Did you know that understanding the piano keyboard layout is not as complicated as you might think? As in the study of music theory, the keyboard itself is very intentional, mathematical and consistent. First, we need to understand the various types of pianos themselves, and identify the music alphabet. Then, we’ll take a look at the layout and structure of the keys and how it relates to the grand staff.
So, Just Where Did the Piano Keyboard Layout Originate?
The piano was invented around 1700 in Italy by harpsichord maker Bartolomeo di Francesco Cristofori and was literally called “a harpsichord with loud and soft.” The name changed to pianoforte and finally shortened to just piano.
This invention was truly a game changer. Finally, a keyboard instrument could produce volume changes. That’s because of the construction of hammers and strings, as compared to the harpsichord, where the strings were plucked.
Learning the Different Piano Categories…
There are 2 categories of pianos: upright (or vertical) and grand. The upright pianos are more compact and fit easier into most homes. And more modern upright pianos are very similar in tone and responsiveness as grand pianos. There are various sizes available, which include spinet, console, and studio. Spinets are the smallest, consoles are the most common, and studio pianos are the tallest. In addition, digital pianos or keyboards are becoming a more versatile option for families, due to their cost and size.
Since their inception in the 1980’s, electric keyboard pianos have improved dramatically to include weighted keys, MIDI, and other instrument tones. They don’t require tuning, don’t cost as much. and they’re portable. However, the touch, feel, and sound of a digital piano does not compare to its acoustic counterpart. As a piano teacher, I often allow students to start out taking lessons on a keyboard or digital piano, but recommend they switch over to an acoustic when they are able.
Let’s Take a Closer Look at the Piano Keyboard Layout
When you take a look at the keyboard itself, you will notice the two colors – white and black. The white keys continue up but the black keys are in groups of two’s and three’s. This is the very first pattern we see in piano lessons, and makes it easier to identify notes based on where they are in relation to the two different groups of black keys. The black keys are actually the sharps and flats of the white keys.
But don’t be fooled, the white keys can be sharps and flats too. This occurs where two white keys are together. For a sharp key, we move a half step up and for a flat key, we move a half step down. In addition, keys have two different names as well! For example, A# is the same key as Bb. They are enharmonic equivalents. The trickier equivalents are like Cb and B because we don’t always think about the two names of keys when the two white keys are together. Piano teachers often keep this secret until later on in the lessons so as not to confuse students.
Finding Middle C & Learning Note Names
The very first note piano teachers usually point out is Middle C. It is not actually the exact middle of the piano, but it is the closest C to the middle. This can be found in the middle of the piano just to the left of the group of 2 black keys and underneath the name of the piano brand. This starts out as our center point for our two hands with Middle C and above played with our right hand and Middle C and down played with our left hand.
In general, the right hand plays higher notes and the left hand lower notes. As students move on in their repertoire they have a lot of fun when either both hands are low or both hands high or even crossed hands!
Even though a full size piano keyboard has 88 keys counting white and black keys, it does not have 88 different note names. The music alphabet is only A-G. So, what are all the other key names? Well, it just keeps repeating. Students love to start at the bottom and play the first key A and name each white key going up in order from A-G and repeating until they reach the top key which is a C.
How Piano Keys Relate to Piano Sheet Music
The high and low sides of the keyboard equate to the top and bottom of the grand staff. In music, our notes are usually written on 5 lines and 4 spaces called a staff. When we put two staves together, it is called a grand staff with Treble (RH) on the top and Bass (LH) on the bottom.
In most written music, there is a wide gap between the treble and bass staves and most students think there are a lot of notes in between. However, in reality there are only 3! The top space of the bass staff is B. The added line in between the two staves is Middle C and the space under the treble staff is D. These correspond with the Middle C we found on the keyboard and it’s neighboring notes B and D.
Understanding the Piano Keyboard Layout is an Important Skill
Having a clear foundation, and knowing the layout of the keyboard is important. It’s also important to understand how it relates to the music alphabet and the staff. These are vital concepts, and you’ll probably spend many lessons on these topics.
Hopefully, this article will take away any mystery or complexity. And you will enjoy learning and playing piano for years to come.