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Ten Plucky Tunes: It’s The Invasion of the Harpsichord!

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Is there a more unlikely contributor to the sound of pop and rock music than the harpsichord?

I know some of you are dying to answer that, but it really was meant to be rhetorical.

At a certain point, the seemingly archaic instrument deftly plucked its way into the music of the 60s… as if it were the 1660s.

Considering that it was all but phased out in favor of the piano throughout the 19th century, it’s remarkable that it made a comeback in the next century and eventually found a distinct and totally unironic place in popular music.

Of course, it can most easily be found in what is known as ‘baroque-pop.‘ Whose name tells you exactly why that would be. It doesn’t end there. It would seem improbable, but it just effortlessly slides into all kinds of contemporary music, and it always sounds exactly like it belongs right where it is.

More than a few rock bands have employed it, and it has been known to pop up in the world of R&B and hip-hop, mostly in the form of samples or synths. 

Assembling a playlist of songs that feature harpsichord can be tricky:

There are other instruments that can be mistaken for it.

When people discuss songs with harpsichord in various online forums, songs such as “For No One” by The Beatles are suggested.

In fact, Paul is playing a clavichord, a similar instrument with a slightly different sound.

Of course, I had to do it:

So I will give you my Top Ten Harpsichord Songs, and include an expanded playlist with additional tunes.

I tried not to mistake other instruments as harpsichord, or include samples and synth sounds, but if you find something in violation of this, by all means call me out.  

So if you need to class up the joint, wherever that may be, go ahead and powder up that wig, pop this baby on and let’s…

go for baroque.

Sorry, that was terrible.

Even dads are wincing.


I Think I Love You
The Partridge Family

I consider this to be one of the most perfect pop songs of its era. And the harpsichord is certainly a huge part of that. It’s probably the first song that comes to mind in association with the instrument.

I Want Her She Wants Me
The Zombies

More so than just about any song I’ve heard, this sonically and lyrically captures that euphoric, and sometimes a bit scary feeling of realizing that the person you are falling for is also falling for you. The harpsichord is up for navigating through the web of ornate chord changes and all the tonal shifts, allowing the beautifully vulnerable and expressive vocals to float over the top. So great I could cry.

God Only Knows
The Beach Boys

One of the greatest songs ever recorded in history, it may come as a surprise that it is not #1 on my list. Hear me out: While the harpsichord can certainly be heard, there are just so many astonishingly transcendent things going on, one might not think of this as a “harpsichord song” in the same way as some of the others. That said, the song would not be complete without it.

Love Me Two Times
The Doors

This song has been rocking my world for years. And it never once felt odd that a harpsichord was doing the heavy lifting. It just works. Ray Manzarek’s solo is one of the best examples of the instrument’s allowance for flat out shredding, since the days of one J.S. Bach.

Walk Away Renee
The Left Banke

When the term baroque-pop is invoked, this band, and particularly this song should rightfully be one of the first to come to mind. My playlist includes other great songs of theirs that feature harpsichord more prominently, but this is the pinnacle of their sound, in all its wistful glory.

M79
Vampire Weekend

Flash forward to 2008, and you have this masterpiece. The harpsichord only appears at the beginning of the song but cue the strings and the tone is perfectly set for a tour de force that sounds like a cotillion broke out into a raucous party a little early.

Superstar
Lauryn Hill

Harpsichord on a hip hop diss track? Indeed. And it’s not a sample: it’s the actual instrument, played masterfully by James Poyser, gracefully floating in and out of the groove. An inspired choice that totally works here.

Mrs. Bluebird
Eternity’s Children

An often overlooked late-60s sunshine pop gem that I admittedly only came to know a few years ago. Keyboard staccato chords on every beat is a hallmark of the era, and the harpsichord is always game for it. This has become one of my favorite examples of that sound.

Both Sides Now
Judy Collins

The harpsichord here greatly helps bring to life the vivid imagery of the lyrics. In 6th grade art class, we were asked to paint a picture of this song as we were hearing it. I went to town, and I have no doubt that the music was just as important as the lyrics in aiding my visual interpretation of the song.

