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I am often consulted on what in my opinion is about the ideal temperature and humidity for keeping a musical instrument like a harpsichord, fortepiano or clavichord in its best condition. Indeed, this article on Humidity and Harpsichords was prompted by an owner of one of my instruments who wanted advice about humidifiers. Since this is an almost universal problem in our times where we have the luxury of central heating and air conditioning in the parts of the world where winters happen, I thought it would appropriate to offer all owners of keyboard instruments some advice regarding this vexing problem.

The simple answer to the question is: the best or ideal condition for a musical instrument made of wood is the same that is ideal for a human being. When we start to feel the effects of too high humidity, our skin feels clammy and our clothing sticks to us as though it were glued to us. Then is when we complain about the humidity being too high. Also when the temperature rises, what might feel comfortable for us where humidity is concerned if the temperature is around 72º F (22º C) will turn clammy at 85º F (29º C) and become oppressively hot and sticky at 95º F (35º C). Not surprisingly, harpsichord keys and jacks will fail to return when played as the temperature and humidity rise because the wood sucks up the humidity like a sponge sucks up water. When that happens the wood swells and fills every possible space.  

My solution for all the instruments in my environment is to maintain as stable a humidity condition as possible. I do this by avoiding opening doors or windows unless absolutely necessary. This reduces the exchange of humidity when it is wet outside or cold and dry outside. I use air conditioning when the weather is hot, which cools and dehumidifies the rooms in which I work and where in the instruments are kept. During the times when the weather turns cold, I am obliged to heat my shop to keep the instruments from freezing and to use a serious humidifier to maintain the humidity at around 37%.

During cold weather, if the humidity gets higher than 40% the moisture that is being pumped into the air by the humidifier is being just as quickly extracted from the air by cold windows and glass doors which collect condensation at that level of humidity. When the temperature plummets the condensation freezes on the windows and glass doors becoming almost glacial if the deep freeze lasts long enough. When the temperature again raises all that moisture on the glass melts and soaks into the wood of which the windows and doors are made and eventually rots the wood necessitating replacing the windows and doors.

The effects of excessive humidity on human health can be devastating as the environment becomes a petri dish for every kind of yellow, green, black and grey mold that send out spores which when breathed in cause lung and sinus problems. The dangers of harboring black mold, varieties of which are deadly need to be investigated should your environment be so humid.

I was visiting a family once who owned a small collection of valuable violins including one Stradivari violin. It was winter and their windows were totally covered with frost on the inside because they were pumping huge amounts of humidity into the air. When I mentioned that after 40% the excess humidity condenses on the windows which will cause them to eventually rot, not to speak of all the humidity that penetrates the walls and freezes in the walls and the insulation causing those areas to rot as well, the owners of these instruments pointed out that their $80,000 house was clearly expendable when it came to protecting their collection of violins. I saw their point but the idea of living in such an environment because of mold and mildew with which they were living should make them a bit more concerned than they were. To each his own. What can I say? The owner of this collection is a doctor.

When the level of humidity is really over the top, what happens to a harpsichord soundboard is that it swells up and having no place to go eventually "washboards" as a result. Wash boarding appears like the surface of the old time washboards that were used for scrubbing clothes. In the confined space of the frame of the harpsichord, areas will rise and adjacent areas to them will sink in a rise/sink/rise/sink pattern, especially between the bridge and the side of the case. When the humidity becomes even more extreme, the rise/sink/rise/sink pattern compresses further causing the wood to fracture at the transition points between the rises and the sinking. This manifests itself as a step in the surface of the soundboard that by all rights should appear to be a smooth contiguous surface. Then when the wood dries out at some point those fractures will eventually open and the crack appears because the now compressed wood doesn't "bounce" back from such severe compression.

Under these extremely humid conditions every part of the action also suffers, as the keys freeze on the pins in the key frames because the wood has swollen the bearing points shut making the instrument completely unplayable. I have only ever experience one of my harpsichords being subjected to this kind of torture and that was in Europe. It was as though the owner had drenched the instrument in buckets of water. In every case of excessive humidity, the owner of the instrument is responsible because keeping the environment suitable for human habitation means overseeing that the humidity is not so high so as to prevent the growth of molds and mildews. Living in buildings made of stone, concrete, cinderblock, brick or other such materials that love to hold moisture and transfer it slowly but continuously at a very high level, exacerbates these conditions. This is because moisture, like heat that always moves in the direction of cold, always moves from greater to lower concentrations until equilibrium is achieved.

One solution that I have that works for removing extremely high levels of humidity is to "tent" the instrument and place a 5 gallon bucket under the instrument and use a net of fabric, screen, or wire mesh to hold about five pounds of rock salt (like the stuff used in water softeners). As the salt attracts the moisture from the air it liquefies and drips down into the bucket. This will suck the humidity from the air first, then from the rug or floor covering, and then from the wood of the instrument. Whatever is the least hydroscopic is what will first be relieved of its humidity.

At the opposite end of the pole is excessive dryness. As wood loses humidity it shrinks. On a harpsichord or fortepiano, this shrinkage can amount to as much as 5/16" (7,5mm) across the entire width of a 36" (ca. 90cm) wide soundboard. When the edges of the soundboard are glued to the frame of the instrument as they are in harpsichords, fortepianos and clavichords, they are prevented from moving but all the free surface of the soundboard shrinks causing cracks to occur. Sometimes, if the dryness is of such extremity, such as I have witnessed on some of my harpsichords, there will appear as many as 11 cracks in the soundboard. These cracks usually first appear in the high treble area of the soundboard and then in the areas in the bass between the 4' bridge and the 8' bridge, and finally in the areas between the 4' bridge and the belly rail especially at the rosette. I sold a harpsichord to a college that stored the instrument in a closet. When the folks at the college wanted to use the instrument they would take it out of the closet to play it. Well, the closet was not humidified, had concrete walls that were all interior walls because the closet was under an indoor staircase that was exposed to direct sunlight. During the winter, they took the harpsichord out of the closet and found 9 cracks in the lid, 11 cracks in the soundboard, and 8 cracks in the bottom. They then asked me what to do about the cracks. I told them to cry a lot because with that kind of damage, there is not much you can do except fire the nitwit who suggested that as a location for storing a musical instrument.

