The perception of dynamics in harpsichord performance

Led by: , Divisione Ricerca e Sviluppo

Collaborators: (Kalaidos Fachhochschule Schweiz)

Project running from October 2014 to April 2015

Keywords: , , , .

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 keypress, and materials used to pluck the string also have an effect on sound.

Within the context of a piece of music dynamic differences are harder to measure, and results of listening tests have been affected by participants’ preconceptions about the harpsichord: the belief that the harpsichord is not able to produce dynamic differences may influence perception.


The aim of the present study is to test the perception of dynamics in a context that allows control of listeners’ beliefs regarding the harpsichord’s capacity to play dynamics.


Thirtytwo participants from the Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana took part in this study. They were tested in two groups: group A was told that it is possible to measure dynamic variation on single tones, the peau-de-buffle register of French harpsichords being particularly sensitive to touch; group B was told that it is not possible to achieve dynamic variation through touch, although techniques employed by harpsichordists to convey the impression of dynamic variety include timing, articulation, etc. (factor «coverstory»). They were presented 12 excerpts of harpsichord music (average duration: 12 sec); in half of the examples different touches were used, the aim being to convey varied dynamics (factor «dynamics»). Participants were asked to indicate for each excerpt if they could hear dynamic variety.


The analysis revealed a highly significant effect of dynamics; participants distinguished correctly between excerpts that included dynamic variation and those that did not; no effect of coverstory and no interaction were found.