As I watch talented musicians play the piano on TV, in concerts, or online, the sight of all those black and white keys spanning the length of the piano keyboard amazes me. But it leaves me wondering – how many keys are on a piano exactly?
Like most people, I’ve seen pianos all my life but never stopped to count the number of keys. Finding the answer requires a look back at the history of the piano’s development over centuries.
In this article, I’ll explain the total number of keys found on pianos and the historical reasons behind that number. You’ll also learn key details about the colors, arrangement, and octaves covered by modern 88-key pianos. Let’s dive in!
- A Look Back at the History of Piano Keys
- The Keys on 88-Key Pianos
- Choosing Keyboards With Fewer Than 88 Keys
- Frequently Asked Questions About Piano Keys
- Now You Know How Many Keys Are on Pianos!
A Look Back at the History of Piano Keys
To understand why pianos have the number of keys they do today, we need to go back in time.
In 1700, Bartolomeo Cristofori of Italy invented the first piano, called the pianoforte. This early piano had 49 keys, allowing players to produce notes at different volumes by varying the force they used.
Compared to later pianos, the first pianoforte had a narrow range and sounded more like a harpsichord. But it marked an important evolution from previous string instruments.
Over the next century or so, piano makers experimented with keyboards of varying sizes. Some pianos had as few as four octaves, or 49 keys. Others had up to five octaves spanning 61 keys. There was no standard number of keys yet.
It wasn’t until the 1880s that Steinway & Sons finally standardized the 88-key piano keyboard. This number of keys covered the maximum range most piano music required. As a result, the 88-key layout became the accepted standard for pianos going forward.
Even today, while some very advanced pianos have 97 or even 108 keys, most standard acoustic and digital pianos have 88 keys. So where did this magic number come from? Let’s break it down.
The Keys on 88-Key Pianos
On a full-size 88-key piano keyboard, the keys are arranged like this:
- There are 88 keys total
- 52 of the keys are white
- 36 of the keys are black
The white keys are known as the natural notes, while the black keys are the sharps and flats. But piano key colors used to be reversed centuries ago!
The 88 keys span over 7 complete octaves, plus an added 3 keys. There are 12 notes per octave, so 7 octaves equals 84 notes. Add the extra 3 keys, and you get the total of 88 keys.
Going from left to right, the notes range from the lowest A key up to C. This covers the widest range of notes needed to play most piano compositions.
While some very fancy concert pianos have more than 88 keys today, those extra keys on the top and bottom are rarely used. Most music simply doesn’t require that expanded range.
Choosing Keyboards With Fewer Than 88 Keys
With the 88-key piano being standard, what happens if you buy a piano keyboard with fewer keys?
Keyboards with 61, 66, or 76 keys are common for beginners and players on a budget. But they limit which notes you can play.
A 66-key keyboard, for example, covers five and a half octaves. This gives you the full notes needed to play quite a bit of music. But you may run into trouble with complex classical pieces or jazz compositions with lots of accidentals.
Buying a keyboard with even fewer keys, like 49, further restricts your playing. You’ll only have four octaves to work with.
So if you’re serious about advancing far into piano playing, I recommend starting with at least a 76-key keyboard, if not a full 88 keys. Those extra keys give you room to grow and take on any song.
Frequently Asked Questions About Piano Keys
Why are there 88 keys on pianos?
88 keys cover a range from the lowest A to highest C that includes all notes needed for most piano compositions. This number evolved as a standard over centuries.
How many octaves does an 88-key piano have?
Seven full octaves, plus an added three keys. Twelve notes per octave times seven is 84. Then the extra 3 keys totals 88.
Why are piano keys black and white?
The white keys (naturals) follow the Western diatonic scale. The black keys (sharps/flats) fill in the gaps to complete the 12-note chromatic musical scale.
Were piano keys always white and black?
No, they were originally the opposite! Up until the late 1800s, keyboard keys were commonly covered in ebony for the natural notes and ivory for the accidentals.
Do professional pianos have more than 88 keys?
Rarely. Some advanced pianos have up to 108 keys. But the extra keys on the low and high ends are seldom used, so 88 remains the standard.
What’s the minimum number of keys needed to learn piano?
61 keys can work, but I recommend at least 66, or 76 keys to have the full range for most music. More keys give you room to grow.
Now You Know How Many Keys Are on Pianos!
We’ve covered a lot of ground exploring the history and details around piano keys. Let’s recap the key facts:
- The standard piano has 88 keys, 52 white and 36 black
- The 88 keys span 7 complete octaves, plus 3 extra notes
- This layout evolved over centuries before becoming standardized
- Extra keys beyond 88 have limited musical benefit
- Keyboards with fewer than 88 keys restrict your note range
Now you know pianos have 88 keys total, comprised of 52 natural white keys and 36 black sharps and flats. This covers a note range of seven octaves plus three extra keys, allowing you to play most compositions.
Understanding the total number and layout of keys on pianos helps in shopping for the right 88-key instrument. Whether acoustic upright or digital, go for the full keyboard to truly master playing piano down the road.
With your new knowledge around the keys, you can approach any piano you encounter with a greater appreciation of its design. And maybe even impress others at parties with your piano key facts!