When I know that one of my instruments is going to be expose to the rigors of mortise, I try to make the instrument in as low a humidity condition as possible, installing the soundboard at the lowest level I can achieve in my workshop. Likewise, when I know that the instrument is going to stay in an environment that has a very high humidity, I try to build it during the most humid part of the year.

A person from Finland ordered a double manual Taskin copy from me. Right at the very beginning of our negotiations I warned the client that because the instrument would be "living" in Finland there was a great likelihood that the soundboard would develop serious cracks because it is so cold and therefore very dry there in the winter. That person declared that all harpsichords that come to Finland get cracks in the soundboard so it would be expected.

My own attitude about cracks in the soundboard, especially those that are the result of dryness in winter, are a signal from the instrument that more humidity is required by the harpsichord. Should one occur it is not the end of the world. Cracks offend the eye but are otherwise not an acoustical problem, because in harpsichords there is not enough energy being generated by the instrument to make a crack buzz or rattle when the instrument is played. Should a buzz develop, as I have seen in museums the solution is to slip a small piece of paper between the two sides of the crack and slip the paper down the crack until it lodges firmly in the crack. That usually stops the sound of the buzz. The same can be also said for the clavichord. However, for the fortepiano cracks are more of an acoustical problem because the instrument generates enough energy to make just about any crack to start buzzing or rattling. So fortepianos need more careful humidification during the winter than do harpsichords.

Obviously, when your harpsichord has developed 25 cracks in the soundboard there are bound to be serious acoustical problems. That tells the owner that he or she is seriously neglectful of the care of the instrument.

What to do about the ravages of excess humidity or dryness.

It is important that when easing a frozen keyboard or jack that whoever is doing the work should determine which of the several bearing points in the action is the most frozen and use the file on that place first. The tendency to file away at the first obvious place where sticking is noticed will invariably result in taking the remedy too far and the keys or the jacks become too loose where the easing has been excessive or unwarranted. Analysis of the source of the sticking is extremely important so you don't do more damage from trying to get the keys working by any means irrespective of the damage you are doing to the keys in the process. If the keys stick at the key end where the jacks stand on the end of the key, then there should be no "air space" in the hole in the key where the guide pin guides the up and down motion of the key. The correct amount of air space in that guide pin hole is about 0,5mm or the thickness of a piece of heavy paper. The correct amount of air space between the balance pin and the sides of the balance pin hole is about the same.

It should be said that the correct technique for opening a balance pin hole to ease the key by removing wood from inside that hole is to remove the wood by holding the file at an angle designed to remove the wood at the bottom of each side of the hole but to remove nothing from the top edges of the hole so that the keys are snugly maintained in a position of readiness to move without being allowed to wobble on the pin because the holes were made too large. Should the holes have been enlarged enough a solution offered to us by the old instrument makers is to make a knife cut into the wood of the key from the top about 1,5mm from the side of the hole that is too large, then inserting a pointed wedge shaped sliver of hard wood into the knife cut in order to force the wood of the key over into the hole in order to close the side of the hole until the excess air space is again made right. Another solution from the old masters is to fabricate a wooden guide piece and glue it on top of the key over the hole that then becomes the means of guiding the key. Sometimes the old masters would glue a small piece of wood on top of the key on the side on which there was too much air space, thus making the key track more snugly. Do not use too hard a piece of wood lest you create a "click" sound in place of having the key wobble.

My attitude about wobbly keys is that all the old instruments have wobbly keys. So the question is why? Well the easy answer is that over use has made the keys wobbly. I don't buy that answer. I have noticed that keys that are too controlled in the manner in which they move on the pins and in the slots which guide the motion of the keys is that the instrument makes only one sound. Well, you might ask, since you can't control the volume on a harpsichord anyway what's the problem with that? Lack of dimensionality in the sound, that's what is wrong. The keys need to be free enough at the balance pin hole and the guide pin holes and slots to allow the player to move the keys in any direction other than a simple up/down motion in order to change the timbre, volume, intensity, and bloom of the plucked string. Harpsichords that can't do this are incredibly boring to listen to and not surprisingly, render those who play such instruments unable to play interestingly due to the insufficiency of feedback stimulation from the sound of the instrument.

So forcing modern standards of mechanical behavior on an instrument that is not from our time only makes the instrument yet one more boring machine available for punching pitches on and calling the result music.

Since actions rarely exhibit problems functioning properly from dryness, the only advice I can give about cracks is either learn to live with them once they happen or get them repaired by a competent technician who will likely open up the crack even more and glue a "shim" in the crack to fill it up. That operation is time consuming so plan to spend some money when you ask someone to repair the cracks. Only when the cracks have been caused by a breakdown in your humidification system are you likely to get insurers to help cover the cost. I had one of my fortepianos sent back to me from Europe to Michigan where my harpsichord shop still is for replacing the soundboard because someone who has borrowed the piano from its owner had left the lid open and one of the stage hands had turned on all the stage lights which heated up the soundboard to the point that it cracked down its entire length in several places, necessitating the soundboard replacement. The lesson there is be very careful to whom you loan or let use your instruments.


