The Feedback Loop of Early Keyboard Music

by Peter Tracy

Musicians with a water organ 2nd century AD

 “let him thunder forth as he presses out mighty roarings with a light touch”
– Claudian (c. 370 – 404)[1]

“With the introduction of a keyboard, musicians lost direct contact with the source of their music.”[2] So begins Alexander Silbiger’s book Keyboard Music before 1700, a no-nonsense study of the rise of what is perhaps the Western world’s most ubiquitous musical mechanism. Silbinger focuses largely on the point in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when music written specifically for instruments using a keyboard mechanism begins to appear in surviving textual sources, yet the keyboard existed in theory and in practice for centuries before any surviving notations, beginning in the third century with Ctesibius of Alexandria’s hydraulis. With a complex array of levers, rods, and machinery, the hydraulis embodies the beginning of the disconnect which Silbinger identifies, that of a complex machine coming between the motions of the performer and the musical results of their actions. Yet although Silbiger’s comment on music’s source seems to have more to do with the mechanics of sound production than with any theoretical or psychological concerns, it stands to reason that the organization of the keyboard and the feeling of playing it has also had a lasting impact on musical thought. Where music would be without the iconic symbolism of the piano’s black and white tableau is anyone’s guess, and there are reasons to believe that the impact of this exact layout may have been far reaching indeed.

“Apparently there is nothing more artificial and less artistic in the whole domain of musical instruments than that complicated mechanism of levers, joints, connecting rods, hammers, slides, springs, straps, etc., which constitute a key.”[3] Thus does Willi Apel describe the machinery that makes the piano possible as one of the foundational instruments of Western musical education, theory, and performance. He too seems to be describing the keyboard as fostering a disconnect between player and sound, between music and its maker. One hugs a violin or a cello tight to the chest and body when performing, feeling intimately its vibrations and resonances. But an organ key makes no sound when touched and is answered only by a pipe that could be across the room from the performer.

Late 4th century AD Mosaic of the Female Musicians from a Byzantine villa in Maryamin Syria.

After Ctesibius and the popularity of the water powered organ in the ancient world, the pneumatic organ became the standard across the former Roman Empire. This style of organ replaced the water-pressure-based mechanism of Ctesibius with a bellows that was often worked by assistants, and is mentioned by writers as early as the fourth and fifth centuries. In 757, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine V gave an organ as a gift to King Pippin of the Franks, a testament to the prestige of the organ during this period and its status as both a technical achievement and a symbol of musical sophistication. Still, organs from this period could not produce more than one note at a time, and were largely melodic instruments. Apel argues that from roughly the 9th century onward, so-called double organs may have been produced which could, in theory, have allowed for polyphony between two players, but there is little evidence of this being a widespread practice.

Organs were quickly expanding in both sophistication and scale during this period: as early as the mid-tenth century, the monk Wulstan tells of an enormous organ being erected in Winchester by Bishop Aelfheah, a monstrous instrument of twenty-six bellows requiring seventy men to work and including four hundred pipes.[4] Some organs of the tenth century thus already begin to look much like the massive church organs usually associated with the instrument, and can be assumed to have been just as imposing in volume, yet smaller organs such as the portative and positive organs also emerged which were built to be more or less portable.

Odd as it may seem, the massive organs of places like Winchester can be seen as something of a step backwards in one key aspect: that of the keyboard itself. In many large organs from the tenth century onward, the delicate keyboard of the hydraulis was non-existent, having been replaced by a system of levers which could better withstand and control the immense wind power of larger bellows. Thus there was no room for the quick, florid lines or melodies which would come to grace later organ playing, and while organs still remained largely melodic instruments throughout the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, the keyboard was by no means as widespread as before. Thus, the most ubiquitous of all musical mechanisms was poised for something of a comeback in the mid-to-late middle ages, one which would shape the centuries of written music to come.

