Most modern pianos have 52 white and 36 black keys, but the piano didn’t always have 88 keys. The earliest rendition had only 54 keys, and for a time, 85 keys were the norm.
Why do pianos have 88 keys? A demand for a wider range led to the continued expansion of the piano, ultimately culminating in the standardizing of the 88-key piano in the 1900’s.
We’ll explore the history of the piano, 88 keys, and other pianos that break the norm and have more than 88 keys.
The Invention of the Piano
If you’re new to the piano, you may be curious about the history of the piano. When did the piano start and what is the history of the piano? Before we talk about the piano with 88-keys, let’s first take a step back and look at the piano predecessors.
Earlier Versions of the Piano
Stringed instruments go back as far as ancient times when the strings were stretched over bows, gourds, or boxes and a sound was made through the vibration of the strings. The piano is, ultimately, a stringed instrument and this type of music has an interesting history.
The Hammered Dulcimer
As early as 900 AD people used an instrument called the hammered dulcimer. The Smithsonian states that this “ancient ancestor of the piano” likely first originated in the Middle East, but may have been played even earlier in Ireland.
There is a version of the dulcimer that is plucked (the mountain dulcimer), but the hammered dulcimer relies on striking the strings, much like the modern day piano.
In the 14th century, the Clavichord was invented. This instrument largely resembled the piano, and like the hammered dulcimer, had a series of hammers that struck strings to create a sound.
This instrument had four or five octaves depending on the make. When a key was pressed, a brass rod called a tangent would strike a string to release a sound. Though the clavichord was fairly large, the ornate rectangular box would often sit in the lap of the performer.
In the 1500s in Italy, the harpsichord was invented. The harpsichord had 60 keys and a five-octave range. Instead of hitting strings with a hammer, the harpsichord plucked strings with a spectrum.
Bartolomeo Cristofori’s Pianoforte (or fortepiano)
Around 1700, a musical instrument technician named Bartolomeo Cristofori updated the harpsichord with a new invention called the pianoforte. His updated version used a hammer and damper mechanism — not plucking like a harpsichord. The pianoforte only had 54 keys that ranged 4 octaves.
The pianoforte is very similar to the modern-day piano, with a few differences. For instance, the modern-day piano’s strings have a higher tension and the hammers are wrapped in felt instead of leather. Still, for most intents and purposes, Cristofori’s invention was the first piano.
Why the Piano Grew in Range
Composers liked Cristofori’s new piano but were frustrated by the limitations of the 54 keys. The composers of the time like Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart were getting much more dynamic and interesting in their music, and they demanded a wider range with more keys. The demand for a greater range led to the continued expansion of the piano.
In the mid-1800s most pianos had 85 keys. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th-century pianos began to have the addition of the three high note keys. Those who prefer to play piano music from the early 19th century or before would find that the music from that time did not include those additional keys. Only in 20th-century music did you find music using those highest keys.
The Steinway Standard
Heinrich Engelhard Steinway was one of the biggest names in pianos in the 1850s and beyond. He built his first fortepiano in secret in Germany and later immigrated to America where he changed his name to Henry E. Steinway and founded Steinway & Sons. Steinway & Sons dominated the piano making market and their name was popular worldwide.
In the mid-late 19th century the Steinway Hall was the premier concert venue in New York City. This marketing plan was copied by other competing instrument manufacturers, but without the success seen by Steinway.
Steinway was the largest piano manufacturer in the 1880s, and most other piano making businesses fought to keep up with the competition. When Steinway decided to make a piano with 88-keys (adding those three additional keys), other piano manufacturers fell in line. Steinway’s pianos became the standard other companies followed.
Why Stop at 88 Piano Keys?
A natural next question is why stop at 88 keys? Why not add more? There are several reasons for this, although there are some pianos that do have extra keys which we will discuss later in this article.
The Human Ear Range of Sound
Perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to keep the traditional key range is the human ear. Once a sound reaches too deep in the bass or too high in the treble it’s difficult to hear. Deep sounds begin to sound like a roar and high pitches become indistinguishable or even irritating to the human ear.
The Increased Cost of Piano Making
When adding more keys to the piano also means a restructuring of the entire instrument. There must be more customizable parts and more materials to make an instrument with a larger range.
In addition to a higher cost, the instrument itself will be much larger both in size and weight, making it less compatible in the home and much harder to transport.
A Case For More Piano Keys
There are some who think the addition of more keys enhance the piano experience. They argue that the extra keys make a difference in both the sound and feel of the composition. So why do some piano makers include more keys?
The Enrichment Of the Sound
When additional keys are added to the piano, you won’t only benefit from the notes but also the overall sound of the piano. The extra piano keys create a more satisfying and richer sound throughout the instrument, even when those notes are never touched.
Greater Capability for Innovation
Another argument for a larger key range is capability. While earlier renditions of the piano were stuck in a time when resources and technology were limited, today’s piano makers have both new technology and the proper resources to make pianos with a larger range.
When the pianoforte was invented, strings were made from copper or iron which had a much lower breaking point. Today’s pianos are made with steel which provides more capability than its predecessor.
In addition, newer technology and design has made it possible to build a piano that can handle more keys, something that wasn’t available in the 1850s.
Composers May Enjoy the Larger Range
Over the years it has become custom to make music within the parameters of the 88-keys. Composers perform songs written with this range and haven’t demanded more. However, that doesn’t mean that modern composers may not enjoy having a larger range to work with.
Stuart & Sons a piano manufacturer and advocate for the larger piano range, writes,
In 1880, as the piano finally reached 88 notes, we can indeed assume that it was the mere result of those two parameters. Technical possibilities made it rather hard to go further and most composers were satisfied with it. Nevertheless, if the keyboard’s range does not evolve for several years, pianists quickly settle into their habits. The more you wait, the more these habits become hard to change, for pianists as well as for builders. This probably explains the stagnation that has been observed for about 130 years.
Can You Find Pianos With More Range?
Though it isn’t common, there are some pianos today and through history that have more than 88 keys. Notable pianos with a larger range include:
- Stuart & Sons piano. In September of 2018, Stuart & Sons released a 108 key, nine octaves, acoustic piano called the Beleura.
- The Bösendorfer Imperial Grand Piano is a 97-key piano with an extra octave. The additional keys are in the lowest bass segment and add harmonic resonance even when they’re not played.
- Pianos with 90 keys. There is a small segment of pianos that have 90 keys, including Erard’s Model No. 3 and Ibach’s F-V.
- Pianos with 97 keys. Stuart & Sons also made a 97-key piano as well as Pape. These pianos include extra keys in both the bass and treble portions of the piano.
Is the Future More Than 88 Piano Keys?
It’s unlikely that the 97 or 108 key pianos will become the norm. The majority of piano music is composed with the standard 88-keys and the wider range pianos are much larger and therefore much more difficult to move or store.
Even so, there are some musicians like Fiona Joy Hawkins and Isaiah Firebrace have enbraced the 108-key Stuart & Sons. Wayne Stuart of Stuart & Sons said in an interview with NPR, “I’d hate to go back to the 88-key piano. I couldn’t stand it. It’s too limited…Beethoven would have loved the sound of the Stuart piano.”