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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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:
Let the author know that you liked their article with a “Green Thumb” Upvote!