1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Keyboard

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KEYBOARD, or Manual (Fr. clavier; Ger. Klaviatur; Ital. tastatura), a succession of keys for unlocking sound in stringed, wind or percussion musical instruments, together with the case or board on which they are arranged. The two principal types of keyboard instruments are the organ and the piano; their keyboards, although similarly constructed, differ widely in scope and capabilities. The keyboard of the organ, a purely mechanical contrivance, is the external means of communicating with the valves or pallets that open and close the entrances to the pipes. As its action is incapable of variation at the will of the performer, the keyboard of the organ remains without influence on the quality and intensity of the sound. The keyboard of the piano, on the contrary, besides its purely mechanical function, also forms a sympathetic vehicle of transmission for the performer's rhythmical and emotional feeling, in consequence of the faithfulness with which it passes on the impulses communicated by the fingers. The keyboard proper does not, in instruments of the organ and piano types, contain the complete mechanical apparatus for directly unlocking the sound, but only that external part of it which is accessible to the performer.

The first instrument provided with a keyboard was the organ; we must therefore seek for the prototype of the modern keyboard in connexion with the primitive instrument which marks the transition between the mere syrinx provided with bellows, in which all the pipes sounded at once unless stopped by the fingers, and the first organ in which sound was elicited from a pipe only when unlocked by means of some mechanical contrivance. The earliest contrivance was the simple slider, unprovided with a key or touchpiece and working in a groove like the lid of a box, which was merely pushed in or drawn out to open or close the hole that formed the communication between the wind chest and the hole in the foot of the pipe. These sliders fulfilled in a simple manner the function of the modern keys, and preceded the groove and pallet system of the modern organ. We have no clear or trustworthy information concerning the primitive organ with sliders. Athanasius Kircher[1] gives a drawing of a small mouth-blown instrument under the name of Magraketha (Mashroqitha’, Dan. iii. 5) , and Ugolini[2] describes a similar one, but with a pair of bellows, as the magrēphah of the treatise ‘Arākhīn.[3] By analogy with the evolution of the organ in central and western Europe from the 8th to the 15th century, of which we are able to study the various stages, we may conclude that in principle both drawings were probably fairly representative, even if nothing better than efforts of the imagination to illustrate a text.

The invention of the keyboard with balanced keys has been placed by some writers as late as the 13th or 14th century, in spite of its having been described by both Hero of Alexandria and Vitruvius and mentioned by poets and writers. The misconception probably arose from the easy assumption that the organ was the product of Western skill and that the primitive instruments with sliders found in 11th century documents[4] represent the sum of the progress made in the evolution; in reality they were the result of a laborious effort to reconquer a lost art. The earliest trace of a balanced keyboard we possess is contained in Hero's description of the hydraulic organ said to have been invented by Ctesibius of Alexandria in the 2nd century B.C. After describing the other parts (see Organ), Hero passes on to the sliders with perforations corresponding with the open feet of the speaking pipes which, when drawn forward, traverse and block the pipes. He describes the following contrivances: attached to the slider is a three-limbed, pivoted elbow-key, which, when depressed, pushes the slider inwards; in order to provide for its automatic return when the finger is lifted from the key, a slip of horn is attached by a gut string to each elbow-key. When the key is depressed and the slider pushed home, the gut string pulls the slip of horn and straightens it. As soon as the key is released, the piece of horn, regaining its natural bent by its own elasticity, pulls the slider out so that the perforation of the slider overlaps and the pipe is silenced.[5] The description of the keyboard by Vitruvius Pollio, a variant of that of Hero, is less accurate and less complete.[6] From evidence discussed in the article Organ, it is clear that the principle of a balanced keyboard was well understood both in the 2nd and in the 5th century A.D. After this all trace of this important development disappears, sliders of all kinds with and without handles doing duty for keys until the 12th or I3th century, when we find the small portative organs furnished with narrow keys which appear to be balanced; the single bellows were manipulated by one hand while the other fingered the keys. As this little instrument was mainly used to accompany the voice in simple chaunts, it needed few keys, at most nine or twelve. The pipes were flue-pipes. A similar little instrument, having tiny invisible pipes furnished with beating reeds and a pair of bellows (therefore requiring two performers) was known as the regal. There are representations of these medieval balanced keyboards with keys of various shapes, the most common being the rectangular with or without rounded corners and the T-shaped. Until the 14th century all the keys were in one row and of the same level, and although the B flat was used for modulation, it was merely placed between A and B natural in the sequence of notes. During the 14th century small square additional keys made their appearance, one or two to the octave, inserted between the others in the position of our black keys but not raised. An example of this keyboard is reproduced by J. F. Riaño[7] from a fresco in the Cistercian monastery of Nuestra Señora de Piedra in Aragon, dated 1390.

