Piano keys 101: complete beginner’s guide

05.02.2022 Ben Maloney Piano

If there’s one thing that can be said for certain about pianists, it’s that they know their way around a keyboard. If you’re aiming to be one, then you’ll need to get familiar with it too.  

No matter the style of music, or the standard to which it’s played, it’s essential to have an understanding of the keys and their relationship to one another. For most, this will involve learning note names as a stepping stone to interacting with sheet music, but even if you don’t intend to make use of notation when you play, this awareness is no less useful.

It will form a solid foundation of theory and practice for you. On this, you can go on to develop a rounded piano-playing ability that’s versatile enough to take you in any musical direction that you might want to go in. 

To best realise this, you should consider this article alongside the other posts in the Piano Music for Beginners series, on piano notes and piano chords. While they relate in a variety of ways to what you’ll read about below, they go into greater detail on certain topics, so they’re worth checking out if you haven’t done so already. 

Here, it’s all about the keys though. Get your head around these and you’ll be able to more easily come to terms with notes, chords and everything else you have to learn in order to be a great pianist.

How many piano keys are there?
 

Pianos come in all shapes and sizes, from upright pianos to concert grands. Even so, the vast majority of them have a keyboard that spans 88 keys.

There are exceptions, with some models out there having as many as 108 keys and many digital (and even toy) pianos having notably fewer, but 88 is the standard, and this total comprises 52 white and 36 black keys.

Why do pianos have 88 keys?
 

The Italian instrument-maker Bartolomeo Cristofori built the very first pianos at the turn of the 1700s, and his keyboards contained just 49 keys. But as music evolved and musicians began to play and compose ever more ambitiously, the keyboard needed to expand - and so it did, and quickly.

Played by the likes of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, the ‘fortepiano’ was developed in the mid to late 18th century, and boasted over 70 keys. The music of these composers, which demanded even more of the keyboard, necessitated further changes that eventually led to the emergence of the modern piano in the 1800s. 

Later in the century, Steinway, one of the great piano-manufacturers in history, developed a model that had 88 keys. Finding that this new total encompassed the pitch range that most music utilises, other piano companies began to follow suit. And so the 88-key model became customary, and it remains the norm to this day. 

What are the 88 keys on a piano?
 

Let's look at the piano keyboard layout. The 88 keys can be divided into groups of twelve. Each key in each group shares a name with the other keys in corresponding positions in the other groups. So no matter which group of twelve keys you’re looking at, the keys will bear the names shown in the illustrations below. You'll notice that the black keys have two labels - we'll come back to that below.   

We’re going to investigate these groups of twelve a little more closely in order to understand how the keyboard is put together. 


Octaves
 

We can call each group an octave, though the word technically refers to the distance that it spans - as opposed to the group of twelve keys itself. In other words, then, an octave is the distance between any key and the one above or below it with the same name. 

As you already know, the groups of keys - and the names of the pitches they produce - repeat up and down the keyboard. This is due to a curious phenomenon causing pitches to sound the same at different octaves, even though they’re higher and lower than others that share the same name. This is what enables notes across the keyboard to harmonise. 

The standard piano keyboard in its entirety is depicted below. As you’ll see, as well as the seven marked octaves - 84 keys - that form the bulk of the keyboard, there are a few extra keys at the top and bottom that bring the total to 88 keys.

Middle C is also highlighted. Although it’s not at the exact centre of the keyboard, middle C is the landmark key only on the piano but also in piano music more generally. It should be the first note you learn, a reference point that anchors you as you explore the keyboard. 

What are the white keys?
 

The graphics of the piano octave that you've already seen indicate the names of the white keys. In very particular musical contexts they can be referred to differently. You’ll occasionally see a C described as a B-sharp (B), for instance, or a G labelled an A-double flat (A𝄫). But this is quite rare, especially in music that you’re likely to encounter as a beginner, so focus on the names above for now. 

If you’re at or near a keyboard, tinker with the white notes only. You might find that they all sound fairly harmonious, while straying to a black note can sometimes produce a more strident sound.

Key
 

This is because the white keys all form part of the same musical key. In this context, a key is not a piano key, but a group of tones used as the basis of a piece of music (they could have picked a different word, right?). This group is arranged in such a way that the tones go well together, sound pleasing to the ear when played. 

