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CLAVIERS BAROQUES -- Harpsichord jargon with definitions (a work in progress) -- updated August 25, 2010


arcade (n.) piece covering the front face of a key, below and perpendicular to the keytop, intended to cover the end-grain of the body of the key. Usually wood, but paper, bone, and other materials are also used. Non-structural but visible, therefore often highly decorated with moulding, carving, gilt, inlay, etc.  
balance pin (n.) metal pin on which the keys pivot  
bentside (n.) the longer right/treble side of a wing-shaped harpsichord, which is curved or slanted to follow the shape of the bridge.  
boar's bristle (n.) the stiff hair of a mature pig. Used as a spring to make the tongues return in historic wooden jacks. Wire, nylon or plastic is generally used in modern times although some makers still use boar bristle.  
bottom (n.) the lowest surface of the harpsichord case. In Italian historical harpsichords and all clavichords it is the primary structural member. In these instruments the bottom is made first and all the other parts are attached to it. In Flemish and French historical instruments the bottom is not structural. The case sides and framework were built first and the bottom was attached last, apparently after the instrument was strung and playing. In some cases it seems that the bottom is held on only by wooden nails or pegs, not glued, perhaps for subsequent repair access? On many revival instruments (Hertz, Ammer, etc.) the bottom is omitted entirely.  

(n.) strip of wood on the soundboard which limits the sounding length of the strings at the far (tail) end of the instrument. It curves to follow the line of the strings as they increase in sounding length from the treble to the bass. The photo of a Canadian single at left clearly shows the pearwood bridge.


bridge pin (n.) brass pin inserted in the bridge to position the string as it passes across it toward the hitchpin.  
buff batten (n.) a strip of wood under the strings, usually positioned close to the nut, whose purpose is to hold small pieces of felt, leather or sometimes rubber (sometimes called buffs, buff felts, etc.) so that they can be made to contact the strings if desired.  
buff stop (n.) a muted or lute-like effect produced by slightly damping a string when it is plucked. Usually achieved by means of a sliding stick (buff batten, see above) which can be moved so that when it is engaged the buffs touch all the strings of one choir. Also called lute stop.  
Celcon® (n. or adj) an acetal copolymer (type of plastic) made by Celanese AG. Used for plectra. as in, "Quilled in Celcon."  
cheek (n.) the shortest side of a harpsichord, connected to the bentside and opposite the spine, usu. to the right (treble) side of the wrestplank.  
choir [of strings] (n.) a full set of strings from treble to bass. On harpsichords with more than one set of strings they are named according to the length and position of the rank of jacks that plucks them, eg. four-foot choir, front (or back) eight-foot choir.  
coupler dog    
cut-off bar    
Delrin® (n.) a high-molecular weight plastic made by Dupont Industries. Often used in harpsichords for moulded jacks and for plectra.  
double or double-manual (adj.) a harpsichord having two manuals (keyboards), often truncated to 'double', eg "French double"  
double-strung (n.) having two sets of strings per note. On a harpsichord, each of the pair is plucked by its own jack and the player can chose to engage either or both strings when playing. On a clavichord or piano the tangent or hammer always strikes both strings of the pair simultaneously. see also single-strung, triple strung.  
eight-foot hitchpin rail    
eight-foot nut    
fall-board (noun) a board which covers the keyboard of a harpsichord when not in use. Most usually found on Flemish and Franco-Flemish instruments. Historically fall-boards were attached to the bottom of the instrument and hung down when the keyboard was opened for playing. On modern harpsichords they are generally removable to permit the player to play while seated.  
four-foot hitchpin rail    
four-foot nut    
fretted (adj.) of a musical instrument. For clavichords it denotes that some of the strings are shared by two or more notes, that is, the tangents from two or more adjoining keys strike one string, which means that those adjoining notes cannot be played simultaneously and that tuning changes of temperament are difficult or impossible. For other stringed instruments it denotes a method of fixing the sounding length of the string usually by means of a raised piece on the neck of the instrument, eg. lutes and members of the gamba family use pieces of gut tied onto the neck as frets, guitars have inset strips of wood or metal. See also unfretted. August 25, 2010 >gap    
jack rail    
lower belly rail    
lower frame    
lute stop    
manual (n.) keyboard of an instrument, eg harpsichord, organ, clavichord, etc.  
music desk    
name batten    
name board    
nasal or nasale

(n.) (naZAHL) a rank found on some historic harpsichords made by builders such as Dulcken (Flemish), Shudi (German/English) and Kirckman (German/English). This rank was intended to pluck one of the 8' choirs of strings close to the nut to produce a nasal tone. In order to accomplish this a cut was made in the wrestplank and a register for the jacks was inserted, moving the pluck-point to within a centimeter or so of the nut.