An early diagram of a vertical harpsichord (clavicytherium) by Arnault de Zwolle c. 1430

This comeback took on a variety of forms: In 1367, for instance, King John I of Aragon wrote a letter asking his ambassadors to find someone who could play the exaquir, an instrument which is described as being like an organ with strings.[5] Before 1700, the Latin clavis (key), from which clavier derives, was used as a blanket term for all keyboard instruments, including the organ, the clavichord, the harpsichord, and eventually, the piano. The letter is therefore the oldest surviving evidence of a stringed clavier-style instrument. Because of their shared mechanism, the organ and its stringed cousins likely shared an overlapping repertory in the late fourteenth century, and one can therefore begin to consider keyboard instruments as occupying their own unique musical sphere.

The true rise of the keyboard occurs in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a time during which the study of classical antiquity (the hydraulis included) and the beginnings of Renaissance humanism were spreading throughout Europe. The most famous music of this time comes from figures such as Josquin des Prez (c. 1450 – 1521) and Johannes Ockeghem (1410 – 1497), who’s highly complex vocal polyphony has remained a technical point of reference for composers up to the present day. Yet if one wanted to write such complex polyphony composed of numerous separate voices, one needed multiple performers. What the reintroduction of a more sophisticated, polyphonic keyboard allowed was the performance of multi-part polyphony with relative ease by a solo performer, a development the importance of which cannot be understated.

A piece by Guillaume de Machault intabulated in the Faenza Codex

Importantly, this was also a period in which musical notation was an increasing concern of musicians throughout Europe, and the older mensural notation, so tailored to the experience of singing, was clearly ill-suited to keyboard music. Thus, the earliest written sources of keyboard music such as the Robertsbridge fragment (1360), the Codex Faenza (fifteenth century) and, the Buxheimer Orgelbuch (c. 1470) feature various forms of tablature which resemble modern notation only in varying degrees. The Buxheimer Orgelbuch provides an example of German organ tablature, in which letters of notes are used as a memory aid for the left hand part while the performer focuses on the more sprightly right hand part, notated in a more recognizable style. The Codex Faenza also uses tablature, yet in this case the notation is strikingly modern, with two staves and clear, regular bar lines which enclose a consistent rhythmic value. Intabulation — the practice of rearranging vocal works for a solo instrumental performer, usually on the lute or the keyboard — was incredibly common during the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, such that much of the music of the Codex Faenza consists of works not originally for the keyboard. Many of these are two-part distillations of vocal works which might have had three or more parts in their original versions. Although the keyboard was pivotal in the development of musical notation, then, the unique repertoire of clavier music was just beginning to form.

The result is that a highly unique and unwieldy body of work is to be found in these early sources, which must only offer a smattering of the music which was played on the keyboard in previous centuries, notated or un-notated. The harmony and phrasing of these early pieces sounds slightly odd to modern ears, as if someone attempted to write a Bach chorale and ended up with a slightly lopsided yet ultimately charming parody. But this is putting the cart before the horse: many hallmarks of later music are present in the Buxheimer Orgelbuch, and Renaissance polyphony was a significant reference point for such later musical practices. It could be argued that, in this early keyboard music, one can see the beginnings of the complex instrumental music to come, and while previous composers had often focused on the voice, the Buxheimer Orgelbuch may mark the beginning of the era of the keyboard. Left hand bass, right hand melody; block chords, figured bass, and the highly ornamented keyboard stylings of the Baroque era all may stem from these early keyboard sources.

A page from the Buxheim Organ Book

In this sense, it was the mechanism of the keyboard itself that made the celebrated music of the European eighteenth and nineteenth centuries possible. According to Silbinger, there are concrete links between the ability of the keyboard player to manage multiple voices and the compositional style of later generations:

“Simultaneous negotiation of both hands was, and continues to be, a chief challenge to those seeking to master the keyboard; whereas players of a single line can channel their musicality into realizing the line’s expressive content, players of multiple lines must also manage the interplay and balance among several voices. It is no wonder that keyboard playing would become a nearly indispensable auxiliary skill for all musicians attempting to grasp and manipulate the complex textures of music of later centuries, and that so many composers would come from the ranks of masters of that skill.”[6]

Silbinger draws a clear line between keyboard playing and the mastery of what would become the theoretical foundations of later concert music: counterpoint and functional harmony. As a means of understanding how the various parts of a composition come together into a complete whole, it could be argued that the keyboard helped to usher in a more vertical style of music; that is, a music in which notes are stacked on top of one another to create chords which drive the music forward. That producing a chord on a keyboard is a relatively simple endeavor is, in this view, no accident. Through a feedback loop between musical mechanism and the changing tastes of ensuing centuries, the keyboard altered how music was notated, conceptualized, and performed. If the music which is often termed “Classical” remains closely associated with the clavier in all its forms, one can trace the origins of this phenomenon to the keyboard renaissance of the fifteenth century.

