There is a regrettable lack of harpsichordists here, and I wanted to fill the void. Ask me anything about harpsichords, the historical performance movement, the current early music scene, living in the Netherlands, what have you...

Proof: I am part of Duo De Jordaan, a four-hands harpsichord duo, and am the fellow named Adam in this link:

Here I am now:

Edit: It appears this has wound down. Thanks for the questions, and I hope it has inspired at least one person to take up the harpsichord. And then when you win a Grammy for best harpsichord-fusion album, you can thank this AMA in your speech.

Comments: 110 • Responses: 50  • Date: 

Sparksman918 karma

Any famous albums or tracks I might've heard harpsichord in?

What got you int playing it?

harpsipop11 karma

Don't know if you're a Beach Boys fan like myself, but there are many songs on "Pet Sounds" with harpsichord, and many from the subsequent "Smile" album. First song to come to mind:

More recently, Kanye West's "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" has harpsichord in the beat, which is kind of cool.

harpsipop10 karma

Anyway, I was once a pianist, but I became increasingly discouraged and disillusioned with the classical piano world. I took some harpsichord lessons and had a great time, and thought it would be something different to get into.

YHZ4 karma


harpsipop3 karma

Ha! Oh yeah. Not my favorite Beatles song personally, but a good use of the instrument.

Fixing A Hole is another one.

wakawaq7 karma

What is the historical performance movement?

Also, how many harpsichordists are there globally? Or at least in the Netherlands?

harpsipop8 karma

Historical performance is basically something that started as a fringe movement a few decades ago and has now become massively popular within classical music, to the point that music schools in the US have now opened historical performance departments.

Basically, the goal is to play music using the original instruments of the time, and in the style of the time e.g. playing baroque music using gut strings on the violins, harpsichords, baroque oboes, etc. A lot of thought also goes into looking at musical treatises of the time and figuring out how to read certain notation, and seeing generally how people viewed and performed music a few centuries ago.

This is a lame summary for a complex topic, and here is also a kind of lame wikipedia article:

harpsipop6 karma

Off the top of my head, I have no idea how many harpsichordists there are, except that the number is growing exponentially. I originally got into this partly because I thought it was a niche...but, I live in The Hague, and there must be about thirty-something harpsichordists living here alone, and it's not a very big city. There are probably even more in Amsterdam. There are still certainly less harpsichordists than pianists, though.

BarefootWanderer5 karma

What is a harpsichord? How does it differ from a grand piano?

harpsipop18 karma

I always tell people that it's the piano 1.0 It's basically the ancestor of the modern piano and was used in tons of music in the 17th and 18th centuries. Whereas the piano uses hammers to strike the strings, the harpsichord uses quills to pluck them, and you end up with more of a guitar-y, lute-y kind of sound. Also, unlike a piano, you cannot play louder or softer on a harpsichord and have to find other means of expression.

More general info:

billylooser2 karma

Could you give an example for other means of expression?

thenewaddition22 karma

Since dynamics can't be controlled by the player, harpsichordists would play in a room separate from the main concert hall. A specialized attendant known as the door-maestro would open and close the door to this room in intervals stipulated on the music sheet, allowing the instrument to be as loud or soft as necessary. Aside from a keen sense of time, the door-_maestro needed to be able to shut a door quickly and silently, a surprisingly challenging feat. The phrase "as quiet as a door-maes" was coined for this skill, and through the years door-maes became dormouse.

harpsipop7 karma


thenewaddition22 karma

Well it wasn't the only solution, just the most popular. Some players opted to provide the audience with insulated earmuffs designed to serve the same purpose. Instruction of when to apply the muffs was included in the program, but this proved less effective as the audience lacked a musician's keen timing. The practice was discontinued entirely after Frederich I of Prussia, future king of Sweden, accidentally tore out an earring during Brandenburg concerto #5.

harpsipop2 karma

I'm sorry people are downvoting you, since I'm reading these out loud to my gf now and we're both laughing hysterically. upvotes from me, at least.

nuferasgurd4 karma

Piano player here. If I recall correctly, Articulations such as staccato and slurs become especially important. Phrasing and Tempo are also means to expression.

harpsipop4 karma

yeah, I answered this somewhere else, but articulation is really key. if you want to emphasize a note, for example, give some space before and after said note. this can be really subtle, but it makes a big difference. timing is everything.

