Early keys were often heavy levers, which were struck by a clenched fist. The latter often protected by a leather glove. This type of key was to be found on early organs. However, the small portative Pipe Organ was the chosen instrument for the development of the keyboard as we recognise it today. It was this latter instrument that first employed a keyboard to be played with the fingers. The first stringed instrument with a small keyboard was probably the Hurdy-Gurdy.
At first only today’s natural keys from A – G were provided, and eventually B flat was added when the interval between F and B natural was considered unpleasant. There progressively followed F sharp, C sharp and so on – the path to our modern keyboard was begun.
The short octave was a method employed to extend the compass of keyboard instruments at the bass end. This system was inherited from the early organ, where it was used to save space (and expensive pipes) at the lower end of the keyboard.
The distribution of notes to keys was rearranged in the lower octave so that no keys were provided for little used chromatic notes. The most common arrangement was the C/E Short Octave: the keyboard apparently ending with the note E, but in fact this note was re-tuned to sound the note C, a major third lower. In the same way the first two sharps in the bass were re-tuned a major third lower; the F sharp becoming a D, and the G sharp an E. This system was used on some early organs, clavichords and instruments in the harpsichord family.
The Broken Octave system was also a system found on early keyboard instruments. Normally, in this system, the sharps at the lower end of the keyboard were divided transversely in half, each half (front and back) corresponding to a note. The front half of F sharp would sound F sharp, where as the back half would sound the D a major third lower. This latter system was often combined with the Short Octave system. In some instruments the sharps were divided in half throughout the compass of the instrument.
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