The harpsichord is a stringed keyboard instrument. Sound is produced through plucking strings whenever the respective keys are pressed. Pressing a key raises the designated plectrum on another end. The string is plucked by this and this turns so it does not make contact with the string downwards.


The harpsichord was invented in the Middle Ages. In Italy, harpsichord makers made lightweight versions with little string tension but the harpsichords were made with a heavier construction by the Ruckers family in the late 1500's. This creates a more unique and powerful tone. Flemish instruments were the basis of the harpsichord in the 18th century. The instrument was constructed with double keyboards to control varied string choirs which makes it more musically flexible.

The Shudi and Kirkman firms in England manufactured harpsichords that had great sonority and power while German builders added two foot and sixteen foot choir which expanded its repertoire. The harpsichord by German builders was the foundation for the design by modern builders.

The harpsichord was overshadowed by the piano in the 18th to 19th century. It was revived in the 20th century using metal frames and heavy strings likened to piano mechanisms. The building methods from the Baroque period became the dominant construction for modern harpsichords.

The harpsichord family

There are various members of the large harpsichord family – archicembalo, virginals, ottavino, clavicytherium, spinet, folding harpsichord, and the regular harpsichord.

The archicembalo had a unique keyboard design and was for the tuning systems of the 16th century. The virginals is a simpler and smaller harpsichord with only a string for every note while the ottavino are similar to virginals but are at four foot pitch. It is sometimes referred to as double virginals.

The clavicytherium has its strings and soundboard placed perpendicularly in front of the player just like the upright piano. On the other hand, the spinet has its strings set at a 30 degree angle from the keyboard. The folding harpsichord is the version of the harpsichord that is suitable for travel.

The term harpsichord could mean any member of the harpsichord family but it particularly denotes an instrument that has the same shape as a grand piano with a triangular case. At the right, it has short treble strings while at the left are long bass strings. It is longer than the modern piano and has a sharper curve.


The harpsichord has 6 main parts – harpsichord interior, lid stick, music desk, casing, keyboard, and lid. The harpsichord’s interior contains the strings that are amplified to produce sound. The lid is the panel that protects the interior from dust while the lid stick is the wooden stick that holds the lid open when the instrument is being played.

The music desk provides support for the score. The casing is the overall wooden body that covers the instrument and the keyboard consists of the keys which plucks the strings when pressed.

Differentiating the harpsichord from the piano

Unlike the piano, the notes in the harpsichord should be played one by one which makes it an instrument subtler than the piano. The harpsichord keyboard has increased curvature. Also contrasting from the piano, the harpsichord does not allow dynamics. If you want to make it louder, you should put in another rank of strings.


The castanets, also referred to as palillos, are probably the most sophisticated percussion instruments. It is used in Portuguese, Italian, Moorish, Spanish, Latin American, and Ottoman music. It is generally a pair of concave shells connected at an edge by a string. These are hand-held and produce clicking or rattling sounds used for rhythmic accents.

Castanets are also played in the orchestra. At times, these are fastened to the handle or placed on a base forming machine castanets. Playing the castanet in the Spanish style is very rare in the modern orchestra. This is not because it is very complex to master and apply but because there are no more than four known professional castanet players all over the world. To compensate for this, a castanet machine is used. The cups of a castanet machine are attached to a piece of wood which ends in a handle that is held and shaken.

Possible origin

There is no known definite origin of the castanets. The method of clicking sticks together using one hand to be music for dancing is certainly ancient and has been done by the Egyptians and the Greeks.

However, there are theories on its development. One is that castanets are the descendants of the Iberian crusmata which were two shells, wooden sticks, or flat stones. Also, the Greeks played the krotola in religious affairs but it is proven that castanets were also found in Italian, Latin, and Portuguese music among many others.

Use of the Castanets

Castanets are dominant in music for dances in the baroque period. These were score for dancing music by composers such as Jean-Baptiste Lully. They were also often used for dances about unpleasant ideas such as nightmares or demons. It was also mentioned in the Lully’s ballet Flore in 1669 that castanets were also used for African Dances.

Castanets were played to evoke or give out a Spanish aura in many works such as in Carmen by Georges Bizet and España by Emmanual Chabrier. They were also included in the opera of Richard Strauss entitled Salome specifically in the Dance of the Seven Veils.

It was given a solo by a few musicians such as Helmut Timpelan, a German composer, and José de Udaeta, a castanet maestro.

Playing the castanets

Traditionally, a castanet player holds one set of castanets on each hand. Flowing with the music and providing syncopation, these are hit together. The fingers manipulate the upper shell while the palm holds the lower shell. When castanets are played with a couple, they symbolize male and female and every set has a particular male or female given name. The female castanet is called hembra and is smaller than the male counterpart named macho. The macho is held in the left hand while the hembra is held in the right. The pair’s difference in size also gives a difference in pitch.

Castanets could be connected to the thumbs which is common in folk music or to all of the fingers which is expected in classical music. The placement of the castanets may vary depending on the music genre.

A skilled castanet player has very swift movements with castanets which produce great rhythm counterpoint for dancing like the Flamenco dance or for accompanying other instruments.


A set of castanets looks similar to two small chestnut shells or clamshells. Actually, the term castanet is derived from the Spanish word castanuelas which means little chestnuts. These are either made of fiberglass or wood. The two shells are held together by a thin rope or string that is sometimes made of animal skin or leather.