I have come across books similar to L'Art de Toucher le Clavecin, but written by English Composers. One such book "The Art of Playing the Harpsichord" IMSLP page and similar works have dynamics marked in some of the lessons. An excerpt can be seen here:

Scanned sheet music

Since the book was published around 1770, usually books of this period are marked "for the Harpsichord OR Pianoforte", which elucidates the markings, but this book (and lesson) is titled for the harpsichord. The only explanation of such dynamics in the book is "forte signifies loud and piano soft; which is denoted by the letter F.P.".

Are these markings meant to be in a score specifically for harpsichord? If so, how are these dynamics meant to be played on a harpsichord? Does it mean changing of registers? Changes in playing technique?

  • Dynamics were possible on harpsichords by virtue of multiple manuals, multiple sets of strings, and stops for coupling. However, that doesn't seem sufficient to explain all of Heck's usages, particularly in the section about appoggiatura, in which adjacent, legato ("gliding") notes are to be played at different dynamics. One avenue for exploration: were coupling stops operated by foot pedal on harpsichords of that day? That seems one way to execute the figure as prescribed.
    – Aaron
    Jul 27, 2021 at 16:16
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    @Aaron In the case of the appoggiatura (p 12 of the pdf), he's definitely talking about a general musical principle applicable to all instruments (I spend a lot of time hammering this one into violinist's heads); you strongly emphasize the on-the-beat non-chordal tone, and "relax" the resolution. For harpsichord, I have to assume that Heck is speaking in the abstract and would intend you to accomplish this by a combination of chord voicing, sustain of the note, and the kind of psychoacoustics mentioned by DjinTonic. Jul 27, 2021 at 20:02
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    @Aaron Some harpsichords did indeed have pedals for controlling stops, but the issue with the registration hypothesis is that harpsichords always have been (and most likely always will be) very customised instruments. No two harpsichords were the same in the 18th century as seen in the vast differences between English, French, Italian and Flemish designs. A royal family might have a grand, triple-manual, 5-stop instrument, but another might have a little bentside spinet with only one possible registration.
    – NBoss
    Jul 28, 2021 at 13:11
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    For anyone else interested in this question, I have found a page discussing using different dynamics on the harpsichord based on available stops. link: saladelcembalo.org/instruments/myths30.htm
    – NBoss
    Jul 29, 2021 at 2:19

2 Answers 2


I'm going out on some limbs here because I'm not an expert in early music keyboards. But here are some observations:

  • From the very start, harpsichordists are expected to be able to participate in dynamic contrasts. Most often, a skilled continuo player knows how to alter their interpretation and technique as dynamics come and go, e.g. playing more or fewer notes, voicing chords more densely or sparsely, rolling chords more leisurely or simultaneously, sustaining longer or shorter. As the instrument allows, they can of course also switch manuals (keyboards); that might be well suited to big, tiered blocks of dynamics as shown here, or for instance echo effect sections. They can even mess around with the lute stop, but that would tend to apply to an entire movement (and in my opinion can be over-used today).
  • I agree, from the title of the volume and the heading of this "Sonata per il cembalo," it seems clear that the harpsichord is specifically targeted. But a word of warning that (especially in earlier periods than this 1770 example) composers and publishers often threw around mentions of instrumentation willy-nilly, sometimes regardless what is idiomatic or possible on the instrument. Don't let "It says 'for Instruments A or B, but contains both things A can't do and B can't do!" be too great of a surprise.

So, to answer your direct questions at the end of the post, and with the understanding that I'm a violinist: Yes, I would mainly accomplish these dynamic changes by changing technique. I wouldn't "change register" except in the sense that harpsichord manuals can often combine two octaves at once, so for instance the forte sections might effectively double the written pitch with an octave below, and the piano sections might switch to a single manual. I'm ashamed to say that I don't know enough about keyboard history to guess the likelihood that Heck could have been assuming a triple manual instrument, for the mezzo forte, or whether the performer is simply to make the distinction through technique.

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    Fyi, the extra octave doubling is usually the octave above (though on a very large harpsichord you could have 3 or 4 stops simultaneously pulled on one manual). Jul 28, 2021 at 2:14
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    Accepting this answer as well as your comment which provided perspective on the appoggiatura. I've discovered that the harpsichordist Scott Ross spoke, in one of his private lessons, about sustaining notes (as if there were a fermata on every note) to make a forte effect. This seems to be relevant to the appoggiatura in the excerpt and how the amount of notes become more dense with the increasing volume. I will also take your advice not to read too far into instrumentation. Heck most certainly would not be referencing a triple-manual instrument as they were quite rare, especially in England.
    – NBoss
    Jul 28, 2021 at 13:27


Using historical accounts of harpsichord touch to empirically investigate the production and perception of dynamics on the 1788 Taskin (2015)

This article investigates the extent of production and perception of dynamic differences on a French historical harpsichord, extensively revised in 1788 by Pascal Taskin. A historical review reports on the descriptions of two different types of touch found in treatises of the 18th century. These two touches (loud/struck and soft/pressed) were used to perform single tones on the lower, upper, peau de buffle (PDB) registers (the last of which Taskin is credited with having invented) and the coupled 8-foot registers to investigate differences in dynamics.

Biases in the perception of dynamics in harpsichord performance (2015)

It is widely claimed that it is not possible to vary dynamics on the harpsichord through touch; however, recent studies on single tones show that small dynamic differentiation can be obtained depending on the type of keypress. These differences are perceived accurately in comparisons of single tones; within a musical excerpt, they may be harder to detect, especially if biases exist. This study explores whether preconceptions regarding the ability of the harpsichord to produce dynamics influences perception of such differences.

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