As a pianist, most of us know the basics of how the piano works. We understand the pedaling, notation, and how the different patterns like the 2 black keys and the 3 black keys work for finding the white keys. Growing up though I found myself asking “why does the piano have black and white keys anyway?”
So why does piano have black and white keys? The white keys represent the musical tones and the black keys represent the half step intervals between those musical tones. The colored keys help pianists decipher between the natural pitches and semitone pitches.
Surely a fair question could be why other colors weren’t chosen. White and black keys are kind of boring right? Take a moment and imagine a piano keyboard that had nothing but white keys. Look at the picture below to get an idea of what I mean. Could you tell me which note was A, B or C? Better yet, try telling me where F# is. You can’t right? If a piano were to only have white keys then it would be virtually impossible for us to assign notes to them. That’s where the black keys come into play.
The black keys are there to separate the white notes form each other in a sequential pattern. This not only helps you determine an A from a C, but also which octave range you’re playing in as well.
Materials Play A Role
So I teased the question of why the piano keys are the colors that they are. Why can’t they be red, or blue or even orange? Well, in theory, I guess they could, and you could certainly paint them any way you want. Historically though, pianos were built with two main materials; ivory and ebony.
The white keys are the ivory so naturally, that’s the color. The ebony is the black keys. If you do some searching around though you can find some awesome pianos where the key colors are actually reversed. So basically the white keys would be black keys and the black keys would be white keys.
It’s Just Easier To Digest
As a pianist the less we have to worry about from the keyboard the better. Visually it’s much easier to see the keys when they are colored this way. We use the black keys to help guide us as we play through various repertoire. Not only is it easier to digest the piano visually, but physically as well.
The way the keys are arranged allows our fingers to naturally fall into plays. It’s a contoured fit and allows pianists to play as naturally as possible. If there were no black keys we would certainly have a rough time playing anything!
The Keys Used To Be Reversed
If you’ve ever looked up pictures of the older keyboard instruments you might have noticed the key colors were reversed. Looking at the harpsichord and even the early models of the fortepiano the white natural keys were actually black. The half steps were white.
So why exactly did they switch those keys? Well, this actually goes back to what I was talking about earlier. It was just too difficult to see and the key colors ended up blending in with one another. Particularly with the black keys that little dark space in between them is really hard to see, so it was much easier to make mistakes on those instruments.
On a modern piano the space between the white keys is easier to see; a dark line between each one so you can tell one from another. The distance between the keys is much easier to see, especially when playing octaves and scalar passages.
Naturals, Sharps, And Flats
The white keys are often referred to as the naturals; basically their natural-sounding state. It is there where the note has its original sound, free of amendments and changes. Instead of referring to those notes as just C or D you tag on the word natural at the end. From a theory perspective, it makes sense and it helps when trying to describe music to others.
For the black keys, we usually describe those as sharps and flats. This is how the white keys reach their altered state. What happens here is pretty cool at least to me. You take the natural note and analyze where the black key is in relation to it.
For example, locate D natural and then look at the first black note next to it. That note is a higher tone (a half step up) so we could call that D sharp!
What about the black note that’s below it though? Play the tone and you’ll hear that it’s lower than a D natural (in this case a half step down). We would call this note a D flat. If we had all white keys we would have a much tougher time trying to determine what note is which unless you have perfect pitch.
How many black and white keys are on the piano
Another question I thought of has to do with the number of keys the piano has. As you know a full-sized keyboard has 88 total keys. If you’re wondering how many black keys are on the piano the answer is 36. That might seem like a lot, but in relation to the white keys not so much! There are 52 white keys on the piano.
The piano as a whole is divided up into a bunch of patterns that we then call octaves. In total there are 7. For every 7 white keys, you’ll have 5 black keys to help you break down the tonal patterns. Those 7 notes make up a scale.
Whether it’s a major or minor scale you want to play, that has to be broken up by a certain ordering of whole and half steps to sound right. 5 black keys give you just what you need to compliment the white keys and to create different scale modes as well.
Why Do Pianos Have 88 Keys Anyway?
So we know about octaves and the different key amounts, but why exactly does a piano have 88 keys? Couldn’t it have 90 or even 100? The answer to this is pretty simple. There’s actually a little bit of history behind this to back up the reasoning.
In the old days, pianists used to play an instrument that didn’t feature nearly as many keys. It was called the harpsichord and only had about 60 total keys.
For it’s time that was plenty enough but as music modernized the harpsichord just wasn’t going to cut it. If you take a look at the music that was being composed at the time and even to this day, no composer really goes beyond the 7 octaves that a standard piano has.
Consider the pitches of the current piano these days. The higher you go in the frequency range the tougher it is for someone to hear; especially older people.
The same goes for the lower range and it becomes more difficult to decipher pitches in that lower frequency range too. Steinway pretty much set this trend with their 88 key models and it’s been the go-to formula for piano companies ever since.