Ultimate Guide to Keyboard Instruments

Keyboard instruments are those musical instruments that feature a row of levers that are pressed by the fingers. The most common keyboard instruments include the piano, organ, and electronic keyboards like synthesizers and digital pianos. There are also other keyboard instruments like celestas, which are struck idiophones operated by a keyboard, and as well as carillons, which are housed in bell towers of municipal buildings and churches. 

At the present time, the term “keyboard” usually pertains to keyboard-style synthesizers. Also, depending on the performer, the keyboard may also be used to control shading, phrasing, dynamics, articulation, and other elements of expression. It also depends on the design and intrinsic aptitudes of the instrument. 

The word “keyboard” is also used in historical musicology, where it means an instrument whose identity can’t be definitely established. One example is back in the 18th century, when the harpsichord, the clavichord, and the early piano contended, and the same piece might be played on more than one. Therefore, when they say that Mozart excelled as a keyboard player, the term “keyboard” is typically all-inclusive. 

The term keyboard categorizes instruments depending on how the performer plays the instrument and not how the sound is created. With this, keyboard instruments include idiophones like the celesta, wind instruments like the organ, string instruments like the harpsichord and piano, and electronic instruments like the synthesizers. 

History of Keyboard Instruments

person playing the piano

The Ancient Greek hydraulis was the earliest known keyboard instrument. It was a type of pipe organ that was invented in the third century BC. The keys of this instrument were likely stable and could be played with a light touch. From its invention until the 14th century, the organ stayed the only keyboard instrument. Also, most of the time, it did not feature a keyboard at all but buttons instead or large levers operated by a whole hand. Until the 15th century, almost every keyboard had seven naturals to each octave. 

It was during the 14th century when the clavicymbalum, clavichord, and harpsichord appeared. Both the clavichord and the harpsichord were common until the widespread adoption of the piano in the 18th century, after which their popularity faded. 

The piano was a revolutionary instrument because a pianist could change the volume or dynamics of the sound by changing the vigor with which each key was struck. The full name of the piano is gravicembalo con piano e forte, which means harpsichord with soft and loud, or shortened to the pianoforte, which is the Italian of soft-loud. 

The current piano that we know today is a product of the late 19th century and is far removed in both sound and appearance of the “pianos” known to Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn. In fact, the modern piano is very different from even the 19th-century pianos used by Chopin, Brahms, and Liszt. 

In the early 20th century, keyboard instruments were developed further. Early in the century, electromechanical instruments like the Ondes Martenot appeared, which was a very important contribution to the history of the keyboard. 

Modern Keyboards

Much effort has been put into making an instrument that sounds like the piano but is not that big and heavy. The electric and electronic piano were some examples of that. However, even if they are useful in their own ways, they did not convincingly reproduce the timbre of the piano. More recent electronic keyboard designs attempt to match the sound of specific makes and models of pianos by using digital samples and computer models. Today, acoustic keyboards usually have 88 keys. But there are also smaller ones with a minimum of 61 keys. 

If you’d like to learn more about these, you can read our Guide to Keyboards for more information. 

The Different Types of Keyboard Instruments

Here are some of the different types of keyboard instruments:

1. Accordion

man playing an accordion

Accordions are a group of box-shaped musical instruments. They belong to the bellows-driven free-reed aerophone type and are sometimes called the squeezebox. The person who plays the accordion is referred to as an accordionist. Some of the related instruments to it are the concertina and the bandoneon. The harmonium and American reed organ are also in the same family, but they are larger. 

You play the accordion by compressing or expanding the bellows while pressing its keys or buttons. Doing this will cause the pallets to open, allowing air to flow across strips of brass or steel, which are called reeds. These vibrate to create sound inside the body. If you want to learn more about this keyboard instrument, you can read our Guide to Accordions.

2. Carillon

A carillon is a pitched percussion idiophone that is played using a keyboard. It features 23 cast bronze bells in fixed suspension. They are modified in chromatic order so that they can be sounded harmoniously together. 

Carillons are housed in bell towers and are usually owned by universities, churches, and municipalities. The bells are struck with clappers that are connected to a keyboard of wooden batons. It is played with the hands, and its pedals are played with the feet. Find out more about this keyboard instrument by reading our Guide to the Carillon

3. Celesta

The celesta is also known as the bell piano. It is a struck idiophone that is operated by a keyboard. This instrument looks similar to an upright piano with four or five-octave. It has smaller keys and a much smaller cabinet or a large wooden music box. The keys of the celesta connect to hammers that strike a graduated set of metal plates or bars that are suspended above wooden resonators. 