on a double-manual (double keyboard) harpsichord, you can switch between the manuals and put on various effects like the lute stop and the four-foot stop, which adds another set of strings. you can couple or uncouple the manuals. the sky is the limit, so to speak.

nuferasgurd3 karma

I had no idea it had multiple stops. Learning something new every day! How do you practice your timing? Have a metronome going or just play slowly enough to figure out where there needs to be more spaces?

harpsipop2 karma

Oh man, learning when/where to articulate is 95% of the battle when playing a harpsichord. I've been playing for five years and am still working on it, so it would be hard to distill into a small summary. Take time and articulate things you want to bring out, and don't articulate "soft" notes and phrases. Beat hierarchy is more important than in piano, meaning that you should emphasize first and third beats and never second or fourth beats.

You have to do all of this without significantly bending the pulse of the music, so it's certainly a fine line. I don't personally ever practice with a metronome, but maybe I should more often.

ariablackfire5 karma

Ever watched the harpsicord episode of the Addams Family?

harpsipop6 karma

Actually no, but I was just talking with friends recently about busting out the Addams Family theme during a concert. Nothing gets a crowd going like the Addams Family theme.

cosmic_punk4 karma

Do you study baroque-style improvisation?

harpsipop3 karma

I have basso continuo lessons, and as part of that, we also have improv workshops. Improvising French preludes, Italian toccatas, fugues, variations on old tunes like "La Folia"...frankly, I still suck at this, and it's something I'm trying to work on over the next year.

clls3 karma

do you live in Amsterdam?

why did the NS send you a letter?

harpsipop2 karma

haha, good eye. I live in The Hague. I recently got fined by the NS because they couldn't get my train card (OV chipkaart) to scan, and they couldn't prove I paid for my ride. so, I got fined for something that was their fault, but they're reimbursing me now. I fought the law, and I won.

teringlijer2 karma

What are your favourite night spots in The Hague? In which neighbourhood do you live, and are there any obscure local haunts you can recommend? Asking as a fellow Hagenaar.

harpsipop2 karma

I live in the area called the Zeeheldenkwartier (the "sea hero district") which is a pleasant area. De Paas is a great Belgian beer cafe near Hollands Spoor, and I end up there more than anywhere else. The city isn't renowned for its nightlife per se, so I end up at house parties mostly.

I do understand your username, by the way :-)

teringlijer1 karma

Ha! See you at the Zeeheldenfestival I guess :) Yeah, The Hague is a bit disappointing nightlife-wise compared to the likes of Amster-/Rotterdam, but it does have a number of interesting low-key places. De Paas is, of course, a local cultural treasure.

harpsipop2 karma

That festival is driving me nuts! I had to go to bed early this week, and there was always some funk band blasting music at 11PM. Maybe I'm just getting old.

_Scarecrow_3 karma

Is the "four-hands harpsichord duo" style of playing common for the harpsichord, or is that something you've pioneered?

harpsipop3 karma

I like to refer to us as the third-best harpsichord duo in South Holland.

but, actually, I've been surprised to see that there are hardly any harpsichord duos around. I think there's two sisters in France that do the same thing, but I haven't run into any others. we're thinking about expanding to fortepiano at some point, since the repertoire for four-hand harpsichord only goes so far.

jberd453 karma

Are there people making new harpsichords today, or do you play older models?

harpsipop2 karma

I answered something like this somewhere in here, but basically, original harpsichords are mostly sitting in museums and instrument collections now, and many of them are decaying and aren't playable.

luckily, we have many great builders who work from these old models and build replicas. I've unfortunately never played on an original harpsichord, but some of the most significant collections are in Edinburgh and Brussels.

low-karma-guy3 karma

what's the difference between a harpsichord and a clavinet?

harpsipop3 karma

a clavinet is actually an electric clavichord, which is another old keyboard instrument that people study around here. really interesting that 70s funk musicians turned this completely obsolete keyboard instrument into such a signature sound of funk and soul music. I'm a huge Stevie Wonder fan and have most of his albums.

thereallaurachick3 karma

On historical performance, obviously a harpsichord requires period technique :) but what's your opinion on the movement?

