Have you ever thought why all piano keys are black and white? If you ask any pianist, chances are they won’t know the answer to this question. In reality, there is not a simple answer.
There are many hypothesis’ about why pianos have black and white keys, but the fact is we really do not know. This question dates back to the harpsichord and organ. The most plausible answer is that they are black and white because that’s how the harpsichord was designed, from which the piano was invented. Because of this, we must go back further to learn why the harpsichord were black and white.
The piano was inspired by and created based on the design of the harpsichord. The harpsichord was invented sometime in the 16th century in italy.
Bartolomeo Cristofori was an expert harpsichord builder and was employed by the Grand Prince of Tuscany as Keeper of the instruments. Sometime in the early 1700s Bartolomeo built the first piano. One of the main differences was the piano was built with the natural keys (the white keys we know today) being black and the accidentals (the black keys we know today) being white.
It was not uncommon for harpsichords’ to be built with the keys inverse from what we know today. The French, German, and Austrian Harpsichord builders all built them with the colors inverted.
Generally the keys were made of bone, wood, and ivory. Some builders even used Tortoise shell for their dark keys. I think it’s safe to say that we have white keys on the piano partially because of the materials available at the time. Bone and Ivory were very common in pianos in those days, whereas today, it would be almost impossible to find a piano with ivory. Ivory use in pianos was banned back in 1970s.
Why did the white and black keys switch?
As I mentioned before, the black and white keys used to be inverted. This was probably mostly due to the harpsichord being that way to begin with and the piano was inspired by the harpsichord.
After Bartolomeo Cristofori built the first piano, it’s rumored that a family friend suggested the keys be switched. I’ve had a difficult time finding an exact source on this, but i’ve seen this suggested in multiple places. As to why he made that suggestion? We can only guess.
The biggest issue I see with having black keys as the natural keys is it would be very difficult to clearly see each distinct note on the piano. If you look at a piano keyboard, each white key is separated by a small gap where you can clearly see where each key begins and ends.
Now take a look at this next image and you’ll be able to see how difficult it really is to see each distinct note. This is exponentially harder to do when playing the piano and you are only able to quickly glance down to find the your position on the keyboard.
Why aren’t all keys just white or black?
This kind of goes back to being difficult to distinguish between the keys. The black keys help create a visual cue for us to see where we’re at. It’s easy to see patterns this way since the black keys are grouped in two’s and three’s.
The main thing that’s necessary to distinguish different keys on a piano (with any type of lighting) is contrast. You can’t find any more contrast than black and white.
We learned of many possible reasons why keys are black and white:
- Bone/Ivory were readily available and their natural colors were white and some types of wood were naturally dark
- The harpsichord was built that way
- The contrast helps us distinguish the notes easier
If you have any other possible reasons, please share your thoughts in the comments! I would love to get your perspective on this!