For Your Love
The Yardbirds

The pattern it is mostly playing is very simple, striking and holding a chord at the beginning of each measure. But the percussive nature of the harpsichord sounds menacing in a way that rivals power chords from a metal guitarist. It shows yet another facet of an instrument that has proven to be amazingly versatile. 

You can enjoy these songs and many other harpsichord jams here:

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rollerboogie

I'm obsessed with music. That's what brought me here. I do have other interests. I like ill-advised, low budget movies that shouldn't even be close to good, but are great, and cats too.

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Phylum of Alexandria
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January 26, 2024 7:29 am

Thanks for the playlist, rb. I see you have the Kinks’ “Village Green” there. They’ve got a bunch of other harpsichord songs. My favorite being “Two Sisters.”

I admit I can’t always tell between harpsichord and clavichord, or a synth setting. I’m pretty sure Tori Amos used the latter.

Some songs that I believe are harpsichord are R.E.M.’s “Half a World Away,” Belle & Sebastian’s “The Model” and “Waiting for the Moon to Rise.”

For those about to Bach, we salute you!

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 26, 2024 10:55 am
Reply to  rollerboogie

Ah, interesting. I’m assuming my take on Tori was informed by her concert videos, where she uses a synth keyboard for the harpsichord parts. But that makes sense as a touring and venue logistics move. Good to know that Tori kept it real on her albums.

Zeusaphone
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January 26, 2024 1:16 pm

If you can hear it from 10′ away, it’s not a clavichord. 😄

You can hear a clavichord in this obscurity…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgJ7dmr_ysU

Zeusaphone
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January 26, 2024 8:40 am

I played a harpsichord once. It requires a different mindset than the piano, since you can’t change the dynamic volume.

JJ Live At Leeds
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January 26, 2024 10:39 am

When I first started work we had a tape player with a random selection of whatever people had left behind. There was some Beatles and everytime In My Life came on there was a guy would shake his head and opine that harpsichords had no place in pop / rock music. Even though it was tongue in cheek I think your playlist would blow his mind.

Turns out it’s not even harpsichord on In My Life, just a standard piano but recorded with the tape at half speed so that when played back it sped up to sound like a harpsichord. Given that they used a harpsichord elsewhere I’m left wondering why not just use one instead of messing about with tapes. Maybe it was just more fun finding out what they could do.

Stranglers; Golden Brown is my #1 harpsichord in rock. Who’d have thought a bunch of punks just a few year short years from punk year zero would be turning the clock back a century or two?

Nice to be reminded of Jellyfish as well, a great song.

lovethisconcept
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January 26, 2024 12:17 pm

And another rollerboogie playlist is added to my Spotify favorites. Nice work.

LinkCrawford
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January 26, 2024 12:46 pm

I was thinking of two pre-rock era harpsichord showcases. You included one of them in your playlist, Rosemary Clooney’s “Come on-a My House”. The other one is Percy Faith’s first #1 song, the 1952 instrumental “Delicado”. It’s my understanding that it was supposed to be recorded with a piano, but the piano was not quite in tune. There was a harpsichord available, so they used that instead. 🙂

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1JGCIPcmt0

Pauly Steyreen
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January 26, 2024 1:41 pm

I was wondering which Doors song you would choose.

Aaron3000
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January 26, 2024 9:54 pm

Fun exercise: Have that picture of Lurch on your screen while you listen to rb’s playlist, and imagine that it’s him playing on every song. 🙂

Cool it Leroy
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January 27, 2024 2:30 pm

Another great article RB! I didn’t realize there were that many songs that featured the harpsichord! I’m not surprised, however, that two outstanding Rock Keyboardist’s, Rick Wakeman from Yes, and Keith Emerson from ELP used the harpsichord. I found two more songs, that I don’t think were on your list. “Sunshine Superman”, by Donovan and “Our House”, by CSN&Y. Graham Nash played the harpsichord.

Zeusaphone
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January 27, 2024 4:14 pm

It’s a little out of season, but when I think about harpsichord pop this is always the first thing I think of.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wrgdr3ROzTc

cappiethedog
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January 29, 2024 5:26 pm

Favorite appearance by the harpsichord in a major motion picture: Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise.

I misremembered “the little piano” in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love as being a harpsichord.

It was a harmonium.

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