Keyboard instruments are those such as the organ, harpsichord, and piano, which are played using a set of levers (keys) that actuate the mechanism of instrument. The origins of keyboard instruments probably lie in the Greek hydraulis (a kind of ancient organ type instrument), however its role in ancient and non-European music is extremely limited. The influence of the keyboard on Western music on the other hand is fundamental. Much about Western music, such as the twelve tone chromatic scale and the prominence of the C major scale, is to some extend a result the design of the keyboard as well as its limitations.
The earliest keyboards were actually played with the hands and fists, or even the knees, rather than the fingers. It wasn’t until the late 14th century that keyboard began to resemble the chromatic keyboard of today with sharp and flat keys being raised above the natural keys and a different colour.
Early keyboards also couldn’t play in all keys the way they can today. It wasn’t until the 18th century when J.S. Bach and his contemporaries discovered tuning systems which allowed keyboards to play in any key. Of major historical significance in this regard is J.S. Bach’s ‘The Well Tempered Clavier‘ – twenty four preludes and fugues for written keyboard instruments exploring each of the major and minor keys. This was the first work of this kind and ranks as a milestone in the development of western music.
Follow the links below to read about specific keyboard instruments.