The clavichord enjoyed centuries of popularity – from around the 14th century until the later part of the eighteenth century. Clavichords were considered a practise instrument rather than a concert instrument and were particularly popular with organists, and with ladies to play in their personal chambers. The clavichord produces sound by striking the string with a small piece of metal (usually brass) called a tangent. This makes a very quiet sound, but the player can control the volume, unlike the harpsichord. Because the tangent stays in contact with the string while the note sounds, the clavichord can produce a vibrato sound (in the same way a string player does on a violin or cello) if the finger weight on the key alternates between pushing harder and lighter. This is a feature unique to the clavichord among keyboard instruments.
The pitch of the note that sounds on a clavichord is dependant on where the tangent hits the string, therefore in the same way that a guitarist can produce different notes by moving their finger along the string, it’s also possible for a clavichord to produce two or more notes on the same string by changing where it is hit by a tangent. Instruments that use this feature are called fretted instruments.
They’re usually much smaller requiring a smaller number of strings, more portable, and would have been cheaper to produce as they used fewer materials. The disadvantage is that where two or more notes share a string they can’t be played together.
The larger clavichords have a pair (or course) of strings for every note of the keyboard; these instruments are called fretless or fret-free because no string is hit by more than one tangent. Some of these instruments also have a second set of strings in the bass that are half as long: these couldn’t be selected for a different sound colour like the harpsichord, but instead are there to give more power and richness to the sound of the bass notes of the instrument. Some clavichords were highly decorated, and these would have been popular with members of the aristocracy to play in their private chambers.
Because they’re a little louder than the smaller instruments they can be used to accompany a single instrument or voice, but this would have been in personal music making (rather than in a concert context).
Click on the image below to play the Clavichord: