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CLAVIERS BAROQUES -- most-asked questions

Q. How much do harpsichords cost?

*Good* harpsichords start at around $10,000 CAD for a new single manual instrument, such as our Canadian single, and go up to $25,000 CAD for a new French or Flemish or German double. Large singles such as the Flemish and bigger Iberian types will run up to $15,000 CAD or so, depending on size. Here are prices for some of the models we build to give you an idea. BTW, spinets cost about the same as regular single-manual instruments -- they aren't really any smaller, they are just a different shape so they take up less wall space. Also, the prices here are for instruments without fancy decoration. A soundboard painting can cost as much as the instrument, and full-out fancy decoration can triple or quadruple the cost of a new instrument.

Q. What about used instruments? Are they cheaper?

We find that 'pedigree' instruments hold their value so there are not many bargains around. Only two of the instruments we built have been resold, one went for its original price, the other went for more! Even a modest used Flemish single such as the ones from the '70's Zuckermann kits are fetching $5,000 to $6,000 these days. That's not a lot for a professional-quality concert instrument, but still a significant amount. On the other hand, a good quality harpsichord, especially a smaller one, can hold its value and even appreciate if properly maintained, so you can think of it as an investment, not an expense. Larger instruments have a different pattern. Currently we are finding that even good double manual-instruments tend to slide in value to maybe 75% of the cost of their new counterparts or less. We think that is probably because they are just bigger and cost more so there is not such a ready market for them, owners will take a lower price to get them out of the house!

Q. But I don't have very much money and I really, really want a harpsichord!

Playable used instruments are available in the $1,000 - $2,000 range, but a cheap harpsichord can sometimes be worse than none. The ones we see in the lower price bracket are usually factory instruments from the '60's. They tend have piano-weight keys, gadgetty jacks and shifter mechanisms, often leather plectra, and always stiff soundboards -- some are even metal. The result is that you do not get the true harpsichord feel or sound, and especially you do not get the sustain that a good harpsichord produces, so your phrasing is thrown off. You can use them for practice, I suppose, but it would be like practicing on a manual typewriter for your computer keyboard exam -- yes, the keys are mostly in the same place, but the feel is very different and getting good on the one might actually slow you down for the other. These instruments are also built like tanks, the German ones especially, and very heavy so shipping them can get expensive and even moving them is a two or three person project. There were also a number of self-taught 'local genius' harpsichord builders in the 60's and 70's whose work is, um, often not very good, and occasionally spectacularly bad.

I am always unhappy when these 'cheap harpsichords' go to a serious student and especially when they are bought for a child. The parents say, "Oh, we don't want to sink a lot of money into a harpsichord until we find out if s/he is going to stick with it." Well, if they get their child a bad harpsichord s/he will not be able to make music on it no matter how hard they try and *of course* they won't continue. The child is frustrated and may conclude that they are not musical. In fact, the more musical they are the more likely they are to reject a bad instrument! But they don't know that its not their fault, that the harpsichord they were given was not actually a musical instrument. The world may loose a musician; the parents, however, will be relieved that they didn't waste more money. Sigh. I don't feel so bad if an adult buys one to play for their own pleasure, they understand the shortcomings and the compromises involved and maybe someday they will decide to trade up.

Another option to consider, esp if this is for a short-range project, is to rent a *decent* instrument for a few months or whatever. We have some prices and stuff on our website, see our rental page. That would get you a good instrument and make the most of your harpsichord budget *and* your practice time. Bonus! You could even rent out practice time on it to other people, which would help defray the cost. Again, depends on where you are but if you are not near us we know instruments in a lot of places and might be able to fix you up with something in your area. OK, OK, here is how to get a really cheap harpsichord.

Q. Do I have to tune it?

Yes.