There are several types of humidifiers and I have probably used all of them at one time or other. There is no such thing as a best humidifier. There is such a thing as a worst humidifier…one that doesn't do the job for which it was purchased. Every type of humidifier has its own specific set of problems.

Vaporizing humidifiers are those that emit a vapor of mist directly into the air. Some are activated by electrolysis using salt as the catalyst. These are steam generators. Others create the mist using ultrasound or a spinning wheel that mists the water into the air that is then blown out into the room. Both types of humidifiers leave traces of moisture in their wake. The steam generators often spit more water out than just mist leaving water spots everywhere around the humidifier. The Ultrasound or vibrating humidifiers leave a calcium dust all over everything unless one uses reverse osmosis system water or distilled water.

The evaporating humidifiers are by far the most common types of humidifiers. The water is dispersed by air blown over a medium of some sort (compressed fiber glass, a water wheel with a sponge like material through which air can pass, etc.) and the action of evaporation creates the humidity in the room. The problems with these types of humidification are mainly clean ability. If they are not cleaned well and often they become breeding ground for bacteria and molds that are then blown into the air for you to take into your lungs. These tend to be the quietest operating humidifiers because the air is only gently blown over the media in the humidifier.

When I have let one of my instruments be used for a concert in a room that has no humidification at all, has forced air heating, and is huge, I will place a large piece of plastic sheet over the entire instrument right down to the ground and insert a pan of water under the "tent" to provide passive humidification. Since the air will suck the humidity from whatever source will release it the fastest, this method works for those situations. And sometimes this solution is necessary even at home in the event that the humidifier breaks down.


Whether the condition you are faced with is excess humidity or excess dryness, the solution is to learn to sense levels of humidity by using your nose. Your nose will immediately respond to the humidity conditions by becoming stuffed up when the humidity is so high that mold and mildew instantly attack your sinuses. If the humidity is too low, the tissues in the nose lining immediately become dried out and feel like they are going to crack. If you stay in such a place for too long you will eventually develop nosebleeds. If you have a constitution that doesn't react to environmental conditions, listen to what others are saying about the humidity in your environment and pay attention to what they say. The environment that is best for humans is best for musical instruments…human beings that is who pay attention to the quality of their living environment.


For years I have preferred to not sell my varnish because making it was and still is one of the most unpleasant experiences possible. The stench from the cooking varnish can only be compared to a combination of burning rubber, skunk, and raccoon feces. Though many of my readers will not be familiar with some of these odors, I can faithfully report that the smell, to which one is exposed from between 8-12 hours at a stretch depending on how much varnish you make in a single batch,is totally obnoxious. It is only during the last 30 mins that the smell changes to one that is quite pleasant. But that is no consolation to make up for that acrid terrible smell that permeates your nose, clothing, hair, and skin during the previous hours required to make the stuff.

Indeed, years ago I tried and was successful in convincing Georg Kremer of Kremer Pigmente in Germany to manufacture my varnish for me. I went to Aichstetten to show him and his varnish maker how to make my varnish. For a while they were making my varnish and selling it. But it did not take long for the varnish maker to threaten to quit if he had to make any more of my varnish...at least that is the story Georg told me about why he would no longer sell my varnish. Knowing how stinky my varnish is to make, I understood completely.

Faced with having to make this varnish myself, there was no way I would ever sell it to others...no amount of money was worth having to put up with the unpleasantness of making the varnish.

Well, now I have found someone who doesn't mind making the varnish and he wants to earn part of his income from making it. For this reason only, I am willing to sell my varnish to those who do not wish to endure the stench from cooking the varnish for hours on end until it is ready.

The price for my varnish is roughly competitive with the prices for small batch made violin varnishes that are already available on line at various different sites. I am offering my varnish for the following prices in the following amounts:

$135.00 for 30ml

$202.50 for 45ml

$270.00 for 60ml

$315.00 for 70ml

I offer a light varnish and a darker version. Of these two varnishes, the lighter colored is that the making of which I have described here in my article on making Ash Varnish below. These varnishes under UV light fluoresce opaque whitish canary yellow for the light. and greyish canary yellow for the dark. These are the colors of fluorescence descibed in every book that scientifically discusses the ancient Cremonese violin varnishes.

Anyone wishing to purchase my varnish is welcome to contact me by email at pictagoras@aol.com. Please use the words "purchase varnish" in the subject window lest my spam detector misroute your email.

The conditions for purchasing my varnish are that all sales are final and that the cost of shipping the varnish is not included in the price. I assume that anyone using my varnish already knows how to varnish a violin and therefore does not need to be told how to do that.

As I have already indicated in my article on Ash Varnish, this is an acoustically superior varnish. It enhances the sound of whatever violin to which it is applied. By enhancement I mean it makes obvious whatever the sound of the violin already is. The varnish is not magical, it won't make an acoustically indifferently made violin into a Stradivari. Rather it emphasizes what sound is there in the violin already. It does not improve the sound by making a harsh sounding violin more beautiful. It makes the harshness of the sound more obviously harsh. If the sound of the violin is dull, it makes the sound more obviously dull. If the sound is beautiful, it makes the sound even more beautiful; that is its real purpose.

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HERE FINALLY! This is a recently made recording of my violin Opus 416 played by Joanna and Laura Johnson. The first four samples (Chausson, 2 x Bach, Beethoven) are played by Joanna Johnson and the remaining 3 (Wieniawski, Sibelius, Dvorak) are played by Laura Johnson, all of which have been exerpted for brevity. The mp3 version has 3 moments where the sound was so loud it distorted when recorded on my Zoom recorder. Otherwise, you can use this recording to compare with my earlier violins. Opus 416 was originally made in 2009 and remade acoustically in 2011. This, incidentally is one of my smaller violins.

