Spinets, virginals, and harpsichords have strings that are plucked. What distinguishes them from each other is their form—the term harpsichord refers to the grand form of the instrument in which the strings run vertically front to back; the term virginal, or spinet, is applied to the square form of the instrument whose strings run horizontally.
Each key is attached to a vertical jack that rises when a key is depressed. As the jack ascends, a quill that protrudes from it plucks the string, then as it descends, the quill pivots to prevent a second pluck, and a cloth damper silences the string. The sound of these instruments is light, bright, and crisp, like a lute. However, these instruments are not capable of making dynamic changes; the force of the player’s fingers on the keys will not affect the loudness or softness of the sound.
Keyboard instruments were ideal for playing the polyphonic, or “many-voiced,” music of the Renaissance, because more than one key or melody could be played at the same time. Much printed keyboard music survives from the mid-sixteenth century onward. Spinets and virginals were especially popular among amateur musicians, particularly women. As part of their general education, both Mary of Burgundy (1975.1.137) and Margaret of Austria (1975.1.130) were instructed in music and taught to play keyboard instruments, probably clavichords, but an inventory of Margaret of Austria’s belongings also lists an espinetta, or spinet.
The relationship between courtly musicians and their display of musical ability is explained in The Book of the Courtier (1528) by Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529):
So the courtier should turn to music as if it were merely a pastime of his and he is yielding to persuasion, and not in the presence of common people or a large crowd. And although he may know and understand what he is doing, in this also I wish him to dissimulate the care and effort that are necessary for any competent performance, and he should let it seem as if he himself thinks nothing of his accomplishment which, because of its excellence, he makes others think very highly of.
Arkenberg, Rebecca. “Renaissance Keyboards.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/renk/hd_renk.htm (October 2002)