So far the history of the keyboard is that of the organ. The only stringed instruments with keys before this date were the organistrum and the hurdy-gurdy, in which little tongues of wood manipulated by handles or keys performed the function of the fingers in stopping the strings on the neck of the instruments, but they did not influence the development of the keyboard. The advent of the immediate precursors of the pianoforte was at hand. In the Wunderbuch[8] (1440), preserved in the Grand Ducal Library at Weimar, are represented a number of musical instruments, all named. Among them are a clavichordium and a clavicymbalum with narrow additional keys let in between the wider ones, one to every group of two large keys. The same arrangement prevailed in a clavicymbalum figured in an anonymous MS. attributed to the 14th century, preserved in the public library at Ghent[9]; from the lettering over the jacks and strings, of which there are but eight, it would seem as though the draughtsman had left the accidentals out of the scheme of notation. These are the earliest known representations of instruments with keyboards. The exact date at which our chromatic keyboard came into use has not been discovered, but it existed in the 15th century and may be studied in the picture of St Cecilia playing the organ on the Ghent altarpiece painted by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Praetorius distinctly states that the large Halberstadt organ had the keyboard which he figures (plates xxiv. and xxv.) from the outset, and reproduces the inscription asserting that the organ was built in 1361 by the priest Nicolas Fabri and was renovated in 1495 by Gregorius Kleng. The keyboard of this organ has the arrangement of the present day with raised black notes; it is not improbable that Praetorius's statement was correct, for Germany and the Netherlands led the van in organ-building during the middle ages.

At the beginning of the 16th century, to facilitate the playing of contrapuntal music having a drone bass or point d'orgue, the arrangement of the pipes of organs and of the strings of spinets and harpsichords was altered, with the result that the lowest octave of the keyboard was made in what is known as short measure, or mi, ré, ut, i.e. a diatonic with B flat included, but grouped in the space of a sixth instead of appearing as a full octave. In order to carry out this device, the note below F was C, instead of E, the missing D and E and the B flat being substituted for the three sharps of F, G and A, and appearing as black notes, thus: —

 D E B♭
C F G A B C,

or if the lowest note appeared to be B, it sounded as G and the arrangement was as follows: —

A   B
G C D E F G.

This was the most common scheme for the short octave during the 16th and 17th centuries, although others are occasionally found. Praetorius also gives examples in which the black notes of the short octave were divided into two halves, or separate keys, the forward half for the drone note, the back half for the chromatic semitone, thus: —

F# G#     
|    |      
 D    E   B♭
C F G A B  C

This arrangement, which accomplishes its object without sacrifice, was to be found early in the 17th century in the organs of the monasteries of Riddageshausen and of Bayreuth in Vogtland.

See A. J. Hipkins, History of the Pianoforte (London, 1896), and the older works of Girolamo Diruta (1597), Praetorius (1618), and Mersenne (1636). (K. S.)


  1. See Musurgia, bk. II., iv. § 3.
  2. Thes. Antiq. Sacra. (Venice, 1744-1769), xxxii. 477.
  3. II. 3 and fol. 10, 2. ‘Arākhīn (“Valuations”) is a treatise in the Babylonian Talmud. The word Magrephah occurs in the Mishna, the description of the instrument in the gemārā.
  4. See the Cividale Prayer Book of St Elizabeth in Arthur Haseloff's Eine Sächs.-thüring. Malerschule, pl. 26, No. 57, also Bible of St Etienne Harding at Dijon (see ORGAN: History).
  5. See the original Greek with translation by Charles Maclean in “The Principle of the Hydraulic Organ,” Intern. Musikges. vi. 2, 219-220 (Leipzig 1905).
  6. See Clément Loret's account in Revue archéologique, pp. 76-102 (Paris, 1890).
  7. Early Hist. of Spanish Music (London, 1807).
  8. Reproduced by Dr Alwin Schulz in Deutsches Leben im XIV. u. XV. Jhdt., figs. 522 seq. (Vienna, 1892).
  9. “De diversis monocordis, pentacordis, etc., ex quibus diversa formantur instrumenta musica,” reproduced by Edm. van der Straeten in Hist. de la musique aux Pays-Bas, i. 278.