St. Ceclilia by Guercino 1649

One can also find in the story of the keyboard the hints of a different sea-change in musical history. On a keyboard, the same key theoretically produces the same pitch every time it is played, and these notes are organized regularly into what are thought of as twelve repeating pitches moving progressively higher from left to right. While singers can listen to each other and adjust their tuning, keyboards have a fixed pitch, such that decisions as to tuning and temperament must be made in advance. Pitch is relative in earlier vocal notation, meaning that the pitch “A” may be quite different from piece to piece and from town to town. And of course, instrumentalists and vocalists are not always in tune with one another, and may come in and out of tune in the course of a performance. Not so with a keyboard instrument: here there are keys to be pressed in roughly the same way every time, and one can expect the same pitch to be produced from one performance to the next.

Mapped out onto a distinct number of regularly structured intervals, the fixed pitches of the keyboard thus begin to look like a system with its own internal logic, a form which would necessarily structure the music which the instrument and its players produced. In the keyboard music of the fifteenth century, one can see a conception of music which emphasizes reproducibility, notation, and the individual performer, laying the groundwork for the heyday of the composer in the Romantic era and the paint-by-numbers approach which many have towards musical scores in the present day.

If there is a source of music which the keyboard helps to obscure, it is perhaps the notion of music as sound rather than theory. Baked into the keyboard itself are assumptions about what pitches should be used and how they should relate to each other to an extent that no monophonic instrument can match. Performing as a soloist at the keyboard, one seemingly has no need for the give and take of producing a larger, polyphonic whole through a multitude of individual voices. At the helm of an organ, one does not need other musicians, and seemingly has an entire orchestra at one’s fingertips.

All of this serves to emphasize the fact that musical tools — from whole families of instruments to notational techniques, tuning forks, and batons — are not transparent mediums through which music passes unaltered. Rather, these tools change the way people think about and perform music, thereby impacting the creation of new instruments and new notational systems in a feedback loop of creativity. One thing leads to the next in music history, and suddenly the ideas and priorities produced by early keyboard polyphony have morphed and changed to inspire the fugues of figures like Palestrina and Bach. Yet the musical model embodied in the keyboard has had its challengers, and within some idioms the keyboard itself is used in radically different ways. This feedback loop, then, is not inescapable, and whatever source one draws on for the creation of music, one never need look very far to find it.

A playlist focusing on the earliest notated sources of keyboard music.
Early Music Seattle: Early Keyboard Music



 Apel, Willi, and Tischler, Hans. The History of Keyboard Music to 1700. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972.

Good, Edwin M. Giraffes, Black Dragons, and Other Pianos : A Technological History from Cristofori to the Modern Concert Grand. 2nd ed. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Parakilas, James. Piano Roles: A New History of the Piano. Yale Nota Bene, 2008.

Rowland, David. Early Keyboard Instruments : A Practical Guide. Cambridge Handbooks to the Historical Performance of Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Silbiger, Alexander. Keyboard Music before 1700. 2nd ed. Routledge Studies in Musical Genres. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Woolley, Andrew, and John Kitchen. Interpreting Historical Keyboard Music. Ashgate Historical Keyboard Series. Farnham: Routledge, 2013.

[1]     Excerpt from his Panegyricus dictus Manlio Theodoro consuli.

[2]     Alexander Silbiger, Keyboard Music before 1700, 2nd ed., Routledge Studies in Musical Genres (New York: Routledge, 2004), 1.

[3]     Willi Apel and Hans Tischler, The History of Keyboard Music to 1700, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972), 4.

[4]     See Apel and Tischler, 13.

[5]     See Apel and Tischler, 16.

[6]     Silbinger, 1.