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How Many Keys Does a Piano Have? The Evolution Piano Keys 

 March 16, 2021

By  Zen Chung

If you have developed an interest in learning the piano, you must have wondered how to navigate the keys to create any form of good piano music. There are several vital things to learn about the piano before you even start playing, and the most important is the number of keys.

There are several types of pianos with different keys, and depending on where you are in your playing career or space you have for playing, you can choose between different keys. Keep reading this article to learn some piano history to understand the standard number of piano keys and how they make a difference in the kind of piano sounds they produce.

How Many Keys Does a Full-Size Paino Have?

The standard piano has a total of 88 keys. These keys span seven(7) octaves and three(3) extra notes. To use these keys, you need the expertise and skill of playing a traditional piano. Have you wondered how a traditional piano came to need all these keys?

The history of the piano

The history of the piano started with an instrument called a harpsichord. The harpsichord had a 5-octave range which became limited as music composition evolved. As it quickly became inconveniencing, Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco, an Italian musical instruments maker, created an instrument that could offer more performance capabilities than the harpsichord.

This new instrument featured a hammer mechanism to strike strings for better performance and sound. An inventory by the court of Grand Prince Ferdinando de' Medici mentioned that Cristofori had created an Arpicimbalo del piano e forte. This instrument resembled the harpsichord with 60 keys. Later on, when Scipione Maffei, a then poet and journalist, described the instrument like a harpsichord with quiet and loud, Cristofori's pianoforte found its name.

In years to come, composers continued writing music that demanded more performance from the instrument. The pianoforte had 4 octaves which were limiting the composing world. Piano makers continued increasing the number of octaves until there were seven in the mid-1880s, during an era where great composers like Chopin and Liszt were familiar names.

The invention of the 88-key piano is documented since the late 1880s when the piano manufacturer Steinway introduced the now full-size instrument. To date, this piano is the standard model with 7 octaves and 3 lower B, B flat, and A notes just below the bottom C major note. The piano features 52 white keys and 36 black keys, also known as sharps and flats.

Why Are 88 keys a Standard Number for Pianos?

The 88-key piano remains a standard model for most music composers because any more than this number could be too high or low. If a piano plays a note below the lowest A, the human ear may not be able to recognize it. Likewise, a note higher than the highest C note would be too high for the human ear to comprehend.

Also, since it is the most famous piano model, most composers make music that fits within the range of notes performed by the piano, thus encouraging more manufacturers to make it.

However, there are several types of pianos that don't follow the 88-key model. For example, the Stuart and Sons company manufactured a 108-key piano in 2008 with 9 octaves. Another company, Bösendorfer, also manufactures and sells a 97-key piano with the extra 9 keys colored black so the player can choose to use the piano as an 88-key model.

The Emánuel Moór Pianoforte is a specially-designed piano that has 2 rows that total of 164 keys. It s used by the most experienced players and composers like Louis Lortie or Yanni, among many others. The lower row of the piano contains 88 keys, while the upper row has 76 keys. This piano allows a musician to play 2 octaves with one hand since each key on the upper row contains a higher octave than the corresponding key on the lower row.

Other pianos have different numbers of keys for different playing needs. For instance, it would be difficult for a new piano student to learn to play on a full-size piano, especially children who may not reach all keys. Therefore there are several types of pianos with fewer keys intended for students and home use.

Types of Pianos with Shorter Keyboards

Before 88 keys were considered to make the standard piano, pianos had 85 keys with seven octaves from A₀ to A₇; 50 white keys and 35 black keys. Even now, there are types of piano keyboards that contain fewer keys.

The following are pianos and keyboards with fewer keys for people looking to learn to play or those who want to play the piano from home.

1. Electric pianos

Electric pianos from companies like Yamaha and Kawaii use a playing mechanism similar to acoustic pianos and feature built-in amplifiers for pickup. While there are upright and grand electric pianos with 88keys, some contain fewer keys for learners and other non-professional players. These are pianos with keys ranging from 64 keys to 76 keys. For example, Helpinstill, a piano manufacturing company, sells a 64-key piano with 38 white and 26 black keys, and the tones span over 5 octaves between A₁ to C₇.

2. Electronic pianos

An electronic piano uses an analog electric circuitry mechanism to release notes when a key is pressed. While there are not many electronic pianos today, there are some that contain only 61 keys of 36 white and 25 black keys spanning 5 octaves between the first F key and the sixth F key.

3. Digital pianos

A digital piano is renowned today as the best choice for learners and children; For this reason, it is sold at a very affordable price, is portable, and more often, contains a fewer number of keys.

You can find digital pianos with as few as 32 keys, as well as 88 keys. A 32-key piano, or a toy piano, will have 23 white keys and keys 13 black keys with the C, D, E, F notes, and it is ideal for little children who love a piano of their own. Additionally, there are 36, 37, 49, 54, 61, and 76-key digital pianos. All the models with 61 keys or less have fewer keys starting with C-note, while the larger pianos will have keys starting with the A-note.

References:

1. The Piano: The Pianofortes of Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731)

https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cris/hd_cris.htm

Zen Chung


I'm Zen Chung, a piano and violin teacher based out of Plano, Texas. I started this blog because my students (and their parents) kept asking about the best musical instruments to buy online. Look no further I'm here to save the day! 

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