A harpsichord is the general term for a family of European keyboard instruments, including the large instrument that is called harpsichord but also the smaller virginals, the muselar virginals and the spinet. All these instruments generate sound by plucking a string rather than striking one, as in a piano.
The origin of the harpsichord is obscure, but is known to have begun some time during the high or late Middle Ages. The earliest written references to the instrument date from the 1300s and it is possible that the harpsichord was indeed invented in that century. The earliest complete harpsichords still preserved come from Italy, the oldest specimen being dated to 1521.
The first music written specifically for solo harpsichord came to be published around the middle of the 16th century. Composers who wrote solo harpsichord music were numerous during the whole Baroque era in Italy, Germany and, above all, France. Besides solo works, the harpsichord was widely used for accompaniment in the basso continuo style (a function it maintained in opera even into the 19th century). In the 18th century, the harpsichord was considered to have advantages and disadvantages with respect to the piano.Through the 19th century, the harpsichord was ignored by composers, the piano having supplanted it. In the 20th century, however, with increasing interest in early music and composers seeking new sounds, pieces began to be written for it once more.