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 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.

What are white piano keys made of?

Initially, the white piano keys were made from ivory, but this has changed since the ivory trade has been banned to save elephants and rhinos from extinction, although apparently, there's still a minimal amount of it legally available.

Nowadays, you're likely to find the white keys on the piano made of plastic (which chips less easily than ivory), or ovirite (a plastic developed by Yamaha that looks and feels like ivory). Plastic keys are less expensive, easier to work with, and less prone to damage, unlike ivory which chips and cracks easily when overused.

Pianos built over 300 years ago, had keys made from wood entirely, but then ivory became a preferred material due to its excellent quality and durability.

Ivory typically comes from rhinos and elephants. As a result of high demand, the global ivory trade led to millions of these animals' slaughter in the past centuries. In 1990, a global treaty was signed, banning trade in all kinds of rhino or elephant ivory.

Pianos with ivory keys are no longer manufactured, but many older pianos with ivory keys still exist and are in use.

What are black piano keys made of

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, they were made from simple dark wood, such as sugar pine, spruce or basswood, 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:

What Is Ivory?

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

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

How do I know if my piano keys are ivory or plastic?

  • 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 fingerprint
  • Ivory has a texture, whereas most plastic keys feel smooth
  • Ivory is porous, so gets dirty easier and can yellow too

Can You Get Replacement Ivory Keys?

If your piano has a more significant number of chipped or missing keys, it is very much possible to replace them with a set of plastic keys. This procedure can cost you about $600 for grand pianos and $500 for upright pianos.

Do ivory piano keys turn yellow?

Yes, ivory keys can turn yellow. Pianos are an incredible work of art that makes living rooms look amazing, especially when the music is played, but cleaning these instruments is not easy. And when the keys start turning yellow, the instrument isn't as pleasing, and playing music isn't as exciting as before. However, there are things you can do to turn the keys white again.

If you're unsure of whether your keys are made from plastic or ivory, you can do a quick check. Ivory keys are a bit rough, while plastic keys are smooth. In both cases, using soap and water to clean the piano does more damage and is not advised. Below are a few steps to restoring your yellowed ivory keys.

  • Remove stains from pure ivory keys with natural acids: Ivory is porous by nature. Depending on the severity of the stains, claiming the keys will take a couple of hours. Diluted lemon juice and milk are helpful when it comes to removing the yellow stains on your instrument. Although it might sound bizarre, the acid does a beautiful job in whitening your instrument keys.
  • Cleaning ivory keys with toothpaste: Use mild white toothpaste to clean your instrument keys. Gently apply the toothpaste to the keys with a soft cheesecloth or flannel, then let it sit for some minutes. After that, wipe with whole milk and then expose the freshly cleaned keys to indirect sunlight, preventing the keys from yellowing again.

Is it Unethical to Have a Piano With Ivory Keys?

Pianos pre-dating the 1950s are inexorably linked with elephants' hunting and slaughtering to obtain ivory, both legally and illegally.

Pianos became popular instruments in the 1900s, and that's when the demand for ivory became too much. With around 17000 elephants being poached each year, in 1990, a global treaty was signed, banning trade in all kinds of elephant ivory.

Intimately, the decision is up to you – some people find using pianos with ivory keys unethical, while others think it's okay.

Is it illegal to sell a piano with ivory keys?

It is not illegal to sell a piano with ivory keys within the country's boundaries, but it is unlawful to import, buy, and sell ivory products internationally.

What are piano keys made of now?

Today, you will find that most piano keys are made from some plastic as this is easy to make, affordable, and durable. Yamaha even designed and developed their 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.