What are piano keys made of and why?

20th July 2017

So, you love to sit and play your piano every day, but have you ever wondered why the keys are black and white, and what exactly they are made of? Our blog will explain all so you can get back to concentrating on playing what you were born to do.

The layout of piano keys

There are thousands of individual working parts in the body of each piano. Most modern pianos have a total of 88 black and white keys, made up of 52 longer white keys for the notes of the C major scale and 36 shorter black keys, which are raised above and set back from the white keys.

The colour of piano keys

If all the keys on a piano were the same colour (e.g. white) then sitting next to each other, they would all feel and look the same. And that would make it extremely difficult to learn to play the piano!

By making the black keys skinner and shorter, the pianist develops a feel for the geography of the notes. The pattern layout is made up of seven white keys and five black keys. The same pattern is then repeated a few times, depending on the size of the piano.

The white keys are known as natural notes and the black keys are known as the sharps and flats.

Original piano materials

Traditionally, longer keys were played more often than shorter keys, so they were conventionally covered with strips of ivory as it’s such a hard-wearing material. The shorter keys weren’t played as much, therefore were made from simple dark wood, such as sugar pine, spruce or basswood and were called ‘black notes’.

They are still referred to by many as the ‘ivories’, however the piano industry abandoned ivory as a material to make keys from in the 1970s, which wasn’t that long ago really was it?

If your piano was made before this period, there are a few tell-tale signs that depict whether the keys are ivory. It’s not always that simple as manufacturers try and replicate these characteristics, but generally speaking, here are the rules:

  • Ivory keys are not usually one solid piece, they are made up of three parts so you should be able to see fine lines where they’re joined
  • If you look closely, ivory has a pattern like a finger print
  • Ivory has a texture, whereas most plastic keys feel smooth
  • Ivory is porous so gets dirty easier and can yellow too

Definition of the piano key material

Ebony is a black hardwood, dense in composition with a high-quality, even gloss finish when polished.

Traditionally prepared from elephant’s tusks or animal teeth, that are large enough to carve or scrimshaw, ivory is a tough bone tissue. The ivory trade is highly controversial resulting in many alternative materials being sought to replace its traditional use.

Piano keys today

Today you will find that most piano keys are made from some sort of plastic as this is easy to make, affordable and is durable. Yamaha even designed and developed their own plastic that looks and feels like ivory, called ‘Ivorite’.

Also, did you know? There is a species of hard nut becoming popular as a replacement for ivory. Vegetable ivory, or the tagua nut, is the seed of the ivory nut palm, native to South America and Africa. Unfortunately, its size limits the options of what it can be used for, typically only growing 4-8cm in diameter.

Is there something else you would like to know about your piano? Get in touch – we’d love to help – call 01562 731113.