But it's not hard. Guitar players tune, violin players tune, harpists tune, even viola players tune! If viola players can tune, you can tune (sorry, a viola joke). With the electronic meters available nowadays it's pretty foolproof. You will get very fast at tuning once you get to know your instrument. We find that a single-manual instrument only needs maybe 10-15 minutes per week to keep it in tune -- like dusting, keep it done and it's never a big job. A two-minute tuning ritual is a nice way to compose yourself for playing and way more fun than scalOctober 8, 2010 a great way to make sure that everything is working properly -- like washing your motorcycle or brushing your horse. And the great advantage is that you are always playing in tune!

Q. Don't they go out of tune when the weather changes?

Harpsichords aren't bothered much by changes in temperature. They will go sharp in humid weather and flat in dry, because they are made of wood and wood will expand when moist and contract when dry. The strings will then become slighly more tight or more slack, ergo slightly sharpening or flattening the notes. In the average house this doesn't happen so fast or so much as to be a problem and most times the whole instrument will go sharper or flatter together. If it's a minor change in humidity, eg, goes from a normal 50% to 80% on a rainy day, we advise just touching it up to get it back in tune with itself, which will do for most playing. When the sun comes back out and the humidity returns to normal it will go back to its proper pitch. (note: if you live in Vancouver, Seattle or such-like, reverse these instructions).

Q. What humidity do harpsichords need?

Ideal humidity for harpsichords is between 40% and 60%. We really really recommend that all harpsichord owners have a hygrometer so they can keep an eye on the humidity. Mostly a harpsichord is happy anywhere that people and plants are happy, so if you have healthy houseplants your harpsichord should be fine. For short periods harpsichords can handle higher humidity, although if it continues for more than a couple of days you might want to retune to a 'real' 440 or whatever pitch your harpischord lives at, to lessen the strain on the case and to avoid broken strings. Note: You may notice that your harpsichord doesn't sound as nice in damp weather, the moisture deadens the soundboard a bit, but it'll go back to normal when it dries out.

For long-term changes in humidity check your harpsichord to a tuning meter or tuning fork, this is especially important when the house heating comes on/goes off for the season. Air conditioning is great, it usually keeps humidity fairly constant as well temperature. *Long* exposure to *extreme* dry or *exteme* high humidity can cause permanent damage. If the air is so dry as to cause H2O molecules to be forced from organic molecules they will disintegrate. Wood and glue are organic, so long periods of extreme dryness threatens all your wooden furniture, not to mention being hard on people, pets and plants. How long? After a week or two at low humidity, say 20% or less, we would worry about the glue failing from dehydration, followed by the wood becoming brittle. On the other hand, several weeks at high humidity, say 90% or more, can also cause permanent damage. Too much moisture in the air can soften glues, cause the soundboard to bow up or (worse) down, and we have even seen mold growing on soundboards. Where 'very humid' or 'very dry' is a condition of your house or the part of the world you live in we recommend either (a.) a humidifier or dehumidifier or a combination to keep the humidity in the safe range, and/or (b.) having your harpsichord built in the conditions that it will live in.

Q. Why are the 'white' keys black and the sharps white, opposite to a piano?

The so-called 'reverse keyboard' was fashionable in France during the 1700's. It was used on a famous harpsichord build in 1769 by Pascal Taskin. This was the first historical harpsichord to be copied in modern times (late 1800's), by the Pleyel Piano company of Paris, and set the style for the other harpsichord 'revivers' of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We have come to think of it as standard for harpsichords, although it was not typical in other countries or at other times. The Italians topped their keys with a light hard wood, typically boxwood, and used a darker wood, usually a fruitwood such as pear or cherry, for the sharps. Keyboards of historical Flemish instruments look quite 'normal' to us, with white naturals -- covered with slips of cowbone, not ivory -- and black sharps made of ebony, blackwood, grenadilla or pearwood dyed black. Use of ivory for instrument keys is quite late, around 1820, and corresponds with the European conquest of India and Africa, the industrial revolution -- and the development of 'elephant guns.'

Do you have a specific question? Perhaps we can help via a phone call or private e-mail, feel free to contact us.

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last updated August 21, 2005