Keyboard Instruments

The Organ

The invention of the organ in Egypt, in the third century B.C., and the popularity of water organs in Nero’s time, have already been mentioned. The latter attained considerable excellence in construction; but in the centuries immediately succeeding, the organ was lost sight of, and it was only in the eighth century, when the Eastern Emperor sent one to Charlemagne, that it again came into prominence. In the following centuries there was a general development in organ mechanism, although the present form was not reached till about 1600.

Early organs were of three kinds: the portatives, so small as to be easily carried about or held in the lap; the postives, larger and heavier, sometimes established in churches, and sometimes so constructed that they might be wheeled about; and the great organs, large and powerful, built generally into the churhces. The first two kinds had keyboards on the principle of ours, though exceedingly limited, and designed to be played by the fingers. The positive organs finally became attached to the great, becoming choir organs, and probably were originally used for choir accompaniment.

Improvements in Organs

The great organs were at first very clumsy and noisy. The keys, orginally six inches wide, and played by striking with the fists, were gradually narrowed, until the hand could span a fifth, and thence until the present dimensions were reached. the compass, originally of twelve diatonic tones, was lengthened and filled in by the addition of chromatic notes, at first only in the middle register. Different sets of pipes, sounding different qualities and pitches of tone, were at first played only in unison, so that is some cases as many as forty pipes spoke together for each key struck; but the introduction of sliding stops eventually gave more adaptability.

Before 1500 several manuals were employed, and pedals were added, with couplers. Fifteenth century organs had a compass of four octaves, one “short”, or lacking some notes, with letters on the keys. The most difficult problems were in connection with the wind supply. Many paird of bellows, blown either by hand or by foot, were required, so that in some cases as many as seventy men were needed to blow a single organ. With the invention of the wind chest, however, the problem was somewhat simplified. The use of the great organ must a first have been very limited, as its strident tone unfitted it for choir accompaniment. Its chief function must have been to give out the Gregorian tone before its vocal rendition.


A number of instruments in which strings were set in vibration, by means of keys, and called by the general name of claviers, came into use, first as substitutes for the organ, and employing the same music.

Later, however, they took on individuality, and became popular as social and domestic instruments. These were of two types, namely, the clavichord and the harpsichord.


In this type, derived from the dulcimer, the strings were struck directly by upright tangents affixed to the back so the keys. The earliest form was the monochord, used for scientific purposes; later, instead of the one string, several were employed, all tuned in unison, and several keys struck the same string, made to give different pitches by a contrivance which shortened its length. These small clavichords was invented, of larger size, which had a separate string for each key. In this the strings were of varying lengths, supported by a diagonal wooden bridge. The tone of the clavichord, though weak and tremulous, was susceptible of some variation, and hence was preferred by many musicians.


In this type, derived from the psaltery, the strings were plucked by quills attached to the ends of the keys. Various names were given to the first small instruments of this kind, such as spinet, virginal, clavecin, clavicembalo, and in form they were either oblong or triangular.

A resultant larger form, adapted especially for concert or orchestral use, was called the harpsichord, and was shaped like our grand piano, only much narrower. The tone, while more brilliant than that of the clavichord, was capable of no more brilliant than that of the clavichord, was capable of no variation. To overcome this limitation, all kinds of devices were employed, especially in the eighteenth cnetury, such as the introduction of several keyboards, reinforcing strings added by pulling out stops, various kinds of quills, pedals, and connection with an organ.

Clavier Makers

Many firms vied with each other in clavier construction. The Ruckers family at Antwerp produced elaborate instruments, frequently adorned by famous painters. Tabel in London, and Silvermann in Strasburg, were also prominent. There were many attempts to produce sustained tone in instruments like the piano violin, none of which, however, were successful.

Instruments had little individuality of expression, merely reduplicating and strengthening the voice parts. Not until 1600 did the organ attain its present form, while the forerunners of the piano, the clavichord and the harpsichord, were too faulty in construction to assume a dominant role.