Beginning the process of learning to play an instrument can be difficult. It requires a great deal of dedication, and it might require the purchase of an instrument that will make your music education easier.
Many people choose to learn music while utilizing an instrument like a piano, organ, or another type of keyboard. Keyboards provide a way to understand music physically unlike any other instrument. If you make the piano your focus, you will undoubtedly have questions about the layout and construction of this instrument.
How Many Keys are There on a Standard Piano Keyboard?
The simple answer is 88, but that doesn’t explain the reason for variations in keyboard designs. 88 is a strange number. It certainly doesn’t explain why there are so many available keyboard size variations.
The standard full piano keyboard has 88 black and white keys representing musical notes in a wide range. The entire “sound spectrum” of a standard keyboard is more than seven octaves.
The full piano keyboard composes pitches that are lower and higher than all the instruments of a symphony orchestra. The keys of the piano (white and black keys), cover all pitches that are commonly used in western music.
Why 88 Keys?
Since the invention of the Bartolomeo Cristofori hammered piano in the early 1700s, piano makers have been struggling with the issue of proper tuning. In order to produce tones of extreme ranges, string lengths had to be standardized. It was discovered that pitch integrity also required the use of strings having different diameters.
By the end of the 18th century, manufacturers like Stoddard, Warnum, Hawkins, and Stein streamlined construction methods for the modern concert grand piano.
All of them had nearly double the range of the Christofori piano.
Technological innovation, and the desire for more sounds to play, influenced the standardization of 88 keys on the piano. Until the 1920s however, pianos of all sizes were common in concert halls and homes.
In today’s piano market, 88 keys is the typical measure of a keyboard.
Pianos of All Sizes are Still Available
Modern technology has made pianos economically available to virtually anyone. Choosing a keyboard size has a great deal to do with performance needs.
Classical and recording pianists normally choose pianos with 88 keys. This ensures that they will be able to play the notes required in diverse types of music.
People who need keyboards as a musical interface with computer sound programs might choose one that is very limited in range. This can be as small as two or three octaves. Stage keyboards for pianists in bands are similar.
Educators sometimes choose instruments like digital pianos that have only 66 keys. This size provides enough range for students with limited ability. Pianos of this size are also great for people who are working in smaller spaces.
A Very Special Keyboard Size
There is one piano that exceeds the standard 88 key size. It is known as the Imperial Grand, and it is produced by the Bösendorfer Company. This piano has 97 total keys. Nine extra bass keys extend this piano’s range to eight full octaves.
Extending the range of the keyboard also expands the overall size of this piano’s frame. Those extra keys require very long and thick strings for tuning. As a result, Imperial grand pianos are almost a foot wider and longer than any other standard grand with 88 keys.
Imperial grand pianos are usually reserved for performances in elite concert halls. There are very few of them in the world. Most concert grands with 88 keys cost between $15,000 and $50,000. Limited edition Imperials with 97 keys can exceed $500,000.
Searching for a Piano: Practicality With 88 Keys
Again, because of modern technology in manufacturing, finding a piano with the standard number of 88 keys is easy. They are produced by hundreds of different companies, and encompass a huge range of price tags.
The difficulty in finding a piano rests in choosing a style, not searching for a keyboard range. Modern acoustic pianos (those with hammers and strings), generally feature 88 keys no matter the size and style of the instrument. Here are a few of the most common piano styles.
Spinets: This is the smallest type of standard piano. It has vertical strings, limited volume, and a very small frame.
Consoles: Consoles have a longer sound board than spinets. This makes the volume range wider.
Studio Uprights: This is the most common vertical piano style. This style provides maximum tone quality, but it is very affordable and durable.
Upright Grands: These pianos produce concert quality sounds, but require minimal floor space.
Concert Grands: Petite, Baby, Full, and Imperial concert grand styles have the best sound quality of all pianos. They are also the most aesthetically pleasing.
It doesn’t matter was style of piano a person chooses. All of them are now produced with the standard 88 keys. The keys themselves are also the same size. Key widths and lengths only vary by millimeters across all patented designs. The biggest difference is key depth. Console and spinet pianos sometimes have a shallower key action than their grand cousins.
What About Digital Pianos?
Digital sound production technology is responsible for the rise in popularity of digital pianos. Sound made from electrical components eliminates the need for constructing frames, boxes, soundboards, and hammers. Of course, strings aren’t needed either.
Digital pianos can produce the same sounds as a concert grand, but only require a few square feet of floor space. They can also be transported easily by hand. Digital keyboards also have 88 standard keys, but different sizes are widely available. 88, 66, and 54 keys are all popular sizes in the digital piano market.
Tips for Choosing the Right Keyboard/Piano
If you need a keyboard that is smaller than the standard 88 keys, “going digital” is probably the most practical solution. Don’t forget, digital keyboards can be amplified. Otherwise, a smaller acoustic keyboard will usually be found in a place that specializes in antique instruments.
Start your keyboard search by assuming the standard size of 88 keys. Then, weigh considerations like,
- Budgetary limits.
- Available space to display the keyboard.
- How often tuning will be needed.
- How the keyboard will be used (schools, concert halls, personal use).
The history of how 88 keys became standard for piano keyboards is rich and interesting. Keyboard and sound technology continues to evolve, and piano construction is constantly improving.
88 keys meet the needs of most pianists, but that doesn’t mean a new standard isn’t possible in the future. More keys could mean more musical possibilities. For now, “88 is great!”