Referring to Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C minor BWV 847, Masato Suzuki remarked at 1:37, as translated from Japanese to English

I also like to play it on the piano. When playing it on the piano I notice things [emphasis mine] I hadn't noticed on the harpsichord.

What are these "things"? What can be noticed on the piano, that even a professional musician couldn't on the harpsichord, for the same piece?

I am asking for any Western classical music piece that can be played on different keyboards, like the organ, and not simply by Bach. You can generalize this question for other instruments. E.g. what do you notice on one that can't be noticed on the other, for pieces that can be played on both violin and viola? Same question for viola and cello, for cello and double bass, etc.

6 Answers 6


Note: This answer was only intended to answer the question focusing on Masato Suzuki's own remark. His remark may or may not be applicable to the general opinion (see also the comment thread).

There was another interview in Japanese with Masato Suzuki on Toppan Hall, touching on the topic of playing Bach's works with harpsichord and piano.

Relevant quotation:

―― 最初に弾いたのはいつですか?

鈴木: [...]。ピアノのレッスンで平均律を習ったときは、家でチェンバロで弾くのと、先生のところでピアノで弾くのとで、葛藤していた時期があったな…。ピアノではどうも、うまく弾けなくて。

―― どういうところがですか?

鈴木: 父がチェンバロで弾くのをずっと聴いていたし、僕自身もチェンバロで一番弾いていて。チェンバロのやり方に慣れていたので、まったく別のアプローチで弾かなければならないことに違和感があったんです。ピアノで弾いてもいい曲には変わりないですし、いまもピアノで弾くことはあります。でもチェンバロという楽器の良さである、音が即興的につながっていく感覚や、フーガみたいに高度な情報処理が必要な曲では、やっぱりチェンバロのために書かれた作品なんだと実感するんですよね。

―― ピアノで弾くと、どういうところが引っかかるのでしょう。

鈴木: ピアノは打鍵によって一音一音、音量の違いがつくれるので、ある声部を際立たせたり、沈ませたりということができますが、そこが逆に障害になるんです。チェンバロはそれができないので、必然的に全部の声部を平等に歌うことになる。すべてをくっきりアーティキュレーションすればするほど、フーガとして立体的になっていきます。そもそもチェンバロは通奏低音を担う即興的な楽器で、当時はソロを弾くほうが例外。バッハも通奏低音としての可能性を追求していただろうし。面白いのは、バッハの譜面は完璧なんですけど、弾き手に想像の余地を残している。たとえば、あるテーマでフーガを即興しようとしたときに、良いものになるよう磨けば磨くほど、彼の譜面に近づいていくような感覚があります。即興演奏のひとつのモデルケースとして、楽譜があるような。書かれている通りに完璧に演奏することも大事ですが、そこには必ず即興的要素がある。だから、チェンバロで弾くと納得がいくのかもしれません。楽譜のリアリゼーションとしては、ピアノでもオルガンでも、アコーディオンだって可能なんですけどね。バッハをピアノで聴いたときに、すごく好きだと感じることは少ないです。むしろ趣味で、ピアノで弾くバッハは楽しいですけど(笑)。

Translated (with the assistance of DeepL, manually reviewed):

―― When did you first play it?

Suzuki: [...]. When I learned the Well-Tempered Clavier1 in piano lessons, there was a time when I was conflicted between playing on the harpsichord at home and playing on the piano at the teacher's place... I couldn't play well on the piano.

―― What do you mean by that?

Suzuki: I had always listened to my father play on the harpsichord, and I myself played the harpsichord the most. I was used to the harpsichord method, so I felt uncomfortable with having to play it in a completely different approach. It is still a good piece to play on the piano, and even now I sometimes play it on the piano. However, the harpsichord has its own advantages, such as the sense of improvisational connection of sounds, and in pieces that require advanced information processing, such as a fugue, I feel that the piece was written for the harpsichord.

―― What aspects does it bother you when played on the piano?

