Technical Library

TUNING III: Harpsichord Tuning Process

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Harpsichord Tuning Process…

Tuning a harpsichord is not overly difficult, so first of all you must get that idea out of your head. A harpsichord is more akin to a violin or guitar, and, yes, it must be tuned. It has a few more strings than a violin or guitar, but you are equipped to be able to do it, and as an instrument, it has precious little in common with tuning a piano, in fact.

Tuning a fine early keyboard instrument before a performance is one of life’s great magic moments: It is my time, and my space, and offers the best possibility of coming to know the instrument in its surroundings.

You will need a reliable pitch source like a tuning fork, an electronic tuner, or a tuning app, as well as an appropriate tuning hammer for your instrument.

Here are the three processes you need to go through to accomplish your tuning:

1. Establish the pitch from your source. If you are playing with other instruments, you may need to be particularly fussy about the exact pitch of the a'. Today’s pitch standard is Sound 1K gif A440, Modern pitch, but many orchestras tune sharper than this. Baroque pitch is Sound 1K gif A415, a semitone lower than A440. Also becoming common is French Baroque pitch at Sound 1K gif A392, a tone lower than modern pitch. Some period instrument orchestras play in between at Classical pitch, sometimes A425 or Sound 1K gif A430.


2. Set the temperament appropriate to the music you wish to play. This is done on one set of strings (often the front 8⁠´) in the middle of the instrument, following a particular recipe. If you had to tune a continuous chain of more than a few fifths, you would quickly run out of notes. Tuners therefore double backwards and forwards, tuning up a fifth and down an octave if necessary to confine the area they are working to around or just below middle c'. You can find about Historic Temperaments in the Technical Library. When you’ve done a little poking around there, I’d recommend you look at Kirnberger to begin.

3. Bring the rest of the instrument into tune with your middle “bearings” area. When you are happy with how you have divided up the notes of the scale to produce your temperament, you are ready to spread throughout the range. Many tuners complete the bass of the front 8⁠´ choir by tuning down in octaves, then tune the back 8⁠´ from the bass up to the middle in perfect unison with your front 8⁠´. Then work on the treble of the front 8⁠´, and bring the remainder of the treble of the back 8⁠´ in tune with that, again in perfect unison. Finally, it’s time to tune to 4⁠´, probably from bass to treble, working against your front 8⁠´—or both unison choirs together, if you prefer. Then you are done, and can play some music.

Don’t spend more time than what you have to: Your aim should be to leave the harpsichord in better tune than when you began. If you’re a beginner tuner, don’t spend more than an hour. After that, it’s time to play your instrument. With practice, you’ll build up confidence and speed, and tuning will become second nature.

A good tuner knows when to stop.

Movie thumb 3K jpeg Movie 1K gif Harpsichord Tuning — Time-lapse
Time-lapse of Carey Beebe tuning a harpsichord at the Carmel Bach Festival.
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