The sound of the celesta is quite similar to the sound of a glockenspiel. But it has a much softer and more subtle timbre. Due to this quality, it has been given the name “celeste,” which means heavenly in French. It is often used to enhance a melody line that is played by another instrument. However, its sound is not loud enough. That’s why it is rarely given standalone solos.

4. Clavichord

This is a Western European stringed rectangular keyboard instrument used in the Late Middle Ages through the Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical periods. It features strings stretched across an oblong wooden box and a brass wedge or tangent. Once the key is struck, the tangent rises and strikes the string, causing it to make a very soft sound. 

Historically, the clavichord is often used as a practice instrument and an aid to composition since it is not loud enough for larger performances. You can learn more about this keyboard instrument on our Guide to Clavichord.

5. Harmonium

a classic harmonium

Harmoniums are keyboard instruments that look like small organs. Their sound is made by pushing air through metal reeds. Foot pedals are used by the player to pump the air. There are also times when hand-pumped bellows are used to generate sound from a harmonium.

6. Harpsichord

an old harpsichord

This musical instrument is also played by means of a keyboard. It has a row of levers that turn a trigger mechanism that plucks one or more strings using a small plectrum made from plastic. The strings of a harpsichord are under tension on a soundboard, which is mounted in a wooden case. It amplifies the vibrations from the strings so that the listeners will be able to hear them. The harpsichord is the ancestor of the piano. It may also feature stop buttons that add or remove additional octaves. 

7. Organ

An organ is a keyboard instrument wherein sound is produced by forcing air through pipes. Each of its pipes sounds one tone, and it is controlled using keyboards and pedals. 

8. Piano

a grand piano

Among the keyboard instruments, the piano is probably the most popular. It is a stringed keyboard instrument wherein its strings are struck by hammers connected to the keys. A modern piano has 88 keys, each one playing a different note. The piano is originally called pianoforte as it can play both soft and loud sounds.

9. Melodica

The melodica is a free-reed musical instrument that is quite similar to the pump organ and harmonica. It features a musical keyboard on top, and it is played by blowing air through the mouthpiece on the side of the instrument. When you press a key, it opens a hole that allows air to flow through a reed. The keys of a melodica usually cover two or three octaves.

Melodicas are small, lightweight, and portable. They are oftentimes used in music education in Asia. You can learn more about it by reading our Guide to the Melodica.

10. Jammer Keyboard

This is a recently-made type of musical instrument that is characterized by at least one isomorphic keyboard and thumb-operated or motion-sensing expressive controls. A jammer keyboard is made to make it easy to learn and enable the exploration of dynamic tonality. You can learn more about this modern keyboard by reading our Guide to Jammer Keyboard.

11. Clavinet

This is an electrically amplified clavichord invented by Ernst Zacharias. It was manufactured by the Hohner company of Trossingen in West Germany from 1964 to the early 1980s. This keyboard instrument has a distinctive bright staccato sound, making it great for funk, reggae, jazz, soul, and rock songs. Find out more about it in our Guide to the Clavinet.

12. Synthesizer

a synthesizer

This is also an electronic musical instrument that creates audio signals through additive synthesis, subtractive synthesis, and frequency modulation synthesis. It is usually played with keyboards or controlled by software, sequencers, or other instruments. It was in the mid-20th century when synthesizer-like instruments emerged in the United States. You can find out more about it in our article, Learn More About the Different Types of Synthesizers.

13. Electrophones

An electrophone is a musical instrument that creates sound through electronic circuitry. It might include a user interface for controlling its sound, usually by adjusting the pitch, duration, or frequency of each note. One of the common user interfaces is the musical keyboard, which has the same function as the keyboard found on an acoustic piano. The difference is that in electrophones, the keyboard itself does not make any sound. You can read our article, Learn More About Electrophones, to find out more information about it.

14. Continuum Fingerboard

This is a music performance controller and synthesizer made by Lippold Haken, a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois. It was sold by Haken Audio. It was originally created from 1983 to 1998 to control sound-producing algorithms. You can learn more about this by reading our Guide to Continuum Fingerboard.

These are some of the different keyboard instruments that you can find in different parts of the world. We hope this guide helped you in learning more about keyboard instruments.