When you look at the keys on a piano, a few things pop out right away. First, there are both white and black keys, and second, there is a distinct pattern that the keys on piano repeat. While most modern pianos contain 88 keys, you can find pianos with a shortened range, and even some that increase the number! But why, exactly, are the keys set up like that? We’ll explore that in this article.
Black and White Keys on Piano
Pianos are arranged with white keys for the musical tones of A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. The black keys fill in the gaps for the remaining half-steps, which are notated as sharps or flats as a key signature or accidentals within the piano music.
You’ll get to know the keys on piano as you practice scales, to begin with. The C scale, for example, is played without any sharps or flats. That means that all of the notes are played only on the white keys. Other scales include some of the black keys, depending on how many sharps or flats are in the key. For instance, the key of D has two sharps in it, F sharp and C sharp, which are played on the black keys.
Octaves on the Piano
Pianos were first designed based off a harpsichord layout, which had five octaves. Then piano makers increased to six octaves and later to seven full octaves, at the request of composers who wanted to use a larger range when writing piano music. The standard 88-key piano was created in the late 1800s, adding four keys to the layout that you can recognize on any full piano today.
The pattern of black and white keys on piano is repeated every 12 notes. This includes seven white keys and five black keys. This pattern is called an octave. On a standard 88-key piano, there are seven octaves plus a few more keys at either end. If you consider an octave to begin at C, then there are three keys in the “zero” octave at the very low end, and one key in the last octave at the high end.
While most pianos have 88 keys, there are many practice keyboards with fewer than seven full octaves. A shortened keyboard may only contain five or six octaves. There are also piano makers that have extended the range to over 100 keys! In either case, the middle C note sounds exactly the same; the octaves are simply shortened at the low or high end.
Why would you want to have fewer or more keys than standard? If you want to have a keyboard to practice on between your piano lessons, but space is limited, a shortened model gives you the opportunity to practice without taking up quite as much space. Conversely, some piano pieces are written for a greater range than the standard layout, which requires a piano with more than 88 keys.
There is some speculation that pianos could have even more than the current limit, but that comes at a cost — both a monetary cost, as well as a limitation on the range of human hearing. With 88 keys, a piano already hits close to the extent of the human ear. More keys can increase the range of the composition, but may test the limit of what the audience can actually hear.
If you’re still curious about the way the keys on piano are laid out, feel free to ask your piano teacher at your next lesson. He or she will likely have a lot of knowledge about how a piano works — and the more you know about your instrument, the better musician you’ll become!
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