The keys of the piano keyboard are, perhaps, the most advanced cipher invented by humankind. Just think: this odd assemblage of white and black levers, positioned horizontally in uniform groups of 7, looks almost like a proto-digital pattern. If we didn’t know anything at all about piano, how could we possibly imagine that this machine could produce sounds that will unlock the depths of human self-expression? And a cipher it is, for when you ‘unlock’ the music from its resting silence by striking the key, the magic happens: infinite possibilities of what can be played on this wondrous contraption. The combinations are many, yet the final result is singular: the universal beauty of music. The trick is to know how to manipulate keys and unlock that, which resides within the piano – music.
In Ancient Greece, Pythagoras invented a monochord in 582 B.C. The next example was 14th-century clavicytherium, where clavis (keys) were attached to a harp-like frame that has strings running across. The next evolution was Clavichord, followed by the harpsichord. Unlike clavichord, which produced vibration by pressuring the string, plucked harpsichord had virtually no dynamic range. However, the popularity of the harpsichord was tremendous until the arrival of the pianoforte in the 1710s and the invention of the hammer mechanism by Bartolomeo Cristofori.
Fortepiano by Cristofori
Today’s pianos have the same keys as the instruments from around the 1880s onward. As the structural and mechanical innovations continue to improve the action and responsiveness of the piano, the keys themselves have remained unchanged for over 150 years.
The proper acoustic piano has a 88 keys. Some 19th-century parlor pianos have fewer keys – the top octave cutting off at ‘a’ – resulting in 85 keys. This allowed the piano manufacturer to save a few inches on the width of the piano – but that practice has been abandoned in favor of a standard 88 keys.
Certain premium brands, like Bösendorfer, offer models with extended keyboards, adding additional keys at the bottom (on the left side of the keyboard), such as Imperial Bösendorfer. Essentially, it reinforces the power of the base, but often results in imbalance at the top register and remains a subject to personal taste. For the most part, a well-built acoustic piano has 88 keys.
When it comes to digital pianos, of which there are many worth mentioning, they may have fewer keys without having that affect their overall tone. The digital pianos reproduce sound electronically from an acoustic sample, so none of the physical properties of the acoustic instrument apply. In the case of the acoustic pianos, however, all the keys with their corresponding sting(s) *(half the keyboard has three strings per hammer in the upper right-hand part of the keyboard) create sympathetic vibrations necessary for imbuing the sounding pitch with depth and richness. That makes a difference in the acoustic piano – all 12,000 details vibrate and bounce the sound, contributing to the aural totality that is responsible for the final product – an individual voice of an individual piano. That is why there are no two alike among the hand-made premiere pianos. The 88 key piano has the perfect balance from top to bottom range to create a beautiful tone.
Piano keyboard layout
The layout of the keys is a fascinating amalgamation of the history of western music and the industrialization of the leading economies. The western musical tradition evolved out of the 7 Ancient Greek modes, one beginning on each note of the octave. The distance between the bottom and top note of a completed group of seven consecutive stepwise pitches, aligning on top with the same pitch class (same note) as the bottom (pattern of seven white keys, 8th’s being the first of the next seven).
Today we orient ourselves by the middle c note – when finding a center of the keyboard. The Middle C note is also considered the first note of a basic octave formation.
From middle c all note names are going up (right side) in the order of alphabet: C-D-E-F-G-*A-B-C (C-C constitutes an octave) Notice *A – this is where the original first note of the keyboard orientation was – on a – for Aeolian mode (which is equivalent to a-minor) so in the original basic scale all note names read like the alphabet: a-b-c-d-e-f-g. Once the first note of a basic scale shifted from minor Aeolian mode to major equivalent mode on C (Ionian mode) the letters were already attached to all the notes (think: label piano keys), thus breaking the alphabetical order of the 7-note group starting on C.
It is worth mentioning here that as western music theory was developing within the confines of sacred music, major modes (or keys) were given preferences as those closer to representing divinity and God, while minor modes (keys) were representative of suffering and sin. Hence the adaptation of the originally pagan musical theory of ancient Greece to the catholic belief system of medieval times and onwards.
