AskDefine | Define clavichord

Dictionary Definition

clavichord n : an early stringed instrument like a piano but with more delicate sound

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. An early keyboard instrument producing a soft sound by means of metal blades attached to the inner ends of the keys gently striking the strings

Derived terms


  • Italian: clavicordo
  • Russian: клавикорд

See also

Extensive Definition

The clavichord is a European stringed keyboard instrument known from the late Medieval, through the Renaissance, Baroque and Classical eras. Historically, it was widely used as a practice instrument and as an aid to composition. The clavichord produces sound by striking brass or iron strings with small metal blades called tangents. Vibrations are transmitted through the bridge(s) to the soundboard. The name is derived from the Latin word clavis, meaning "key" (associated with more common clavus, meaning "nail, rod, etc.") and chorda (from Greek χορδή) meaning "string, especially of a musical instrument".

History and use

The clavichord was invented in the early fifteenth century. In 1504, the German poem Der Minne Regeln mentions the terms clavicimbalum (a term used mainly for the harpsichord) and clavichordium, designating them as the best instruments to accompany melodies.
It was very popular from the 16th century to the 18th century, but mainly flourished in German-speaking lands, Scandinavia, and the Iberian Peninsula in the latter part of this period. It had fallen out of use by 1850. In the late 1890s, Arnold Dolmetsch revived clavichord construction and Violet Gordon-Woodhouse, among others, helped to popularize the instrument. Although most of the instruments built before the 1730s were small (four octaves, four feet long), the latest instruments were built up to seven feet long with a six octave range.
Today clavichords are played primarily by Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical music enthusiasts. They attract many interested buyers, and are manufactured worldwide. A modern clavichord can range in price from $2,400 to as much as $20,000. There are now numerous clavichord societies around the world, and some 400 recordings of the instrument have been made in the past 70 years. Leading modern exponents of the instrument include Derek Adlam, Christopher Hogwood, Richard Troeger, and Miklos Spányi, and fine modern instruments are widely available. Some modern makers include Peter Bavington and Karin Richter in Great Britain, Joris Potvlieghe in Belgium, Thomas Steiner in Austria, and Ronald Haas, Owen Daly, Charles Wolff, David Jensen, and Andrew Lagerquist in the United States.

In rock music

The clavichord has also gained attention in other genres of music, like rock in the form of the clavinet, which is essentially an electric clavichord which uses a magnetic pickup to provide a signal for amplification. A clavinet played through an instrument amplifier with guitar effect pedals is often associated with funky, disco-infused 1970s rock.
Tori Amos also uses the instrument on "Little Amsterdam" from the album Boys For Pele as well as on the song "Smokey Joe" from her 2007 album American Doll Posse. And in 1976 Oscar Peterson played (with Joe Pass on acoustic guitar) songs from Porgy And Bess on the clavichord. Keith Jarrett also recorded an album entitled "Book of Ways" (1987) in which he plays a series of clavichord improvisations. The Beatles' "For No One" (1966) features Paul McCartney playing the clavichord to tremendous effect.

Structure and action

In the clavichord, strings run transversely from the hitchpin rail at the left-hand end to tuning pegs on the right. Towards the right end they pass over a curved wooden bridge. The action is simple, with the keys being levers with a small brass tangent at the far end. The strings, which are usually of brass, or else a combination of brass and iron, are usually arranged in pairs, like a lute or mandolin. When the key is pressed, the tangent strikes the strings above, causing them to sound in a similar fashion to the hammering technique on a guitar. Unlike in a piano action, the tangent does not rebound from the string; rather, it stays in contact with the string as long as the key is held, acting as both the nut and as the initiator of sound. The volume of the note can be changed by striking harder or softer, and the pitch can also be affected by varying the force of the tangent against the string (known as Bebung). When the key is released, the tangent loses contact with the string and the vibration of the string is silenced by strips of damping cloth.


