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The development of the keyboard over seven centuries from 800 to 1800 AD

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  1. Introduction
  2. Pythagoras' fundamental mathematical laws
  3. The harpsichord
  4. The 18th century
  5. The development of the keyboard
  6. Conclusion

In present times, the keyboard is regarded as one of the most common instruments and is found in nearly every musical setting. The history of this unique string/percussion hybrid is comprised of an extensive and diverse lineage from the first monochord instruments as far back as 800 AD. The development of the keyboard between then and the late 1700's is a significant part of instrumental music history.

In 550 BC, Pythagoras discovered the fundamental mathematical laws that governed harmonics and led to the use of diatonic scales on string instruments. He invented the monochord, which was basically comprised of a string made of gut or metal that stretched between two bridges placed on a sound box. A third bridge was movable and could be placed at specific positions along the string to produce notes when the string was plucked or played. This early instrument was used into the Middle Ages for teaching music and for singing. The hurdy-gurdy and organ appeared between 80-1200 AD and were also monochord, meaning they could play only a single note at a time to produce a melody. They were the first example of the use of key action to produce notes and therefore the first keyboards in that aspect. Though none of these instruments have survived, there are multiple descriptions in manuscripts dated as far back as the 12th century AD.

[...] There was no set pitch for these instruments?they were variable?but there did seem to be a tendency toward certain scales that matched the pitch of the lute and other popular instruments. The Flemish design of the harpsichord (the muselaar) appeared in 1560 and differed from the Italian model with its wider range. Flanders began to revolutionize the harpsichord beginning in 1580 as observed in the design by Hans Ruckers. It was much more solidly constructed, had longer strings, greater string tension, and a spruce soundboard. [...]


[...] The harpsichord continued to develop during the 17th century as the range gradually increased from 4 to 5 octaves. This could be done without altering the instrument simply by retuning the lower octave to omit sharp notes. By the 18th century, the harpsichord had reached its peak in development. Most models had multiple strings per key and could be easily changed by the use of foot pedals to acquire the desired tone. The instruments also had a harp-stop, which was a wooden slide that could be shifted to place a small piece of felt on each string, muffling the sound. [...]

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