Are you in the strict camp (all early music MUST be performed on period instruments or at least with proper period technique) or the loose camp (eh, music evolves? As long as it's a meaningful performance it's good)?

Edit: I've studied piano for the majority of my life, but never could get harpsichord to sound "right." ;)

harpsipop5 karma

this is a very good question, and it remains incredibly controversial. if you can believe it, I've had some incredibly heated arguments here on that topic. I left out something "historical" in a piece because I didn't like it, and somebody accused me of being arrogant and thinking I know better than the composer.

I'm definitely not in the strict camp. I think historical performance is a great idea, and it has led to a complete revolution in the way we view early music and play it. it's great for people to be researching this stuff and experimenting.

that being said, if somebody wants to play Bach on the piano...well, why not? I can still enjoy it. I can enjoy Bach on guitar if it's played well, and certainly more than if it's played terribly on a harpsichord. why can't we have both historical performance and non-historical performance? I don't get why people get so worked up over this.

indigo21123 karma

To my limited understanding, the only dynamic you have to play with is speed and the two different volumes of the manuals. How does this effect how you interpret a piece of music?

Are harpsichords today constructed similar to how they were in the past? Does playing a harpsichord automatically make you baroque period specialist?

harpsipop3 karma

Having two manuals helps certainly, but a lot of harpsichords only have one manual. You can make a lot of different shades and colors depending on how you strike the can kind of pluck, for example, or you can push down aggressively like on a piano (which I personally don't like).

Most will agree that the most important tool is articulation. Emphasizing certain notes and passages by using timing, and making some space before and after the notes. It's complicated, and it's something I'm still working on, especially after having played piano for so long.

It's amazing how quickly you forget, though, that harpsichords don't have dynamics like a piano. There are so many other ways to compensate for it.

harpsipop3 karma

So, the actual original harpsichords are mostly sitting in museums and instrument collections now. Many of them are fragile and decaying, and playing on them isn't really plausible.

So, a harpsichord builder looks at these old instruments and builds replicas of them. Sadly, I've personally never played on an original harpsichord. There's a huge collection of them in Edinburgh, and also in Brussels.

As for the last question, I've been playing harpsichord since 2009 and am not sure I could say I'm a specialist :-) There is an unbelievable amount of stuff to learn about tuning systems, harpsichord maintenance, improvisation, basso continuo playing, etc. etc. etc. It's overwhelming.

AlexBerghe3 karma

Who's your favorite composer ? :D

harpsipop11 karma

It doesn't fall into "early music" really, but Debussy is my single favorite. I also love Ravel, Brahms, Mozart...

From the "early" camp, I really like 16th-century English music, like William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons.

harpsipop5 karma

Here is just a quick example of that sort of English music:

murica_n_walmart3 karma

Are you just as good at the piano as you are at the harpsichord? Is the piano just as easy to play or is it harder?

harpsipop6 karma

The technique is very different. I don't think anything on harpsichord is as difficult, technically, as Liszt, Prokofiev, etc. That being said, it can be really difficult to play "simple" pieces on the harpsichord and to make them sound interesting and expressive, especially since you're working with an instrument without dynamics.

So, is a lion easier than a tiger? I dunno. They're just different. My piano playing is a but rusty now, since I haven't practiced really since 2011.

ARandomResponse3 karma


harpsipop3 karma

Yeah, I had an electric keyboard when I was young with a "harpsichord" sound, and I think that planted the seed.

I love "Amadeus," and I have a DVD copy lying around somewhere. I'm not currently aware of any harpsichord takes on pop music, but...maybe that's my true calling.

I like rhubarb in pies.

The_Official_LUSH3 karma

Thanks for doing this AMA, as a musician from a small area, I love hearing other musician's talk about their craft!

Kind of a vague question, but how would you describe how you came to be where you are in life?

harpsipop2 karma

Vague is cool. I ended up in Holland because I applied for a scholarship that sent me to The Hague to study harpsichord. I guess I ended up playing harpsichord since I studied piano in the US and was becoming increasingly discouraged and depressed at the horrible state of the piano/classical music world, and I wanted some other niche.