Since the string vibrates from the bridge only as far as the tangent, multiple keys with multiple tangents can be assigned to the same string. This is called fretting. Early clavichords frequently had many notes played on each string, even going so far as the keyed monochord — an instrument with only one string — though most clavichords were triple- or double-fretted. Since only one note can be played at a time on each string, the fretting pattern is generally chosen so that notes which are rarely heard together (such as C and C#) share a string pair. The advantages to this system compared with unfretted instruments (see below) include relative ease of tuning (with around half as many strings to keep in tune), greater volume (though still not really enough for use in chamber music), and a clearer, more direct sound. Among the disadvantages: temperament could not be re-set without bending the tangents; and playing required a further refinement of touch, since notes sharing a single string played in quick succession needed to be slightly separated to avoid a disagreeable deadening of the sound, potentially disturbing a legato line.
Some clavichords have been built with a single pair of strings for each note. The first known reference to one was by Johann Speth in 1693 and the earliest such extant signed and dated clavichord was built in 1716 by Johann Michael Heinitz. Such instruments are referred to as unfretted whereas instruments using the same strings for several notes are called fretted. Among the advantages to unfretted instruments are flexibility in tuning (the temperament can be easily altered) and the ability to play any music exactly as written without concern for "bad" notes. Disadvantages include a smaller volume, even though many or most unfretted instruments tend to be significantly larger than fretted instruments; and many more strings to keep in tune. Unfretted instruments tend to have a sweeter, less incisive tone due to the greater load on the bridge resulting from the greater number of strings, though the large, late (early 19th century) Swedish clavichords tend to be the loudest of any of the historic clavichords.
While clavichords were typically single manual instruments, they could be stacked to provide multiple keyboards. With the addition of a pedal clavichord , which included a pedal keyboard for the lower notes, a clavichord could be used to practice organist repertoire. In the era of pipe organs which used hand-pumped blowers, and of churches which were only heated during church services, organists used pedal harsichords and pedal clavichords as practice instruments (see also: pedal piano). There is speculation that some works written for organ may have been intended for pedal clavichord. An interesting case is made by Joel Speerstra that Bach's "Eight Little Preludes and Fugues", now thought to be spurious, may actually be authentic. The keyboard writing seems unsuited to organ, but Speerstra argues that they are idiomatic on the pedal clavichord.


Much of the music written for harpsichord and organ from the period circa 1400–1800 can be played on the clavichord; however, it does not have enough (unamplified) volume to participate in chamber music, with the possible exception of providing accompaniment to a soft baroque flute, recorder, or single singer. J. S. Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was a great proponent of the instrument, and most of his German contemporaries regarded it as a central keyboard instrument, for performing, teaching, composing on and practicing. Among recent clavichord recordings, those by Christopher Hogwood ('The Secret Bach', 'The Secret Handel', and, most recently, 'The Secret Mozart'), break new ground. In his liner notes, Hogwood points out that these composers would typically have played the clavichord in the privacy of their homes.


  • Brauchli, Bernard, The clavichord. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998
  • Bach and the pedal clavichord: an organist's guide
clavichord in Arabic: كلافيكورد
clavichord in Bulgarian: Клавикорд
clavichord in Catalan: Clavicordi
clavichord in Danish: Klavichord
clavichord in German: Clavichord
clavichord in Spanish: Clavicordio
clavichord in Estonian: Klavikord
clavichord in French: Clavicorde
clavichord in Galician: Clavicordio
clavichord in Italian: Clavicordo
clavichord in Hebrew: קלאוויקורד
clavichord in Lithuanian: Klavikordas
clavichord in Dutch: Clavichord
clavichord in Japanese: クラヴィコード
clavichord in Norwegian: Klavikord
clavichord in Norwegian Nynorsk: Klavikord
clavichord in Polish: Klawikord
clavichord in Russian: Клавикорд
clavichord in Simple English: Clavichord
clavichord in Finnish: Klavikordi
clavichord in Swedish: Klavikord
clavichord in Chinese: 翼琴

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Klavier, Steinway, baby grand, cembalo, clarichord, clavicembalo, clavicittern, clavicymbal, clavicytherium, clavier, concert grand, cottage piano, couched harp, dulcimer harpsichord, grand, grand piano, hammer dulcimer, harmonichord, harpsichord, manichord, manichordon, melodion, melopiano, monochord, pair of virginals, parlor grand, pianette, pianino, piano, piano-violin, pianoforte, sostinente pianoforte, spinet, square piano, upright, upright piano, violin piano, virginal
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