These C to C octaves repeat 7 times across the keyboard. At the bottom (far left) the keyboard begins with an A, not a C. This has been the standard for the 88 key piano for the past 150+ years. (it is also a subtle nod to the pagan Aeolian a-mode which once was the “middle c” of musical theory) However, when certain piano makers extend the range of their keyboards, the groups of additional low notes are added on the left (bottom) part of the keys, like on Imperial Bösendorfer.
12 note pattern
Once we establish the middle c, we can split the pattern of an octave into two parts: C-D-E has two black keys between the three white keys, and F-G-A-B (four white keys) have three black keys, making a total of 12 keys. Conversely, there is a humorous black keys configurations of chopsticks (two black keys) and a fork (three black keys), a great life hack for the beginner.
A 12-note pattern is a totality of all keys contained within the framework of an octave: 7 white keys and 5 black keys. Together they also represent a crucial building block of western music theory: subdivision of a scale (bottom of an octave to same pitch class an octave higher) into 12 equal semitones. Once an octave is divided equally into 12 semitones the exact transposition of the pitch class is possible an octave higher, which makes the piano sound in tune.
This intricate tuning was invented during Bach’s time and is known as the well-tempered Klavier, or a well-tuned piano, a namesake of Bach’s seminal volumes of 24 Preludes and Fugues in all 24 keys. Finally, it was only possible to sound in tune once the semitone frequencies were sorted out and an octave was subdivided into 12 equal semitones.
Black keys and white keys
The black keys are known as sharps or flats, while white piano keys are naturals, which is only partially correct. Indeed, balck keys can be interpreted as a sharp (raised version) of a note to their left (white piano keys), or a flat (lowered version) of a note to the right (white piano keys), assuming white piano keys are ‘natural’ state of a pitch class. Note: same key can be interpreted as a different pitch class on a case-to-case basis
How many keys are on a piano?
Today 88 key piano keyboard is a golden standard for an acoustic keyboard instrument. That comprises 7 repetitions of 12 keys pattern, one final c on the top, and three more keys at the bottom: B-Bflat/A sharp-A. There is the math: 7×7+1+3=88.
There are 52 white keys and 36 black keys.
Some lower-end digital keyboards have different numbers of keys, like 61 on a standard mid-level keyboard. While perfectly usable for general musical education and overview, less-then 88 keys are not suitable for any kind of serious pursuit of proper piano playing, even at an amateur level. Our body learns the parameters of keyboard sizes and once it is ingrained, any variation will cause confusion and mistakes.
Part of any good piano lesson is teaching fingers the topography of the keyboard, so when you watch your fingers move on the keys your brain registers their exact GPS location as per 88 keys standard. In other words, all notes on the piano keyboard are necessary to learn to play the piano. No matter the size, the first note and the last note on the piano keyboard is always white key. The first white key is a and the last white key is c.
Bosendorfer Imperial Concert Grand Piano with 9 extra keys
What are weighted piano keys?
Weighted piano keys are electronic versions of the touch and playing experience of the acoustic piano. When the finger strikes the key, a complicated mechanism of levers and hammers of that one key goes into motion to produce the sound by hitting the string. On a digital piano, there are no strings. To replicate the experience of acoustic keyboard weighted keys are a feature of higher-end digital pianos.
Key action on a Kawai digital piano
How to clean piano keys
First, you need to know what material your keys are made of plastic or ivory. Due to international ban on ivory trade, it would be on an older instrument. Contemporary plastic used instead of ivory varies based on the class of the piano, from the high gloss plastic on the standard instruments to matte, high-tech moisture-absorbing porous plastic that even mimics natural patterns similar to ivory. Generally, ivory keys oxidize over time so they gain yellow-ish color and the irregular pattern of the ivory grains is visible. At times, due to excessive playing, the edges of the ivory keys get polished off and become razor-sharp.
Generally – the keyboard should be wiped with a damp cloth no matter what the material is used for the keys. No soapy solutions are suitable as they will damage the wood upon contact. A damp paper towel is appropriate too. Use gentle strokes to make sure the keyboard is clean and free of any residue. Let air dry.