Types of Keyboard Instruments and Pianos


Over centuries, the keyboard has developed into the foundation of numerous instruments. Although the construction and sound of keyboard-based devices may vary widely, they are basically all played in the same way. Composers from Bach to Beethoven have used this 12-note melodic structure to create some of the world's most famous pieces of music.


  • The first example of the use of a set of keys as part of a musical instrument was the organ. Interestingly, the original idea of this instrument dates back to Roman times and centered around pipes producing the sound. The actual keyboard did not enter the picture until roughly 1,000 years later, with Nicholas Faber's organ in 1361. Since then, most organs, including the reed and the electric variety, have parted ways with the pipes, yet have held on to the keyboards.


  • Back in the 17th century, the harpsichord was the king of keyboard-based instruments, appearing in numerous compositions throughout the baroque era. Although similar in appearance to the modern piano, harpsichords have a very distinct sound. This is because the strings are plucked instead of hammered and so create more of a twangy tone. Bach, in particular, is known for making the most of the harpsichord, creating some of his most famous pieces on it; however, the popularity of the instrument gradually gave way to the modern piano.


  • The prototype of the modern piano was an instrument called the fortepiano. Invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori around the turn of the 18th century, it became the instrument of choice for the early compositions of such major composers as Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn. Not only does the fortepiano typically have only four octaves worth of keys, but on many versions, the colors of the keys are inverted. The basic mechanics are the same as they are with the modern piano, with soft hammers that strike each string. Because the strings are both shorter and thinner, the tone has more treble and the notes have less sustain.

Grand Piano

  • The modern piano has a number of variations but the grand piano is the king of the musical jungle. The largest of any keyboard instrument, the typical concert grand piano is nearly 10-feet long. Its size not only creates a large amount of volume, but allows for a complex array of overtones and harmonics in each note struck. Pianos of all kinds, even in the smaller upright variety, have thicker strings, which create more sustain and bass than the average harpsichord or fortepiano.


  • Not all instruments with a keyboard are string and mallet based. In fact, the melodica, which operates with same key system as any other keyboard, is technically a wind instrument, and one that can be held with one hand. The melodica is played by holding the keyboard, which is typically made up no more than 37 keys, vertically, while creating sound by blowing into the mouthpiece at the top. Because the instrument, which is usually made of plastic or wood, has a hollow chamber, it is quite light, typically weighing about three to four pounds.

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  • "Encyclopedia of keyboard instruments, Volume 2"; Robert Palmieri, Margaret W. Palmieri, Igor Kipnis; 2003
  • Melodica Information
  • Photo Credit Piano keyboard image by joephoto from Fotolia.com
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