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Clavicords and early keyboard instruments

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Inside the instrument

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A peculiar mechanical organism, which has not seen substantial transformations over many centuries, is the basis of such a characteristic sound.

The case of the instrument is generally rectangular in shape. The right side is occupied by a soundboard of variable dimensions. The remaining part is occupied by the mechanics including the keyboard and the key levers. The strings are stretched more or less parallel to the keyboard and are applied on the left along the side of the body and on the right on pins stuck on the windchest; the strings pass over a bridge (or possibly several bridges) which is in turn conveniently placed above the soundboard. The strings are generally arranged in courses of two in order to make the sound more voluminous.

The sound production mechanism is very simple: the strings are made to vibrate through the movement of metal plates called tangents which are tightened at the ends of each key lever. When the key is depressed by pressing the finger, the lever rises causing the string to strike the corresponding point from the tangent. For this fact we could define the clavichord as an instrument with struck strings differently from the harpsichord where the strings are plucked.

The tangent (similarly to the pen in the harpsichord and the hammer in the fortepiano) fulfills the primary function of making the string vibrate. But, unlike the pen or the hammer which automatically return to the rest position after having fulfilled their function, the tangent remains integral with the string for the entire time the key is held down. The immediate consequences of this fact are at least three:

a) by varying the pressure on the key I can vary the pitch of the note produced (bebung);
b) the speed of percussion produces variety of volume (I can create dynamics);
c) the point of tangency also identifies the section of vibrating string identified between the point of tangency itself and the attachment point on the bridge.

Unlike the harpsichord, therefore, the length of the strings is not established a priori by the shape of the bridge but is given by the position of the tangent with respect to the string.

An important organological differentiation that we can outline is the difference between the so-called free and tied clavichord.

In the free clavichord each key acts on a single pair of strings while in the tied string several keys can act on the same string simply by allowing, through an appropriate “bending” of the levers, the percussion of the string at different points on it. In this way the same pair of strings is able to produce different pitches.

The most obvious consequence of the clavicord

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