That’s because of the nature of the relationships between them, and it’s no coincidence that the white notes are laid out in such a way that those relationships are outlined. In fact, the arrangement of the keyboard itself was determined centuries ago by those very musical principles.

The keys of C major and A minor can be outlined using just the white piano keys. Because they share these same notes, they’re known as relative to each other. 

Play the white piano keys around an A and the sound will have a slightly different, more melancholy feel than if you play them around a C. By centering on A, you’re gravitating towards the key of A minor. Minor keys have that more thoughtful sound in contrast to the happier feel of major keys. 

Keys other than C major and A minor have a mix of both white and black keys. We’ll explore this in a bit more depth soon.

Scales
 

A key can be outlined using a scale, a sequence of pitches arranged in a set pattern. The most common patterns are the major scale and the minor scale, and these outline the notes used in major and minor keys respectively. 

The patterns comprise specific sequences of whole tones and semitones. Every single neighbouring key on a keyboard is a semitone apart. Separated by black keys, C-D, D-E, F-G, G-A, and A-B are two semitones - one whole tone apart. Without a black key in between, you can see that the gap, or interval between B-C and E-F is also a semitone. 

These patterns are movable, meaning that they can start on any note within the octave to make a new scale - and a new key. So to play a D-major scale, for example, you’ll need to shift the major scale’s sequence of tones and semitones so that it starts on D instead of C. That brings us to a couple of new piano keys that we haven’t encountered yet.

What are the black keys?
 

Introducing the black keys. As you can see on the image above, each of them can be referred to in two ways - as either a sharp of one neighbour or a flat of the other. This is because they represent the sharpened (raised) or flattened (lowered) versions of those notes. 

Whether a black key is referred to as a sharp or a flat depends on its musical context, namely the key that the music is in at that point. For example, because there’s a G♯ in the key of E major, in a piece of music in E major that black key would correspond to G♯ and not to A-flat (A♭).

As we said, playing a black key after having focused on white keys can sometimes sound jarring. But if you play black keys by themselves, you’ll find that they, too, produce very smooth and harmonious music. This is because their arrangement matches the pattern of the pentatonic scale.

The pentatonic scale has just these five notes, and with no awkward or dissonant intervals between the notes, there’s a high degree of consonance. If you find that the scale reminds you of Asian music, then your ear would serve you well. A lot of musical traditions, particularly in East Asia, utilise pentatonic scales widely. 

So, black keys work on their own just as well as the white keys. But, combined in the right way with white keys, black keys can widen our piano-playing horizons, producing a vast range of sounds and colours.

Keys and scales revisited
 

Earlier we talked about shifting the major scale pattern from the all-white C major scale up a whole tone to the D key, to give us the D major scale. 

The fixed sequence that both scales use involves the steps shown below, which are taken from the tonic note of each scale. We’ll use D major as our example, the tonic of which is D (whole tones are denoted by ‘W’ and semitones by ‘S’). 

We’ll give you the steps that make up the minor scale as well, using the B-minor scale. This is the relative minor of D major, meaning that it contains the same pitches, but the scale starts on a different note in the sequence - in this case B.

As the images show, when we apply this pattern to a D key, we get the following notes: D, E, F♯, G, A, B, C♯ and the D an octave higher. We have two black piano keys in this scale, but because they’re part of a strong musical key relationship with the white piano keys, they sound sonorous when combined. 

Note that F♯ and C♯ are used instead of G♭ and D♭. That’s because in a scale each letter has to appear once in sequence, and if we’d used G♭ and D♭ then there would have been no F and no C. 

Named as extensions of white keys, black keys can sometimes seem like secondary, even intimidating notes, but they’re just as important as the white keys - and they’re certainly nothing to shy away from.

The key of B♭ major, for example, is a really important and frequently used key. For this reason, it’s crucial to master all the keys. So ensure that you familiarise yourself with both black and white keys.

You can find out a little more about keys, scales and the theory behind them on this music theory cheat sheet. Check it out, print it off and keep it to hand so that it can answer any questions that come to mind at any time. 

Examples of piano keys
 

We’ve already looked at the keys and scales of C major, A minor and D major, but below you can see a few more outlined on the keyboard. Committing them to memory and being able to play them on demand will be great for your piano-playing. They’ll boost your theoretical understanding as well as your playing technique.

Which keys go together?
 