Click here for a Sound Sample of my Opus 416 played by Joanna and Laura Johnson

This second new recording is of those same 7 short sound samples of my violin Opus 439. The first four samples (Chausson, 2 x Bach, Beethoven) are played by Joanna Johnson and the remaining 3 (Wieniawski, Sibelius, Dvorak) are played by Laura Johnson.

Click here for 7 Sound Samples of my Opus 439 played by Joanna and Laura Johnson

Making a Beautiful Sound


Making a Beautiful Sound

Some Suggestions for Creating a more Beautiful Sounding Harpsichord

by Keith Hill © Manchester 2011

Here are a few tips for pulling the most beautiful sound out of the harpsichord you have.

Why do I bother to write about this?

Well, one of the drawbacks of a highly enhanced acoustic is that the soundboard is rendered extremely sensitive to how the action is played upon. That is, stiff fingers and wrists result in a harsh thin ugly sound. Even 15 minutes of playing in such a manner will result in leaving a permanent impression of a harsh thin ugly quality in the sound of the instrument. The soundboard permanently “Remembers” how the sound is produced. You have no control over this behavior. The only thing you can control is the quality of the tone you create when you play the instrument. The following suggestions are given as a guide to avoiding the worst possible sounds. The actual quality of the sound you make is largely dependent on the totality of the attention you pay when you are making a sound...that is why I consider the sound a person makes as a reflection of his or her spiritual nature. (Spiritual meaning having to do with paying attention to reality.)

If your harpsichord doesn't have a highly enhanced acoustic, you can still make the instrument sound as beautiful as it can possibly sound by following the suggestions below. That is because a beautiful sound as made by the player can overwhelm a mediocre sounding instrument. This is as true for a harpsichord as it is for a violin. The more you build into your imagination a sound that is gorgeous and can figure out how to manage your touch to evince from your harpsichord the best possible sound it can make, the more your instrument will continue to improve in sound.

It is one of the two oddest facts of musical life that those who have a clear and majestic imagination of the sound they wish to hear from every instrument they play are the ones who have the best careers even if these players are deficient in other ways either musically or technically. The other oddity is that players invariably play every instrument they are playing in almost exactly the same manner that they play the instrument on which they practice most often. Those who play on mediocre sounding instruments expect a mediocre sound to come out of every instrument they play and magically make every instrument they play sound mediocre. Similarly, musicians who play on a superb musical instrument tend to make every instrument they play sound in the same manner as their own superb instrument. I noticed these behaviors almost from the moment I became a musical instrument maker and nothing since then has changed except that I have gotten older and more skilled in my craft, but these observation remain unchanged.


1. keep your fingers always as close to the surface of the keys as possible. This ensures that the quill never gets suddenly slapped against the string.

2. when you are playing, avoid "pressing or pushing" the key down, instead "draw or drag" the key down with a motion of the finger which as closely as possible imitates the manner, quality, and shape of the motion of how large birds flap their wings. The best way to describe this motion is that it is a continuous eliptical curve which starts slowly, builds up speed until the bottom of the stroke when it snaps to rest merely with a relaxation of the muscles of the finger.

These two techniques avoid building harsh harmonics in the soundboard.


Hold down as many keys as possible to build up as much sound and resonance as possible. This overcomes the otherwise dry sound of the instrument. It builds a luxurious sonority in the soundboard. This is also one of the reason why I like indifferent damping. It creates a kind of acoustical “dirt” which the soul relishes and feels free to romp around in. i should inject, perhaps, a word of explanation here. I am fully aware that what I am suggesting by "holding down as many keys as possible to build up as much sound and resonance as possible" is harpsichord technique heresy. That is because it flies in the face of the "detached" style of playing that is required to make clear the sound of most contemporary harpsichords. My harpsichords are so innately clear sounding they don't require any articulation at all for clarity. The only articulation needed is that for expressive intentions exclusively. Holding down as many keys as possible to build up resonance can only be done on an extremely clear sounding instrument for the purpose of ravishing the ear.

If you play with the cognitive techniques (you can read about these techniques by visiting my musicalratio.com website), as many and as often, and as obviously as possible the soundboard becomes accustomed to sounding in a flowing, meaningfilled way as possible. It radically improves the ability of the instrument to play gorgeously, easily and assymetrically. Nonmetrical playing is extremely important to prevent the soundboard from absorbing a patterned "print" of the meters which will turn into a desiccated and edgy sound that is very hard to remove by the best playing.

Playing in a very singing manner, I believe, since I have yet to have a long enough acquaintance with any of my instruments (they always leave my shop as soon as they are done and I almost never see them again), but preliminary experiments on my own harpsichord (also a Taskin) indicate that this is the case, will cause the soundboard to develop strong color differences from note to note. My own instrument has become more and more "quirky" in the way that the best antiques are "quirky" as in charming, strongly charactered, both traits of which encourage a high level of thinking in improvisation, but never sound odd...only aluring.

Set up:

I much prefer a more uneven quilling than one that is perfectly uniform and even because it makes improvisation much easiler and effortless. It also makes for far stronger differences from note to note than does a smooth voicing. These differences only get more extreme as the instrument gets played in as they become impressed in the soundboard. Caccini wrote that notes with the same value want to be performed unequally and irregularly. Quilling according to my suggestion renders the instrument more amenable to creating a naturally uneven aspect to the music, which, as Caccini put it makes the things expounded upon more pleasant and natural sounding.

