The harpsichord, a keyboard instrument that is longer and narrower than a piano -- but which resembles a grand piano in shape -- dates back to the 16th century. The harpsichord functions by plucking metal strings with a plectrum by a jack system controlled by the keys. As time progressed, instruments similar to the harpsichord such as the spinet, virginal, clavichord and eventually the piano, emerged.
The spinet is very similar to the harpsichord in that it uses a mechanism controlled by the keyboard to pluck its strings; however, the spinet is much smaller than the harpsichord, and each note corresponds to only one string. Due to its compact size, spinet strings are shorter than those of a harpsichord, and they often run diagonally from the keyboard in order to save space. Spinets were popular domestic instruments due to their size and affordability. Spinets are also upright -- instead of the grand piano-type shape of common harpsichords -- in order to further save space; they were quite popular in smaller dwellings up until the 1930s.
The virginal is the oldest member of the harpsichord family; they were especially popular during the 16th and 17th centuries in England. The strings of a virginal run nearly parallel to the keyboard -- instead of perpendicular to it -- and the positioning of the keyboard affected the tone of the instrument. For instance, a center-placed keyboard produced an even, mellow tone but a keyboard father to the right or the left could make the tone brighter or darker.
The clavichord, like the virginal, harpsichord and spinet, uses a key-and-string system to pluck strings and produce sound; it was most popular in the 16th and 17th centuries but fell out of use in the 1800s. The keys, which act as levers, are attached to a small hammer-like piece called a "tangent." When a key is pressed, the tangent strikes the brass string above it, creating the sound. Mainly used as a practice instrument and to aid in composition, the clavichord never quite reached the concert-hall status of the harpsichord; however, clavichords are still produced today and are primarily played by Renaissance and Baroque music enthusiasts.
The modern piano, invented about 1700, can produce a much larger range of sound than any of its harpsichord-like predecessors, including the harpsichord. Grand pianos and upright pianos are the two basic types of this instrument; all pianos work using levers to control hammers that hit the strings when the keys are pressed. Most contemporary pianos also have foot pedals; the left pedal brings the hammers closer to the strings and makes it easier to play more softly, while the right pedal raises the dampers -- wedges of felt that press on the strings to stop the sound -- so that the strings continue to vibrate freely.
- George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images