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Origins of the Black Piano Keys

Origins of the Black Piano Keys

What are the origins of the black piano keys? Did they have white piano keys and then some Italian Renaissance genius dreamed up the idea of black keys? Have you ever wondered how the piano came to have both black and white keys?

Why should there be two differently colored groups of keys (the whites and blacks?) Why not just have an unending row of white keys? Why do the black keys have an uneven pattern of 2 3 2 3 2 3 2 3 2 3 2 3 etc.?

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The answer lies in both the physics of acoustics and the construction of the human hand. The first keyboards were derived from an ancient Greek water organ called the Hydraulis (see the illustration at the top of the page.) This organ-like instrument had a uniform group of levers (think “all white”) that you pushed to make the sounds.

It was probably much like a bell tower carillon. We have no idea what it sounded like. Maybe like an organ playing only on the white keys.

It Started With Seven White Keys

The keys (levers) on a Hydraulis were generally organized into groups of seven keys. These corresponded to the seven white keys on the modern piano. In Piano By Number 1  2  3  4  5  6  7.  In Classical Piano C  D   E  F  G  A  B.

A scale is the mathematical rationale that governs how much higher each key will be in pitch than the previous key.

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All White Keys

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 

One Black Key

(b7 "flat seven" is the black key in between 6 and 7)

1 2 3 4 5 6 b7 8   

Soon composers wanted to go beyond the limitations of the seven (white) keys. They realized that they could add other tones, in between the white tones. They began to add other “black” keys. These extra keys were colored differently from the others and set apart slightly to distinguish them. The “black” keys opened up a new world of sound possibilities.

These possibilities were not achievable with just the seven “white” keys. My theory is that the first added note was “flat seven” or the black key that is in between 6 and 7 (see drawing above.)

Chopin Black Key Etude

 Adding More Black Keys

Starting with one black key, composers eventually discovered that there were five (black) keys that could be added to the original seven white keys. This made a total of seven white keys, and five black keys. This process took thousands of years, coming to its final, modern form during the Renaissance.

Thus our “scale” has 12 notes. The Chinese have 5. The Hindus have 27. The $64,000 question is how the black keys came to be grouped in twos and threes.

Why Groups Of Two And Three Black Keys?

The answer lies in the construction of the human hand, but to understand that we must first examine the keyboard itself. Imagine, if you will, an imaginary piano keyboard that has alternating white and black keys across the entire 5-foot length.

You can visualize this if you take a piece of paper or cardboard and hold it perpendicular to the keys, masking your view of the black keys. What do you see? A mass of white keys with no way of distinguishing exactly which white key is which. Now imagine again the keyboard as described above, an imaginary piano keyboard that has alternating white and black keys across the entire 5 foot length.

Even with black keys, one is still lost, as there is no pattern in the white-black arrangement that will allow you to consistently pick out any particular black or white key. All the eye can see is white-black-white-black endlessly, with no way of finding any pattern to the arrangement.

Black Key Grouping Provides Visual Order

Sometime around 1400, some very clever person realized that if you put the black keys into groups of two and three, (2+3=5) a recognizable visual pattern emerged that allowed a player to easily distinguish each key, white or black. History does not record who this genius was.

But why raise and recess the black keys? The answer lies in the human hand. We have five “fingers” but they are not equal in capability at the piano. The thumb is dominant and yet it is the shortest finger on the hand.

The Keyboard Fits The Human Hand

Thus the piano keyboard fits the human hand by making the white keys closer to accommodate the shorter thumb, and the black keys further away to accommodate the longer “non-thumb” fingers. You can see this by simply putting your hand on a keyboard. Your thumb will comfortably reach the white keys and the other fingers are easily within reach of both the black and white keys.

Name another complex machine from the Renaissance that has survived like the unique design of the piano keyboard. No other device, except perhaps the glove, fits the human hand so perfectly. 


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