In a harpsichord set up with perfect uniformity and eveness, the only way to build the differences into the board is by having a sensitive yet flamboyant attitude and apply it down to the smallest degrees in playing, which translates into strong differences in how each note is generated and in how the different harmonics on each note get brought out or supressed. Since very few players exhibit this manner of playing, the preferred set up is a naturally irregular voicing.

The following may sound like nonsense, but, I know from experience that playing timorously or fearfully produces a hard, edgy, stingy sound. Playing with a generous loving spirit which is unselfconscious produces a robust sound, one that is brilliant but without edginess and colorful without hardness.

Probably the best way to build a sonorous and resonant impression in the soundboard is to roll chords, listening to the gestures created, keeping the fingers and wrists as relaxed as possible, and focus on generating as flowing and as "windy", as in windlike, an effect as possible. This is accomplished best by playing in a manner of conducting the wind flows, eddys, and outbursts using the wrists to provide the wind direction and gesture. This way of playing need not be so obvious to be effective--it is best when it happens more in the imagination.

Finally, play using the pads of the fingerstips not the bone. Just as fat creates so much of the flavor in food, the fleshy pads of the fingers create a voluptuous and flavorful sound compared to the bone at the tip of the finger. The boney tip of the finger creates a parched sound.


Listen to how each note wants to be touched based on the note that went before it. This involves intuiting the meaning of each note before you play it...no matter how fast the notes are passing. Each note, like each word in a sentence, is there for a reason. Otherwise, the composer would have removed them. Unless you understand the meaning of the individual notes, you can't give them their right expressive weight. How does that effect the soundboard. Mindlessness produces a sound that is thin, meager, and metrical. Thin, meager, and metrical has all the earmarks of scolding. Scolding has a sound that is horrible which is why it is so effective at frightening the receiver. Such a sound should never be emitted by an instrument used to play music.

The better a musical instrument is the more it competently clarifies to the ear the true meaning of a sound, a phrase, and an expression which is why good instruments are such good teachers to those who pay attention to them. The worse an instrument is the more it expresses only what it is: a device used to produce pitches and or rhythms. Contrary to conventional understanding about music, pitches and rhythms are not music. Music is in the meaning, as determined by the Soul. A mind which focuses on meaning feels frustrated and depleted when it must fight the instrument to get any sort of meaning to come out. A mind accustomed to having to fight to make music, when confronted with a real musical instrument with an impressionable soundboard, will produce a sound that is frustrated and depleted...which inevitably gets impressed on the sound of such an instrument. Anyone listening to the resulting sound, no matter who is playing, will likely feel the frustration and depletion and not understand why they are having those feelings. This means that when playing a good musical instrument, it is imperative to maintain an attitude that is open, loving, attentive, unselfconsciously expressive, and above all courageous, centered, calm, and generous...in otherwords, be your true self at your best. Such a mental state will produce an extremely attractive quality of sound on any instrument. An impressionable soundboard will only be enhanced by such a sound.

On Articulation

Articulation is an absolute necessity to make mediocre muddy sounding instruments appear clear. My instruments are nothing if not clear in the extreme. This means that to play my instruments with the usual amount of articulation makes the sound dry and hard...like soda crackers. Such a sound appears forced, self conscious, and overdone. Articulation on an excellent musical instrument should only be used for expressive requirements. That is, only articulate to create a more intense affect quality to the music and for no other reason. Legato playing sounds the best on a good instrument because the instrument is so clear sounding to begin with. So I do not exaggerate when I recommend that anyone playing on my instruments does so by holding down as many notes all the time as can be reasonably managed within the intention of the music.

I repeat, I realize that much of what I am recommending is heretical. But anyone with ears to hear will soon notice that everything I have written here is true. I only hope that these suggestions are heeded before the soundboard of any acoustically enhanced instrument is indelibly and permanently ruined by impressions brought about by a brutal touch and coarse insensitive playing.

Reports of Mozart's technique of playing the fortepiano suggest that he had a choppy manner of playing. This would suggest that he intended to articulate everything to a degree that creates such a sound. However, it must be remembered that he had to play on whatever piano was available and those having escapement were rare during his lifetime. Thus his technique of lifting the fingers the instant the sound was produced was a necessary technique to play all those pianos which failed to have an escapement mechanism; because if the keys were not instantly released the moment the sound was produced, the hammer would block on the string killing the sound. Interestingly, this technique is still being taught to this day despite the fact that every piano now made has a competent escapement possibility. Some things just never succumb in the face of intelligent understanding. Beethoven was also said to play with that choppy manner of playing until Clementi suggested to him the possibility of a cantabile or legato manner of playing; at which point he changed his playing style.

Every suggestion that I have made here is based on how the human brain makes sense of heard information. Since we perform music for others, it is their brains for which we must manage the making of music so that for those who love music but have not studied it for 8 years in conservatory will derive the greatest meaning and pleasure from the music we perform. After all, they are the ones who buy the tickets to our concerts.

I hope these tips will prove interesting and helpful

Judging a Harpsichord or Fortepiano


How to Judge

How to Judge a Harpsichord or Fortepiano

Keith Hill

© 1984/2009 Manchester
published originally in Summer 1985 CONTINUO magazine

Over the past years I have learned something about how to judge a musical instrument. In this time I have found there is almost nothing in the literature (a few paragraphs here and there) that treats this subject. So I hope that with the aid of this short essay, in far less time, you can come to judge musical instruments skillfully. But be aware that there are no real shortcuts. Like learning to judge wine, judging sound requires a high degree of attentive sensing. Without this essential teaching of experience, what I have to say will only amount to a bunch of words. So as plainly as possible, I will try to point out to you what things to look for, and what things to watch out for during your listening experiences.

