What is a Keyboard Instrument?


A keyboard instrument is a musical instrument that a musician plays using a keyboard. The most common keyboard instruments are the piano, organ, and various electronic keyboards, including synthesizers and digital pianos. Others include celestas, which are struck idiophones operated by a keyboard, and carillons, which are usually housed in bell towers or belfries of churches or municipal buildings. 

Nowadays, the term keyboard often refers to keyboard-style synthesizers. The keyboard itself may also be used to control dynamics, phrasing, shading, articulation, and other elements of expression. Another important use of the word keyboard is in historical musicology. Particularly in the 18th century, the harpsichord, the clavichord, and the early piano were in competition. Therefore, musicians might play the same piece on more than one.


The History of Keyboard Instruments


By far the oldest and, from the point of view of evolution, the most interesting keyboard instrument is the organ. It has three fundamental parts; a number of pipes, each of essentially unalterable pitch, an artificial wind supply, and a key mechanism that opens and closes the individual pipes to the wind. The reintroduction of the Greek keyboard started an enduring evolution of polyphonic organ music. We saw this for the first time from the beginning of the 14th century.

The earliest known keyboard instrument was the Ancient Greek hydraulis, a type of pipe organ, invented in the third century BC. The musicians could play this instrument with a light touch. Until the fourteenth century, the organ was the only keyboard instrument. Usually, the organ did not feature a keyboard at all, but rather buttons or large levers operated by a whole hand. Almost every keyboard until the fifteenth century had seven naturals to each octave.


Clavichord, Harpsichord, and Piano


The clavichord and the harpsichord appeared during the fourteenth century. They were both common until the widespread adoption of the piano in the eighteenth century, after which their popularity decreased. The piano was revolutionary because a pianist could vary the volume or dynamics of the sound. In its current form, the piano is a product of the late nineteenth century. It is quite different from the “pianos” known to Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. In fact, the modern piano is significantly different from even the 19th-century pianos from the Liszt, Chopin, and Brahms era.

Keyboard instruments were further developed in the early twentieth century. Early electromechanical instruments, such as the Ondes Martenot, appeared early in the century. This was a very important contribution to the keyboard’s history.


In modern times


Much effort has gone into creating an instrument that sounds like the piano but lacks its size and weight. The electric piano and electronic piano were early efforts that, while useful instruments in their own right, did not convincingly reproduce the timbre of the piano. Electric and electronic organs were developed during the same period. More recent electronic keyboard designs strive to emulate the sound of specific make and model pianos using digital samples and computer models. Each acoustic keyboard contains 88 keys; however, smaller arrangements have a minimum of 61 keys.


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