Suzuki: The piano can create a difference in volume with each note by hitting a key, so it is possible to make a certain part of the voice stand out or be subdued, but this also makes a hindrance to the piano. The harpsichord cannot do this, so it is inevitable that all parts of the voice are played equally. The more clearly articulated all the voices are, the more three-dimensional the fugue becomes. In the first place, the harpsichord is an improvisational instrument that serves as a bass continuo, and at that time it was more the exception than the rule to play solo. And Bach would have pursued its potential as a figured bass. What is interesting is that even though Bach's score is perfect, he leaves room for the player's imagination. For example, when I try to improvise a fugue on a certain theme, the more I polish it to make it good, the closer I get to his score. It's like the score is one model case of improvisation. While it is important to play perfectly as written, there is always an element of improvisation. Maybe that is why playing on the harpsichord is so satisfying. As for realizing the score, it is possible on piano, organ, or even accordion. When I hear Bach on the piano, I rarely feel that I like it very much. Rather, as a hobby, I enjoy playing Bach on the piano (laughs).

1 Thanks Brian Chandler for the correction!

  • 8
    Translation comment: "learned about equal temperament" actually means "learned the WTC". In Japanese this is known as the [Equitempered Clavier], shortened to「平均律」 (lit. equal temperament) because of an early misunderstanding of what "Wohltemperierte" (well-) means. Commented Apr 9, 2023 at 5:59
  • 1
    Note, there are a few statements about harpsichord here that I think any harpsichordist would disagree with. The harpsichord cannot [differentiate in volume], so it is inevitable that all parts of the voice are played equally. But anyone playing a fugue knows that it's very important that the voices not be equal. Harpsichord would do this by differentiating the length that the voice is sustained, giving the theme-voice a few milliseconds more than other voices. If the harpsichord has multiple manuals, then of course that can help. and... Commented Apr 10, 2023 at 12:39
  • 1
    ... the harpsichord is an improvisational instrument that serves as a bass continuo, and at that time it was more the exception than the rule to play solo. The intent behind this sentence is accurate, but it overstates it a bit. It's certainly true that the harpsichord was used more for continuo than solo playing, but solo playing was not rare or unusual; it had had been going on for centuries. Commented Apr 10, 2023 at 12:42

A harpsichord uses jacks with plectra that pluck the string as you push the keys. The point at which the string is plucked more or less solely depends on how long and how flexible the plectrum is. This means that the harpsichord does not allow play different dynamics by touch. Harpsichord playing therefore resorts to different approaches. Small harpsichords have two rows of jacks and stops to enable or disable a set. This means you have different tone colors (depending on where the strings are plucked). Big harpsichords even might have two manuals with different stops and might have many more stops with even different sets of strings, such as an 8 foot and a 4 foot register (occasionally even 2 foot or 16 foot registers). A very common thing for two-manual harpsichords would for example be to have three sets of strings, each manual having an 8 foot register and one manual having an additional 4 foot register. There are also stops like the lute stop where felt dampers are put onto the start of the strings to mimic a more finger plucked sound like on a lute.

Thus you see on a harpsichord you differentiate by changing stops and thus tone color, the octave and dynamics. A two manual harpsichord then allows you to play different lines with different stops. But on a harpsichord you cannot put emphasis on specific notes, which makes things like emphasizing phrases against other notes really hard. Harpsichord requires you to use timing for doing such.

  • I would insert "use volume to" into the next-to-last sentence since as the last sentence notes it's possible to emphasize notes and phrases with timing.
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 8, 2023 at 15:39

Adding to Lazy's answer: there is little sustain on harpsichord. Once a note is played, it will decay at a certain rate, which is quite different from that on a piano, where using the sustain pedal (or sostenuto pedal) will allow a much longer decay. Regarding organ, a note could sustain for ever, while the key is depressed! Organ, like harpsichord, has little or no jurisdiction over volume, unlike piano, for each setting. One reason why organs developed two or three manuals, which could be set to balance each other.