It is hard if not impossible to discuss the judgment of musical instruments objectively without offending someone. People usually feel about musical instruments the way they do about their children -- protective and defensive. To me a musical instrument is just a tool. Tools are either well designed to do the job they were intended for or they are not. It's that simple. A poorly designed tool can actually hamper the progress of a workman. The best workmen in any field, be it medicine, music, or machine making, are extremely exacting in their demands on their tools. They will get rid of an incompetently designed tool and acquire another that is better designed.

Harpsichords, along with all other musical instruments built during the Baroque period, were designed according to the sound their makers wished them to have. In other words, the makers knew what they wanted their instruments to be able to do and how they wanted them to sound, and the shape of the object assumed the necessary appearance. Because the essential function of a musical instrument is to make sound according to the requirements of the player, the sound should be the main point of focus for judging them. As odd as this may sound to say it, most musicians judge musical instruments by how they appear, a clear indictment of our cultural negligence for all matters auditory.

The following hints should prove helpful.

HINT NO. 1) Listen to as many good antique harpsichords or fortepianos as you can. However, just because a harpsichord or fortepiano is old does not guarantee that it will be good. Still, the antiques are the best available standard.

HINT NO.2) Judge a musical instrument primarily on the basis of its sound and the way it plays. I reiterate, this statement might seem obvious, but you would be surprised just how many people misjudge on this basis. There is an interesting paragraph in Leopold Mozart's book on violin playing in which he frets and fumes about the human "wig stands", otherwise known as "blockheads", who are accustomed to judging instruments according to their appearance. He has even worse things to say about the instrument makers who pander to this trade.

HINT NO.3) Trust your own senses. If you follow the judgment that others have rendered before you, you may be in danger of being one of the blind led by the blind. If you begin with prejudices, you are likely to live up to them and no farther. Prejudices get in the way of clarity of sensation'.

HINT NO. 4) A high quality musical sound will always exhibit the following traits:

First: A musical sound is resonant. Let me explain what resonance is by saying first what it is not. Resonance is not a sound that booms. The booming effect is what most people use to determine whether a sound is resonant or not. They listen for qualities usually verbalized as "fundamental, dark and loud". The difficulty is that a resonant sound does exhibit these qualities, but along with others which this vocabulary is absolutely inadequate to describe. Booming has the effect that a "wolf-note" on a cello has. What booms sticks out like a sore thumb. This can be as true for one note as for an entire register. A booming sound will deceive you into thinking that what you are hearing is resonance. At first pleasant, this effect soon becomes objectionable to the sensitive ear. In fact, booming is unpleasant because it is unclear,especially in the bass. In a harpsichord this is especially disastrous, for in playing counterpoint, clarity is essential. In a fortepiano, booming makes voicing an accompaniment very difficult as each booming note always sticks out whether or not you want it so to do.

Let us examine these words more closely. To equate a sound that is "fundamental" to resonance is false. A resonant sound is perceived as being very fundamental, but, because you can have fundamental sound without its being resonant (take, for example, the sound of a sine wave), fundamentality should never be mistaken for resonance. This was the principal error made by many late nineteenth-century musical instrument makers. The musical result is a dull, uninteresting sounds in their pianos and organs, sounds characterized by a lack of clarity and distinctness in a sense of pitch. Such instruments demand to be played in an exaggeratedly articulate manner that, frankly, sounds artificial and stupid to most listeners.

Often, one hears that a "dark" sound is a resonant one. Here, the word dark may refer more to the overwhelming lack of upper partials than to the fact that the sound is resonant. Such sounds can often be described as "covered".

A loud sounding harpsichord is often mistakenly judged as resonant. However, clavichords, which are soft in volume, can be more resonant than most harpsichords made today. Resonance lies in the sound's quality, not its mere amplitude. The confusion arises because, however soft it may be, a resonant sound always feels full.

Taking what I have already said into consideration, let's look at what resonance really is. Real resonance results from what I call an intensely enhanced sense of pitch. How such a sound is constructed is the subject of a book in itself. However, I would say that the right adjectives to describe resonance are full, deep, solid, transparent, limpid, broad, round and rich. A resonant sound gives the feeling it is alive. A resonant sound makes the listener's ears feel that they are being well supported and filled. The louder a resonant sound is the more overflowing the ear feels. When the sensitive listener perceives sounds that are resonant, he or she perceives an intense effect of presence. A resonant sound has the pleasant effect of quickening the attention. On the more subjective level, a resonant sound has a pleasing sweetness to it. It is more like a nutty sweetness than a sugary sweetness. Michael Praetorius uses the word "lieblich". Early writers on music use the term "sweet" often. What I think they mean is this property of resonance.

When a harpsichord or fortepiano is really resonant, the effects can be heard from the bottom of the scale to the top of the scale. Each note can be heard to have the same value of support and strength as all the others. There is a definite sense of pitch: one that is almost tangible. Somehow, the pitch feels more real, vivid, compelling, exact and stable.

Second: A really musical sound is brilliant. Brilliance should be distinguished from brightness.

People will tend to say that a bright sound is a brilliant one. Nothing could be further from the truth. Bright sounds are gaudy, sassy, tinkly, prickly, mushy (yes, mushy), shrill, distorted, tinny, brittle, sizzling, harsh, acid and so on. Imagine a comparison of the sound of eggs frying or the sound of shattering glass. A bright sound has the effect of seeming to be flailing all the time, even during slow music. Mushiness can occur in a bright-sounding harpsichord when the fundamental is almost totally absent. When this happens the sound sizzles so much that everything played on such an instrument sounds run-together. To me, bright just sounds "HOT" but feels cold.