We’ve already looked at piano keys sounding good together because they belong to the same key or scale. This is something to bear in mind when thinking about keys going well together, but the real building block here is intervals.

Intervals
 

Intervals refer to the distance between two notes. Although other factors can affect the way intervals are worked out, what matters most when it comes to keys is the number of semitones that separate the notes. 

We’ve actually already encountered one interval: the octave, the distance between a key and the key above or below it with the same name. An octave interval is made up of a gap of thirteen semitones. There are other intervals though. We’re going to explore some, but you’ll find a fuller list on the music theory cheat sheet.

There are few intervals that work particularly well when the two notes are played at the same time - thirds, fourths, fifths and sixths. 

Fourths and fifths, the same in both major and minor scales that begin on the same key, are called perfect intervals, and they’re particularly strong. They comprise a gap of five and seven semitones respectively - C-F is a perfect fourth, for example, while B-F♯ is a perfect fifth.

Thirds and sixths come in major and minor versions, because the third and sixth scale degrees are different in major and minor scales starting on the same root. Major as well as minor versions of thirds and sixths harmonise well. 

A major third, such as D-F♯, is made up of four semitones, while a minor third, such as D-F, involves just three - one less than major. Sixths work similarly. A major sixth like F-D is made up of nine semitones while a minor sixth such as F-D♭ spans eight - again, one less than its major counterpart.   

Notes just one or two semitones apart don’t gel particularly well when they’re played at the same time, but they combine more effectively when played one after the other, as in a melody. Tunes moving by step in this way are easier to remember, sing and play. In terms of intervals, a whole tone is equal to a major second, as a semitone is to a minor second.

When thinking about keys going well together, intervals are a good place to start, but once you start combining more than two, then you’ll find yourself stepping into the world of chords. 

That’s where things get really exciting. If you want to explore this route, then take a look at the piano chords for beginners article, which will introduce you to a range of basic piano chords.

More examples of piano keys
 

Below you can see different kinds of intervals between various notes as they appear on the piano keyboard. Remember that the thing to look for when identifying intervals is the number of semitones between the two keys.

 

Try these out until they feel natural under your fingers and you begin to hit these intervals intuitively. Then you can start combining several at once, stepping into chordal territory. 

Bear in mind that this is all just theory and that there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to navigating the keyboard. The most important thing is to go with and focus on what sounds good to you.

How piano keys are structured
 

If you’re the kind of person that likes to know how things work, you might be wondering how the keyboard is actually put together. How is it that, by simply pressing down on a key, you can produce this perfect, resonant tone?

The keyboard mechanism involves a fair few moving parts, but the principle is pretty simple. By pushing down on a key, you activate an interlocking system that results in a felted hammer striking a metal string. The length and thickness of that string is such that when it is struck, the desired tone is produced.

This is why pianos are often considered to be a member of the percussion family of instruments - because sound is produced by something being struck with an implement. 

Note that the harder you press the key, the harder the hammer comes down, and the louder the note produced - the opposite goes for a softer press. Make sure that you keep this in mind and develop a degree of control over this. In a piece of music, the intensity or dynamic of the note produced can be no less important than its pitch and timing. 

Is 49 or 61 keys enough to learn piano?
 

Some worry that if they practice with smaller keyboards with 49 or 61 keys, like those described at the outset of this article, then it might be difficult to adapt to a full-size piano keyboard. 

You definitely don’t need to worry about that. Because all piano keyboards - no matter the size - are built according to the repeating octave pattern that we’ve outlined, even smaller ones allow you to understand the fundamentals of the keyboard and the relationship between its individual keys.

Next steps in learning piano keys
 

Now that you’ve read the piano-key theory, the next thing to do is start putting it into practice. Get to a real piano keyboard and start familiarising yourself with keys, scales and intervals. If you need some advice on how to approach your piano practice, then have a read of this article dedicated to sheet music practice.

That article discusses notation in some detail, which is something that we haven’t really covered here. If you want to know more about piano notes, transferring the skills you’ve acquired here to reading sheet music, then have a read of piano notes for beginners

Beyond that, if you want to take your understanding of sheet music to the next level, then you should find how to read piano sheet music useful. That article will also be of interest to readers keen on learning more about the theory. If that’s you, don’t forget to check out the music theory cheat sheet too.  

And once you think you’re ready to take on some fully fledged piano sheet music, remember that there’s a world of it waiting to be discovered on the nkoda app. 

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