More generally, I sometimes just randomly get ideas that seem like great ideas, like pursuing harpsichord, and I try to follow up on those and see where it goes.

flotiste2 karma

Can you play me a cadenza for one of the Brandenburgs? Just improvise something off the top of your head?

harpsipop1 karma

It's expected here that people either improvise their cadenzas or write their own in advance and play that. Improvising is something I'm still working on, but I can at least improvise a passable cadenza. Not Brandenburg 5 worthy, maybe...

RunDNA2 karma

Has there ever been a harpsichord pianoforte invented, that is, an instrument that sounds like a harpsichord but has the ability to play notes loudly or softly. Would one be possible, or even desirable?

harpsipop2 karma

you're getting into fortepiano territory there. the fortepiano is kind of the link between the harpsichord and modern piano, and has some attributes of both. they started to catch on near the end of JS Bach's life, towards the mid-18th century. I think it's a lovely instrument. a sample

RayLomas2 karma

Hi there. While it's far from its typical use, I fell in love with harpsichord on that track by Mellow Candle (ooold irish folk band).

Coming to the question - does it sound difficult to play? From what I remember they hated playing it live, and even recording was a great pain.

harpsipop2 karma

it doesn't sound so difficult, but the harpsichord is a really fussy instrument. it's always out of tune, quills and strings are always breaking...I would guess that playing this live would be frustrating, partly because it's a pain to haul around a harpsichord and keep it in playable shape for more than an hour.

Brianomatic2 karma

First of all, Id like to commend you on your fantastic intro. I recently saw two harpsichord players on graften street in Dublin. One being an adept expert and the other being an apparent novice whom was no doubt under the harpsichordal shaped wing of the expert. I personally found the display thoroughly entertaining both visually and auditorally (Not sure if that's even a word, I've been drinking whisky... Shhh!) Given the sound of this instrument, which I love by the way, Is there potential to expand the tonal range of the harpsichord? Possibly electrify the instrument or manipulate it entirely to a New set of targets to be struck by your hand? It strikes me as a potential percussion instrument and In light of drum pads and electronic devices in it's vain...I envision a total overhaul of the harpsichord and its tonal boundaries. I would like to know your views on this futuristic endeavour. If however, you are too attached to the past and heritage of the harpsichord then I apologise for my debauchery.

harpsipop1 karma

hey, it's always good to move forward instead of staying stuck to "tradition." I just answered a question about the clavinet which is simply an electric clavichord. the clavichord is a more obscure instrument than the harpsichord, but musicians like Stevie Wonder turned it into the key sound of 70s funk music. so, somebody still needs to do it for the harpsichord!

WilmotSigniorDildo2 karma

How did you get into (older) classical music? Did your parents enjoy that type of thing too? And do you perform with other (period) instruments?

harpsipop2 karma

I've played classical piano since I was young. I've answered it more in-depth elsewhere here, but I basically became unhappy with classical piano and that world, and thought early music was a cool niche to get into.

My parents aren't musical at all and work in science/medicine, but they dig the music.

A big part of historical performance is indeed playing with other instruments, a lot. Natural horns, sackbuts, lutes, you name it...I hadn't even heard of some of these instruments before I moved here.

kaptaincorn2 karma

Have you heard/played this?

It's from my favorite game on synth harpsichord.

Also do you think that the harpsichord will be the next sound we hear from pop music?

harpsipop1 karma

Ha, this is perfect for Castlevania. Never heard it before now, but harpsichord is incredibly popular for video game music.

The harpsichord sound in pop music has been around for a while, and you hear it in a lot of 60s pop--the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Zombies, etc. There is even an entire genre of Baroque Pop

indeedwatson2 karma

I'm a pianist but I'm interested in historical performances mostly from an interpretation point of view (can't afford a harpsichord, can't play an organ, so yeah). Where would someone like me read about articulation, in for example, Bach? I always feel doubtful when a piece like a fugue has passages that are either very uncomfortable, or impossible to play with "true" legato. I know it's not always meant to be played legato, but I doubt that whether it is legato or not should be dictated by technical limitations, as opposed to musicality.

harpsipop1 karma

good question. I think a good place to start would be CPE Bach's massive treatise, "Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments." like all treatises, there's a lot of stuff that won't apply to your question, but there are some interesting sections about what proper execution, accompaniment, and performance entail. also Turk's "Klavierschule."

the whole "play everything legato" thing is more a product of the 20th century and pianistic thinking, since the piano is great for long legato lines. but, it doesn't really work on the harpsichord.

edit: fixed my word salad

indeedwatson1 karma

the whole "play everything legato" thing is more a product of the 20th century and pianistic thinking, since the piano is great for long legato lines. but, it doesn't really work on the harpsichord.