A very rich resonant sound is what we call a brilliant sound. Brilliant sounds have nothing lacking in their structural makeup. The lowest overtones are the most enhanced; they in turn enhance or strengthen the sensation of the fundamental or pitch. A brilliant sound has a sandy edge similar to that of a cymbal being played with a steel brush. A brilliant sound gives the listener the feeling that it is glowing. This is because the sound is perceived as being so deep.

In short, the difference between a bright sound and one that is brilliant is like the difference between highly polished new chrome and old, well-polished gold. One is glaring and the other is alluring.

Third: A musical sound is intense.

Regarding intensity, no deceptions are possible. There are only degrees of intensity. I usually grade harpsichords and other instruments on an intensity scale from one to ten. One indicates a degree of intensity so low that you might say there is none. Ten indicates a degree of intensity so high it hurts the ear. The effect of a sound rated one is that it leaves the listener feeling flat and tired. A musically useful range of intensity is from about three to nine, in general. For harpsichords and fortepianos, a useful range is from seven to eight. Most harpsichords and fortepianos built today range from one to three.

There are objective acoustical indicators of intensity. Just because a sound is strong does not necessarily mean it is intense. Strength of sound is a structural feature; that is, its presence is related to an enhanced overtone series. 1) The main indicators of intensity are clarity and transparency. 2) An intense sound carries very well. It also seems to float. 3) Another objective measure of intensity is the obviousness of the presence of tonal' bloom. I will discuss this in the following section.

More important are the subjective indicators. When a harpsichord is of suitable intensity, you get the feeling from the sound that the instrument is striving to the uttermost to give you everything it has got. At the same time it appears to be producing its sound with seeming effortlessness, like a good singing canary or a great gymnast. When a harpsichord or fortepiano is not of sufficient intensity you get the feeling that the sound is nambypamby, swishy, uninteresting or utterly flat. This is true even when the raw or refined' timbre of the instrument might lead you to conclude otherwise.

Fourth: Probably the most important behavior a fortepiano or harpsichord should evince is tonal bloom. Bloom is a purely objective feature in the harpsichord's sound. It is either present or it is not. Bloom is the effect or behavior of the sound appearing to swell or grow as it decays after the ictus. The following is a graph of what this behavior might look like.

You can notice upon release of the string from the plectrum, or the moment that the hammer strikes the string, the primary bloom, which is an explosion of sound, that is composed of all the partials plus the fundamental. The highest upper partials should die away very quickly. If they last too long, the sound becomes bright and mushy, obscuring the bloom. This is a major fault of modern harpsichord and piano making. The lower partials really only become obvious to the ear once the upper partials have cleared away. However, the lower partials have by that time already lost most of their initial energy. Following that initial energy loss, the lower partials hold strong with the fundamental right up to the final disappearance of the sound. Meanwhile the fundamental suffers only a mild loss after the ictus. In the finest harpsichords the secondary bloom, beginning after the first second and a half, is what endows the sound with its musicality: its dynamic property. Inferior harpsichords have little trace of this secondary bloom. The degree of the strength of this part of the bloom structure is an important determining factor for judging the ultimate worth of a musical instrument.

The bloom is very important to the musical usefulness of an instrument. It gives the player something to work with in the sound. Bloom sounds similar to the swelling effect that violinists produce with their bows. Another term for the blooming behavior is messa di voce. Messa di voce has always been considered the most beautiful effect a singer can produce. When a singer begins a note softly and gradually increases the intensity of the sound (not to be confused with volume), it creates an upward gesture with a single note which the ear perceives as very exciting.

Today, very few singers are able to produce a satisfying messa di voce. Even fewer harpsichord makers appear willing to control their work enough to produce a strong and consistent bloom. As self-evidently useful, musical, and good as bloom is, there are some people who don't like it because they get their tunings screwed up, mistaking the swelling effect for a beat.

As I indicated previously, you can measure intensity quite objectively by listening for the bloom. On a superior harpsichord or fortepiano, the bloom is so obvious that in some people it makes the pupils of the eyes dilate. It's weird but true. I've seen it happen. Such instruments will rate about eight on the intensity scale.

Fifth: Certain qualifying elements related to the scale of judgment are evenness of resonance, differences of color from range to range, tonal balance -- bass to treble -- and overall presence of tonal bloom.

The superior harpsichord or fortepiano displays resonance equally on each and every note. No note sticks out with too much sound and none recedes audibly because of too little sound. (This aspect is distinguishable from voicing inequalities.) Also superior harpsichords and fortepianos have pronounced timbre changes as you play a scale either up or down, while only the very best instruments display those color or timbre differences from note to note as well. This aspect is very important for the performance of polyphony. It allows each voice range and note to have its own distinct color. Usually these colors are the most different on German harpsichords and fortepianos, but all schools of antique instrument-making have them.

Tonal balance is an acoustical feature that cannot be affected in any way by skillful voicing. A superior harpsichord has a treble in perfect and easy balance with the bass range. The bass does not overpower the treble in any way wha tsoever. This does not mean that the bass is simpering: It means that the treble is so strong, resonant, full and loud that it proves an easy match for the strong rich bass.

Last is the property of an evenly distributed blooming behavior, without which a harpsichord appears active in one range and dead in another. The bloom is quick in the treble, fast in the alto, moderate in the tenor, and relaxed in the base.

