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Piano keys: a simple guide to learning notes on the piano

piano keys

Have you ever counted the number of keys on a piano? The standard piano has 88 keys, but some electric keyboards have 64 or 44. Have you ever wondered why? Do you understand the difference between weighted and unweighted keys and why there is a difference at all? How many keys on a keyboard? Do pianos and keyboards have different numbers of keys? Do you know how to label the notes on your piano keyboard? Do you know any quick tricks to remember the number of keys on a piano?

In this article you will learn some basic history of the piano, the different styles of piano keys, and some tips and tricks to learn to memorize the names of the keys easily and permanently. 

How many keys on a piano?

Have you ever wondered how many keys does a piano have? How did we get to today’s 88 key piano? Before the piano, composers in the Renaissance and Baroque periods composed for the harpsichord. The harpsichord is a 60 key instrument that relies on a plectrum to strike the internal strings, as opposed to a felt hammer on a contemporary piano. As such, the harpsichord limited the range of music to an even 5 octaves.

Then, around the year 1700, an Italian harpsichord mechanic and musical instrument technician named Bartolomeo Cristofori invented a new keyboard instrument complete with a hammer and damper system, very much like today’s pianos. 

At the time, Cristofori was employed by the Florentine court of Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici. Their instrument registry lists an instrument called arpicimbalo or “an instrument resembling a harpsichord.” The instrument was described about a decade later by poet Scipione Maffei as gravicembalo col piano, e forte (harpsichord with quiet and loud), which is the first usage of the original name, fortepiano or loud-soft.

Cristofori’s fortepiano developed over the next century and by the mid-1800s had expanded to a 7 octave keyboard, big enough for the expressive range of emotions found in the music of Frederic Chopin and Franz Liszt. By 1880, piano manufacturer Steinway debuted the 88-key piano and their model has been the standard ever since. The 88 key piano includes 7 octaves plus an additional 3 keys below the bottom C. The contemporary piano has 52 white keys and 36 black keys with one octave equal to 7 white keys and 5 black keys. 

Contemporary styles

Contemporary composers generally stick to the standard 88-key range of the piano, but there are some exceptions. The world record keyboard is 9 octaves with 108 keys made by Stuart and Sons in 2018. Bosendorfer builds a 97-key piano with 9 extra keys at the bottom of the instrument. These extra notes on a piano add deep harmonic resonance to the already rich sound of the instrument.

What are weighted piano keys?

The keys on a piano are made in a number of different styles and with different weights. Some are weighted, some are unweighted. Some are made from wood and synthetic ivory, some are made of plastic or other materials. 

The weight of the keys makes the biggest difference. Traditional upright pianos use a hammer action system. This means that every time you push down a key, a felt tipped hammer inside the instrument strikes a string. This mechanism has a certain weight and feel to it that gives the piano its character. This feeling is called ‘action.’ A piano with light action is easier to play than a piano with heavy action. But, all acoustic pianos operate on this premise.

On the other hand, electric pianos and digital keyboards are made with a range of different weights and actions. If you read digital piano reviews, you will find that some digital pianos with weighted keys use a hammer action system that is designed to emulate the feeling of an authentic acoustic piano. These digital pianos are often less expensive than acoustic pianos and take up less room, which makes them an attractive choice. 

how many keys on a piano

Other digital pianos have semi-weighted keys. On semi-weighted keys, the action is controlled via spring, rather than hammer. These keys have lighter action and don’t have the same feeling as authentic hammer-action keys. But because they are easier to play, they are a good choice for a beginner.

Some electric pianos have unweighted keys, also known as waterfall keys or synth keys. These keys have no weight to the action and require minimal effort to depress, making them a great choice for younger children with small hands. It is important to understand these differences when you are deciding between a digital piano vs keyboard. These keys are also favored by organists and synthesizer players because the low action allows for fast glissando passages that create dazzling waves of sound.

How to identify keys on a piano

Have you ever looked at the piano keyboard and wondered how anyone could possibly remember the names of all the notes on a keyboard piano with 88 keys? Lucky for you, there are a few tricks to remembering all the notes on the piano key names. 

What’s the deal with the black and white piano keys?

The first trick is to learn the patterns of the black and white piano keys. If you look at the keyboard, you will notice there is a repeating pattern of groups of 2 and 3 black keys. You can use this pattern to orient yourself in the different piano scales on the keyboard. 

piano key names

The note C is on the outside-left of the group of 2 black keys:

black and white piano keys

After that, just follow the musical alphabet up the keys until you reach C again, one octave higher! Now you know the names of all the white keys on piano.

how many white keys are on a piano?

Another helpful trick is to label the note names on your keyboard. You can accomplish this with easy to remove tape. Place a small piece of tape on each of the keys and label the letter names with a pen that will not fade. That way the ink won’t come off on your fingers! This is a great trick for beginners to get to know the keyboard layout quickly and efficiently. Once you have your piano keys labeled, you can get rocking on some great tunes! 

Tying it all together

The piano has an important history in music. From its earlier incarnation the harpsichord, to the invention of the fortepiano, to today’s 88 key wonders of sonic magic, the piano is perhaps the most important instrument in the history of music. It’s 88 keys contain all the pitches of the orchestra in one instrument. It comes in many different styles and configurations, with many different actions and characters. 

Learning how to recognize the patterns and notes on the keyboard with Skoove’s online piano lessons will get you rolling on your journey to piano greatness! With over 400 lessons to choose from and an integrated listening program that gives you feedback in real time, Skoove is a fun way to begin your piano studies!

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Author of this blog post

Edward Bond

Eddie Bond is a multi-instrumentalist performer, composer, and music instructor currently based in Seattle, Washington USA. He has performed extensively in the US, Canada, Argentina, and China, released over 40 albums, and has over a decade experience working with music students of all ages and ability levels.

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