I'm aware of that, but my issue is not about legato per se, but about how to decide when to play legato, when almost legato, when very staccato, etc. I mean, if every eight note is meant to be played detached from the next, for example, I feel that'd get boring because there'd be no variation in articulation. On the other hand, I have no basis to decide when to make notes jumpier and shorter, or more lyrical and connected, other than my ear and preference, but I always feel that it's not enough.

I'm not sure if I made myself clear, it's confusing even to me. But thank you for the suggestions, I'll try to see if I can find some pdf's!

harpsipop1 karma

it's complicated. I've been playing harpsichord for five years and I'm still figuring out how to articulate well in Bach, and people have differing answers.

basically, articulate notes you want to bring out, and don't articulate "soft" notes. keep beat hierachy in mind, mainly that you usually want to emphasize the first beat of a measure (and sometimes the third, but never the second or fourth). if you have like falling consecutive notes, you would slur that and not articulate. this is just one of 100 examples. take some harpsichord lessons if there's a teacher in your area, and it could speed up the process.

indeedwatson2 karma

Thanks again. I have another question, do you have a favorite version of the WTC? Or any recordings of yourself playing it?

harpsipop1 karma

Ton Koopman's recording is always popular. The first harpsichord recording I actually ever bought was Pierre Hantai playing the WTC, and I still think it's pretty imaginative and cool.

penguinhair2 karma

Hannibal played the harpsicord. Are you a serial killer?

harpsipop5 karma

I may as well throw this picture in here. I actually met "Hannibal" at a musical festival in Italy in 2009. He was incredibly nice to us sniveling musicians.

wakawaq2 karma

What other instruments do you play?

Do you enjoy contemporary music as much as classical music?

harpsipop10 karma

I've played classical piano since I was little, although I haven't practiced it much in the past couple of years. I can strum some chords on guitar,

Honestly, I'm surrounded by so much early/classical music on a daily basis, that I mostly listen to pop music to unwind. I love The Beach Boys, Stevie Wonder, favorite recent artists are Frank Ocean and Fleet Foxes.

Whenever people mock my love of pop music, I explain that I love champagne, but I don't want it at every meal. Sometimes you just want a Coke.

exploitativity2 karma

What's your favorite fugue or dance?

harpsipop3 karma

Bach wrote a lot of fugues. But, I think the fugue from the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue takes the cake. Truly epic. From the Well-Tempered Clavier, G minor from the second book comes to mind, and A minor from the first book.

harpsipop2 karma

addition: the fugue from Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin" is great too. not "early music" maybe, but still great.

oogiewoogie2 karma

How different is playing a harpsichord compared to playing a piano? In my limited knowledge, if you can play a piano, you can play a harpsichord. What are the subtle differences other than the plucked sound?

How did you get into playing a harpsichord?

How did you even manage to purchase a harpsichord?

harpsipop2 karma

  1. The technique is really different, and if you play a harpsichord like you play a piano, you'll end up destroying the thing. You use lots of arm and wrist while playing piano, and with harpsichord, it's almost entirely in the fingers. It's very delicate work, and it sometimes feels to me like doing really careful surgery. That being said, I think a good piano player wouldn't have too much trouble switching to harpsichord after a year or so of practice.

  2. I answered this elsewhere, but I studied classical piano and became sad with the current state of the piano world. I randomly took some harpsichord lessons, and something clicked. Fun fact: I was actually drinking heavily one night when I made the true decision to pursue harpsichord. I think it was the best drunken decision I've made.