Finally, it is important and necessary that a harpsichord have a pronounced timbre or tone color. If the character of the specific color on any instrument is too strong, it will limit the usefulness of the instrument for different types of music. When the tone color is too pronounced, the effect is similar to that of looking at everything with brightly colored sunglasses. In the Baroque period, the Flemish character was the most universal. Tone color imparts a certain amount of inherent interest to a sound.

HINT NO.5) The superior fortepiano or harpsichord is equipped with an action that is light to the touch but substantial to play. Besides a good voicing, which it is not useful to discuss in this essay, such an action, espicially in a harpsichord, should feel crisp (like breaking dry crackers) and fleet, should repeat well, and perfectly reflect every intention of the player, either conscious or unconscious. About this last, the best instruments sound glorious, but they can also make the players sound at their worst. It is commonly known among stringed instrument players that the finest instruments are the most difficult to control, like the finest racehorses. This is an interesting phenomenon. At the same time that a player is attracted by the sound of a great instrument, there is, for a time, a love/hate relationship with the instrument. This is because the harpsichord is so sensitive to every motion of the player's fingers that what the player will hear is his or her lack of control. It takes time and attention to learn how to control one's fingers so they will function according to the will even when playing on the most sensi tive of instruments.

Where fortepianos are concerned, the Florentine-Cristofori type pianos have the most responsive action but also the least easily managable action. Mafei in the 18th century comments himself on this property of these pianos and says that it takes a certain amount of practice to learn how to play them well. Viennese actions, what is actually the Stein action, are much easier to play and hence encourage bravura playing that can quickly sound empty-headed if the player is not careful to sing every line in the music.

It is not uncommon for some people to overlook the superior harpsichord or fortepiano simply because it makes them sound so terrible. Professional harpsichordists often select the instrument that has the action to best match their technique. This is much like selecting a violin because of its setup. I find it strange that players tend to select tools that put a limit on what they can do. That having been said, it is only the best players who always choose the best instrument having the most responsive action.

HINT NO.6) Don't pay so much attention to furniture when judging a harpsichord. The workmanship on these old instruments is neat, clean, and right the first time. On the contrary, most copies of antique work are tidy, tight and overworked. This indicates that too much time is being spent on furniture. Just remember, time spent on furni ture is time stolen from the acoustical aspect of instrumentmaking. If you can set a ruler to a piece of wood on a harpsichord and have it contact all along its length, you can pretty much guess that the instrument has had the life driven out of it by compulsive machining.

HINT NO. 7) Look to see that the joinery is sound. Large gaps in the joinery on a new instrument will either open or close as an instrument ages. Either way the instrument will begin to collapse on itself in time; probably not to the point of self-destruction, but certainly to the point of mechanical problems. Modern harpsichord makers avoid this by over-building their instruments to the detriment of the tone quality.

HINT NO.8) Musical instruments should be made "organically" (my term). They should seem as if they grew the way you find them. This is how the antique instruments appear that cause us to love interacting with them. Although age and years of tension on the frames of these instruments might have something to do with the deformation of the instruments, it has little to do with the unselfconscious roughness (even when the attempts are for refinement) that they exhibit. Seeing this in modern work usually grates against the present-day (plate-glass ra ther than blown-glass) aesthetic that favors the slick, chic and slippery (an aesthetic suitable and requisite for computers).

Exaggerated attempts by a maker to correct the natural tendencies of wood will kill the readiness of the wood to vibrate. On the other hand, don't take too seriously an instrument that is really deformed, no matter how good it may sound. As C.P.E. Bach says, moderation in all things. Nor should you dismiss a really great sounding instrument merely because the lid is warped or the veneer is coming unglued.

HINT NO.9) Don't expect a superior fortepiano or harpsichord to function like a piece of furniture. It is, in fact, as delicate a device as a Stradivarius violin. It should be treated as such. It shows poor judgment to expect the most from an object that has been granted the usual status of second-rate furniture. For the superior musical instrument to function at its very best, it needs constant adjustments to the action and should always be kept well in tune.

HINT NO. 10) You can expect a harpsichord, any harpsichord, to get brighter as it ages. This is just a fact. It happens because strings "crystallizing", wood embrittling, down bearing and soundboard torsion all dampen the fundamental. Usually, a two-year-old instrument will not change radically in sound thereafter. If it does change further it may be the result of how the instrument is played. Too light playing is as too heavy playing. Playing that uses a large variety of touches is the most desireable.

HINT NO. 11) You can easily fall into the trap of judging the sound of new instruments according to what you have in your ears from the last instrument that you played.

Approach each new listening experience as openly and as freshly as possible.

How you think about a musical instrument will determine your competence to judge it. I have found that the most efficient attitude is to set for your standards the highest level of instrument ever achieved for a given type. Then measure all instruments of that type against that level of quality, no matter who built them. Ascertain that the ancient lore that established this standard has been made use of. Any attempt to make "improvements" should be very closely examined to assess merits and demerits before you let it pass from your notice.

By seeing and hearing modern work and comparing it unflinchingly with the best that has gone before, we can raise our level of awareness to that of those builders who created before us. We have the examples; let us by all means use them.

I trust that these few hints will prove sufficient to get you started if you weren't sure about where to start, that they will be stimulating for you if you are already thinking about the problem of judging sound, and that they will provide a foil for those who already have theories and observations of your own. And I hope that this is just the beginning of the discussion.

What's New

Hill Violin Opus 409.jpeg

Click here for a Sound Sample of my Opus 409*

The violinist in this sound sample of the Vieuxtemps Violin Concerto is Laura Johnson, winner of the Denver Young Artists Orchestra competition in 2009, playing with the DYA Orchestra for this performance on my violin, Opus 409, made in late 2008 and finished in early 2009.

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