The wrestplank is a structural member as well as holding the tuning pins. It appears that cutting it in this way weakens the case structure so that it cannot withstand the pull of the additional rank of strings. Most historic harpsichords of this design have failed, as have most modern instruments incorporating this feature.


nut (n.) strip of wood on the soundboard which limits the sounding length of the strings at the near (keyboard) end of the instrument, usually near the tuning pins. It is usually straight or may curve slightly.
nutpin (n.) a pin on the nut of a harpsichord or other stringed instrument which limits the sounding length of the strings at the near (keyboard) end of the instrument, usually near the tuning pins  
peau de bouffle (n.) lit. skin of a buffalo. a rank of jacks in a harpsichord which are quilled in leather. It is now generally believed that the historical peau de bouffle stroked the strings in the manner of a bow rather than plucking, but most present-day peaus de bouffle are one rank of jacks quilled in leather which pluck the string in the normal way. The leather is quieter than regular bird or plastic quills, sounds something between a regular pluck and a buff stop.  
plectrum (n.) (pl. plectra) the thing which plucks the string. On a harpsichord it is installed in the jack.  
plein jeu (adj,) lit: "full play", ie playing with all the registers engaged. Also called "full up"  
propstick (n.) stick which holds a harpsichord's lid up  
quill (n.) harpsichord plectrum, originally bird quill, now commonly plastic (see Delrin and Celcon) . On some instruments, esp. 'revival ' harpsichords, leather or even metal have been used. 2.) (v.t.) to install plectra, eg 'quill in Celcon'  
rank set of jacks  
red brass    
reverse keyboard (n.) keyboard on which the naturals are black and the sharps white, the reverse of the usual piano keyboard. On harpsichords, the black naturals may be ebony, grenadilla, dyed pear or any other black wood. The sharps are usually African blackwood or other black wood topped with thin slips of white cowbone (traditional) or plastic (modern). Ivory is occasionally found on revival instruments but was not used on historic instruments, which predated the exploitation of elephants in Africa and India.  
short octave    
shove coupler    
single-strung (adj.) having one string for each note or, in the case of fretted clavichords, one string per set of notes. See also double-strung.  
sounding length (n.) the length of that portion of the string of a stringed instrument actually makes the sound; on harpsichords and similar it is the span of wire between the nutpin and the bridgepin. This measurement is used in determining the type and diameter of wire needed to yield the desired note.  
spine (n.) the longest side of a harpsichord, usu. to the left (bass) side of the wrestplank.  
spinet (n.) a harpsichord, generally wing-shaped or triangular, which has the keyboard set into the bentside to save space. The strings then run side-to-side with respect to the player. The lid is usually hinged on the spine side which reflects the sound back to the player.  
stand (n.) a structure for supporting an instrument. Harpsichord and clavichord stands typically are separate from the instrument and consist of a set of legs joined by an apron, like a table without a top, and corresponding in shape to the instrument it holds. Stands can be ornamental as well as functional and historically were carved, gilded and decorated, sometimes quite lavishly.  
stop lever    
stringing list same as stringing schedule  
stringing schedule    
temperament (n.) any method of distributing the tones of a musical octave. In most Western music the octave is divided into twelve tones, and the most common Western temperament is equal temperament (ET), in which the twelve tones are evenly spaced. Unequal temperaments, which include most baroque and world music scales, result in differences in the harmonics of different keys, so music written for a given key will sound somewhat different if transposed to another key.  
tuning hammer    
tuning fork    
unfretted (adj.) of a musical instrument. For clavichords it denotes that each note has its own string. This allows all combinations of notes to be played simultaneously, and also permits retuning to different temperaments. For other stringed instruments it means that the neck is smooth so that the player is free to play an infinite range of notes; being unfretted is a defining characteristic of the violin family as distinct from the gamba family. See also fretted.  
upper belly rail    
upper frame    
voice (vt) to make a plectrum give the desired sound and touch, usually by carving away material.  
wrest pin    
wrest plank

(n.) a large, thick piece of wood (plank), usually of oak but occasionally of maple or other strong, slightly flexible hardwood, to which the strings of a harpsichord (and many other keyboard instruments) are attached by means of tuning pins. It is a major structural member of the case; together with the hitchpin rail it bears all the pressure of the strings. It is usually situated above the keyboard and may or may not be covered with a veneer of soundboard wood. Typically it will be 1 to 2" thick ( 2.5 to 5 cm) and as wide as the instrument across the keyboard.

[right] photo of a wrestplank newly installed in Canadian Single Ivan

yellow brass    







Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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last updated August 25, 2010