Another difference is the action - the weighted feel. That on a piano gives the player a lot of feel, whereas harpsichord and organ use effectively 'switches', which turn the notes played on and off, with no effect to their sound.

  • Even without the sostenuto pedal, a piano sustains rather longer than a harpsichord, which I think is a result of the higher tension of the strings and perhaps also their higher mass.
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 8, 2023 at 15:41
  • 3
    The sustain pedal does not really affect sustain time, it prevents dampening after releasing the key. The longer sustain on the piano is a result of lower dampening due to using a cast iron frame (rather than a wooden frame) as well as lower relative loss of energy from the soundboard due to having much heavier strings at much higher tension (thus small movement but much energy). By the way organs can sometimes do dynamics to some extent using shutters. These are literal shutters in front of the pipes that can be opened and closed using a pedal.
    – Lazy
    Commented Apr 8, 2023 at 16:18

Other factors not mentioned in the earlier answers:

  • the lighter/more nasal tone color of the harpsichord causes chords to blend differently (the same is true of early pianos, typically called fortepianos today, which make the left hand chords in early piano music much more enjoyable than the mud that results on a modern piano)
  • harpsichords are almost invariably tuned in some unequal temperament, which is very rare for pianos; this also gives harmonic sounds a significantly different effect
  • the different size and weight of the keys and the corresponding difference in playing technique (also due in large part to the fundamental mechanical difference of the action as mentioned in Lazy's answer) will lead most players to make at least some different fingering choices for the different instruments; this could give the player a different sense of the piece.

But the first thing that I'd guess at is probably that mentioned in Tim's answer: with its longer sustain, the piano is more given to a cantabile approach to slower melodic passages, which might make the player more cognizant, for example, of suspensions, or maybe just of melodic shape, tension, and release. It's not that these are impossible on a harpsichord, but they are probably easier to notice on a piano.


I think that the answers given are answering the question "How could the piano sound different?" and they are all quite accurate. But the real question is really much more general, and in a sense I think any specific answer sort of misses the point. The questioner suggests (quite reasonably) that a "professional" should surely have noticed everything already, so why need to hear it differently (on a piano). But of course any competent pianist has noticed all of the basic facts; Suzuki is talking about something much more intangible. Hearing a piece differently just gives new insights, relations between voices, rhythmic subtleties, and so on... Bach's music is abstract in an obvious way - (almost) no tempo indications, for example - and leaves everything up to the interpretation of the player. So even without a different instrument, you can play it at wildly different speeds, and different views of the landscape will emerge. The IMSLP page includes all sorts of arrangements (including Clarinet, Trombone, Bass Guitar, Drum Set and Piano!); Suzuki probably doesn't have friends with this combination of instruments, but he can easily play on a piano.

If you say this answer is "vague", I plead guilty. But I think that's how it is.

  • This seems like the most likely interpretation to me, as well, it is like changing the font when you proofread a document helps your brain notice things you didn't see before even though the actual content is exactly the same. writing.stackexchange.com/a/65983/25794 Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 19:40

An elaboration on Brian's answer: When I have students studying the Bach violin Sonatas and Partitas, I recommend they listen to Chris Thile's recordings on mandolin. Playing any work on a different instrument removes "artifacts" of interpretation that are unique to the instrument and reveals what is universal in the music itself. In this case, what you might "notice" are details of harmony, voice leading, melodic structure, etc—the "skeleton" of the music rather than the "skin" that comes from the particular instrument it's played on.

This re-instrumentation is more appropriate for Bach than for some other composers. Bach himself frequently adapted his own works for other instruments; there are harpsichord versions of violin concertos, and lute versions of violin sonatas/partitas. While he never "abused" or ignored the abilities of an instrument, he made few concessions to it; much of his violin works actually "work better" on a chordal instrument. In contrast, some other composers built their works around the unique way an instrument works as an intentional part of the music. Some of Hindemith's violin works, for example, arrange notes on the basis of how the fingers fall on neighboring strings rather than chord theory.

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