  3. I actually don't have my own harpsichord yet, but I'm hoping to buy one in the next year or two. They're generally much cheaper than grand pianos. A good grand piano can run higher than $20,000, and you could get a decent harpsichord for less than $10,000.

estragonsboot2 karma

can't say i'm a huge fan of the harpsichord in general, but it can add the perfect accent when used appropriately, as in the end of john cale's "paris 1919" - it comes in around 3:38. makes for a more dynamic outro that would have otherwise been previously explored motifs repeating until the song fades away.

my question - do you know of any examples of the harpsichord being played out of context, so to speak? you spoke of the clavinet being appropriated by funk musicians in the 70' there any harpsichord folk-punk? harpsichord drone? harpsichord-wave? etc.

harpsipop1 karma

I posted this link elsewhere here, but it was really popular in 60s pop, especially as used by The Beach Boys

Kanye West uses harpsichord in the beat of Diamonds From Sierra Leone

There are also more contemporary pieces for harpsichord, like Ligeti's Hungarian Rock

noeljb2 karma

I know this. A harpsichordist is a string instrument, unlike a piano. I always like the music. How many keys on a harpsichord? and has it always been that number?

harpsipop1 karma

Hard to answer this, since the number varies widely depending on the kind of harpsichord. A "standard" for a double-manual French harpsichord would be five octaves. Of course, a 16th-century English virginal is much smaller.

hornet542 karma

What's your opinion on modern techniques used on transcriptions of Baroque and earlier works?

harpsipop1 karma

Unlike many people over here, I'm not super-intense about the "historical" thing. I can listen to Bach on piano and enjoy it just fine. That being said, playing baroque music in a Romantic/Modern style can yield some strange results

For myself, I believe only that I should learn the rules before I break them.

ScooterPops1 karma

What is the best thing you can get for like 10 bucks?

harpsipop1 karma

some Thai curry? that would be my first purchase.

Jacques_R_Estard1 karma

What made you disillusioned with the piano world?

harpsipop4 karma

I partly just realized how insanely over-saturated the piano market is. I have friends who went to like Curtis and Juilliard when they were 13, and who are still struggling to break into a performance career. I'm nowhere near that good, and I predicted a bleak future for myself if I didn't get out of there.

The piano competition world is also awful and gross. And I just have to wonder how many more recordings of the Chopin ballades we really need. There are just so many pianists trying to do the same thing, it's almost inconceivable.

Savantrovert1 karma

What sort of adjustments do you make with regards to temperament for historical accuracy? I can't imagine it's feasible to re-tune a harpsichord during a performance, so do you put it in Just Intonation for a particular key then build a setlist based on that?

harpsipop1 karma

Great question! The ideal situation is having multiple instruments available during a performance--for example, something tuned in mean-tone for things like English music, or Sweelinck, and then a French double-manual for Rameau, and maybe a fortepiano for some Haydn. This happens sometimes over here, since there are lots of instruments hanging around.

Elsewhere, this isn't so practical. When only one instrument is available, it's usually tuned to something fairly neutral like Vallotti. Nothing will sound offensive in Vallotti temperament, although some music loses a lot of character.

ekikoo1 karma

How much does a harpsichord cost and how does one get to play or even try out one in your surroundings?

For I surely would love to try one out, but there simply aren't any near me ;b

Also how do you feel about power metal bands bringing the (sampled version of the) instrument to public's ears, I'm sure there are tons of young people who first discover this cool sounding instrument via metal music.

harpsipop1 karma

You could buy a crappy, used harpsichord for $2,000 probably. A good and new one can be $20,000, which is still cheaper than a good grand piano. Not sure what city you live in, but there is probably a harpsichord somewhere around you--a university with a music program may be a good place to check.

I've seen Slayer live three times, so I certainly have no qualms with metal. If power metal groups want to throw some harpsichord into the mix, even better.

Coolguyzack1 karma

What is your favorite Scarlatti Sonata?

harpsipop2 karma

There are a lot of those sonatas, and some work better than others. I just learned K. 420/421 (C major) for a competition, and they're my favorite ones that I've personally learned.

Coolguyzack1 karma

A beautiful one! My personal favorite is the popular K 455. Do you ever find yourself feeling trapped in Baroque and early Classical music? Or do you go ahead and do whatever you want on the Harpsichord?

harpsipop2 karma

When I feel trapped, I sit down at a piano and start noodling. I play some Phish songs or Beach Boys. I went through a phase where I wrote pop songs, but they were pretty lousy, and I gave that up.

hanni90-8 karma

when was the last time you had sex and with who?

harpsipop8 karma

hey, I don't want to discuss that, let's talk about Rampart instead