A harpsichord and a piano may look similar in shape, but the harpsichord and piano are in fact very different beasts. Though both are classed as keyboard instruments, the strings of the harpsichord are plucked while those of a piano are struck.
The harpsichord, which can have one or more manuals (keyboards), dates back to the middle ages, though its heyday was in the 16th to early-18th centuries. Its sound is produced, in short, by a plectrum – made either of quill or, more often today, plastic – that plucks the string when a key is pressed.
The piano, meanwhile, has been with us since around 1700, when it was invented by the Italian Bartolomeo Cristofori. In this instance, when the player presses a key, a wooden (or plastic) hammer covered in felt strikes the string. Unlike the harpsichord, where pressing the key firmly or lightly produces the same sound, the volume of a note on the piano can be altered according to touch – hence the instrument’s original name of pianoforte (‘soft-loud’).
The body of a harpsichord is traditionally made entirely of wood, whereas many pianos are fitted with a metal frame – an invention patented in 1843 – that enables the instrument to produce a larger sound.