Let’s discuss the complex and fascinating history of how the modern-day piano keys came to be.
We’ll start with the basics: there are 88 keys on a piano, and different types of pianos like an electric piano, upright, and grand piano.
There is a complex history behind the definitive number of 88 keys recognizable on the modern piano today. Before the invention of the piano, a primitive instrument called the harpsichord existed. The harpsichord had a total of 60 keys and a range of five octaves. However, musicians worldwide felt the range somewhat limiting and sought to develop a new instrument that would give them a broader range of sound to express emotion.
Then, in 1700, a technician in the musical field belonging to Padua, Italy named Bartolomeo Cristofori doctored the harpsichord into what we know today as the piano. Cristofori was hired to alter the harpsichord in the Florentine court of Grand Prince. The guiding idea was to be able to play harmonies with a hammer and damper mechanism.
His invention, known as the pianoforte, had only 49 keys and a range of four octaves. As other musicians learned of his development, they also wanted to broaden the scope of their art further.
Thus, manufacturers mirrored the strategies of Cristofori and developed pianos with a more significant number of keys and scales. These alterations, once fully developed, would be the bridge that allowed Haydn and Mozart to compose their masterpieces.
Still, until the mid-1800s, the piano had a range of seven octaves. However, that didn’t stop the likes of the romantic music composers like Chopin and Liszt. For example, La- Campanella, a famous piano piece, was delivered by them using lesser keys on a piano than what exists today.
In comes the famous piano manufacturer Steinway. Steinway created an 88 key piano in 1880, and all other manufacturers followed his pursuit. This introduced the standard 88 key piano to the world and is still the most common model that we see today in 2021.
The Weighted Keys on the Piano
A piano key can be made using different styles and materials, and each type brings a different weight to the key. Some of the keys can be weighted, while others won’t be. For example, some of the keys are made from wood, while others might be made from plastic or synthetic ivory. The materials which one uses would determine the weight of the key.
Let’s take a look at different types of pianos and the associated piano keys.
The invention of the traditional piano operates under the premise of the hammer and damper mechanism. That means, when one presses a key, the hammer inside the piano will tip the string, thereby producing the tone. Furthermore, pianists across the globe call the following element “action.” A piano can have a “light” action or a “heavy” action. Light action piano builds are easier to play than the heavy build piano.
[Read: How to Play the Piano]
Another popular version of the pianos is the digital piano. Some of the digital pianos follow the traditional- “hammer and damper” mechanisms. For example, digital piano keys are revered for following their parent form or the acoustic piano. Another type of digital piano has semi-weighted keys. However, the “action” is delivered via springs rather than a hammer. The sound is consistent with a traditional piano, with the only con being that they lack the “feel” of the traditional piano, and the keys play lightly.
The next set of keys on a piano is known as the “waterfall keys.” These fall under the category of “unweighted keys” of the piano. As there is no weight, they are the easiest piano for a toddler to start with.
Perhaps one of the most easily recognizable and defining characteristics of the piano is the presence of black and white keys.
The total number of piano keys will alter the ratio of black and white keys. A piano with 88 keys will have a different combination of black and white keys, while an electronic piano with 61 keys will have a different ratio of black and white keys. An 88 key piano will have 52 white keys and 36 black keys, whereas a 61 key piano will have 36 black keys and 25 opaque keys.
Positioning of notes across keys
Let’s now decipher the positioning of various piano keys.
- Regardless of how many keys a piano has, each piano will follow a structure of 2-3-2-3 when it comes to positioning black keys.
- A piano will always start from the note “C.” More importantly, the “C” note will lie on the left of two black keys.
- A note which starts from the “C” will end after a cycle. For example: C, then D, then E, then F, then G, then A, then B, and lastly C. A fun fact to notice here is that “C” will always arrive towards the left of two black keys.
- The black keys are written as- Db or Eb or C# or D# which means sharps and flats. # refers to sharps, while “b” refers to flats.
- A sharp key will always be the immediate right black key. Interchangeably, a flat key will be the immediate left black key.
We often recommend that beginners label the keys. The many keys can be daunting at first, so labels can serve as simple reminders while you’re working on committing them to memory.
- 108 key piano. Stuart and Sons are the brains behind the invention that was created to provide more resonance to the song. The 108 key piano starts from C0 and ends by C8.
- 166 key piano. This combination can only be achieved by using two different pianos, and this is how the double piano keyboard gained prominence. However, a person playing a double piano keyboard must be a master of piano, as this is certainly no easy task for beginner pianists. Moreover, an extra foot pedal was added just for the piano to support the upper piano. Manufacturers such as Bechstein and Chickering are some of the prominent manufacturers of double keyboard pianos.
- 49 key piano. These pianos are perfect for toddlers and beginners. When we say “for kids,” it doesn’t mean an electronic keyboard. It is an actual piano. It has strings, pedals, and all the ancillaries required. The keys are just on the lower side; it shouldn’t stop a kid from starting to play.
The history of pianos is far from simple. The instrument’s evolution likely hasn’t stopped yet, as musicians are constantly seeking the next best sound and new development. If you’ve been considering taking up the piano, today is the day to start.
If you’re looking for online music courses, you can check out BYJU’S FutureSchool where we offer 1:1 classes with a live instructor. For more piano resources, be sure to check out the BYJU’S FutureSchool blog.