own special technique.

Can you play harpsichord if you play the piano?

If you are already a good piano player, learning to play the harpsichord will not be difficult for you. With regular study, practice, enthusiasm, and you will be able to achieve success in playing both instruments.

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

We have already talked a lot about the harpsichord and the piano and have analyzed 7 main differences between them. But I, as a musician and teacher, believe that it is better to hear once than to speak many times.

Let’s see and listen to how the same pieces of music sound on the harpsichord and on the piano.

J.S. Bach: Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor

Lucille Gruber introduces and performs J.S. Bach, Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue:

Pianist András Schiff continues his remarkable Bach year with a visit to The Greene Space:

G.F. Handel: Keyboard Suite in D Minor

Richard Spicer plays George Frideric Handel (1685-1750) Harpsichord Suite in D Minor, HWV 437 (Amsterdam, 1733) – I (Allenmande) / II (Courante). On location at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth NH:

And piano version:

F. Couperin – Les Barricades Mystérieuses

François Couperin – 17th-century French composer and harpsichord player. Bruno Procopio playing Couperin’s work on an antique 1748 harpsichord in Paris:

And  Helge Antoni on the piano:

J.F. Rameau: Nouvelles suites de Pieces de clavecin – Suite in A minor

Jean Philippe Rameau is also a French composer and harpsichordist who wrote many suites and small pieces for this instrument. Blandine Rannou plays his Harpsichord Suite in A minor. :

Kyu-Yeon Kim on the piano:

Conclusion: Piano vs Harpsichord

We examined the features of the harpsichord and its differences from the piano. Now we know, that the harpsichord and piano are two very different instruments. Although after the appearance of the piano, the harpsichord lost its popularity, in our time, interest in this instrument is returning.

Beginning in the 20th century, musicians began to appear, such as Wanda Landowska, who played mainly the harpsichord. And now there is a tendency to perform the music of composers of the 16-17th century on the harpsichord, and not on the piano.

I love harpsichords very much and I am glad that interest in it is growing. I really hope that my article was useful to you and you will also fall in love with this wonderful musical instrument!

If you are just starting to learn the piano, I invite you to take a look at my articles for beginners – How to label piano keys and How to read piano tabs.

Best regards, your Lucy.

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