Do you know what this is?
Of course you do! It’s a piano keyboard. That special pattern of black and white keys on a piano is easy to spot. But how many black keys are on a piano, and why does a piano have black and white keys in the first place? Let’s find out!
- A typical piano has 36 black keys and 52 white keys. That’s 88 keys total.
- Every twelve keys on the piano (seven white keys and five black keys) make up one octave.
- The white keys are for the tones of the C major scale, C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. If you want to play in the key of C, just start on any C, stick with the white notes, and you’ve got it.
- The black keys on a piano are for sharps and flats.
All About Sharps and Flats
How do sharps and flats work on a piano keyboard? Take any white key and the first key to the right is that note sharped, while the first key to the left is that note flatted. For example the black key just to the right of F is called F sharp. If you want to play a song in the key of G, you’d use F sharp instead of F.
Notice that F sharp can also be called G flat, because it is the first black note to the left of G. How do you know which name to use? That will depend on where the black key fits in the musical scale you’re playing. In the key of G, the black note replaces F in the scale and is one step to the right of F, so we call it F sharp. But if you’re playing a song in the key of D flat, that same black note will replace G in the scale, and since it is one step to the left of G, we’ll call it G flat.
Black keys allow musicians to play music in any key by simply remembering which black key to play instead of which white key. Well, maybe “simply” isn’t the right way to put it. Remembering which keys to play can be tricky. That’s why it’s a good idea to practice your scales A LOT. Playing piano scales helps you understand how the black and white keys work together to create all the scales in modern western music. Even professional concert pianists practice their scales – it’s that important!
There’s a special scale called the chromatic scale, which is what you get if you play every single key on the piano. It’s kind of fun. Give it a try. You can hear a lot of chromatic scale tones in this famous piece, Flight of the Bumblebee.
Why Do Pianos Have Black Keys?
We’ve already talked about the fact that having black and white keys on the piano makes it easier to find sharps and flats and to understand scales and key signatures. Here’s another advantage to having black and white keys. Imagine a piano keyboard with no black keys:
So which note is what? Say you knew that the keyboard started on A and you wanted to find middle C. You’d have to count your way up 24 keys! And then what if you lost your place while you were trying to play a song? You’d have to count up from the bottom all over again.
But add the black keys, and now can you find middle C? Easy-peasy! Find the group of two black keys closest to the center of the piano and then slide down to the nearest white key on the left.
There’s your middle C. In fact, if you find any group of two black keys, slide down one step to the left and you’ve got a C. To know the letter name of any note on the keyboard, all you have to do is memorize where the letters of the musical alphabet belong in the simple pattern of seven white keys and five black keys. That’s so much easier than trying to pick a note out of 88 keys that all look exactly the same! If you’d like a fun and easy way to learn the letter names of the notes on the piano keyboard, check out Mr. Hoffman’s Piano Street video lesson, or play our Piano Street online game.
Because of the way the black keys are shaped, you don’t even have to look at them to find your way around the piano. Try closing your eyes and finding middle C. You can do it by feel! The shape and position of the black keys help pianists keep track of where their hands are even when they’re not looking at the keyboard.
Where do the Colors Black and White Come From?
Did you know that the very first keyboard instrument, the pipe organ, was invented over 2000 years ago in Greece and had only “white” keys? Most of these keyboards were small, with only a dozen keys or so, so it wasn’t too hard to keep track of which note was what. Later on, organ makers began adding raised keys for sharps and flats.
At first, every organ keyboard was different. Some of them had only one raised note per octave, others had four. It wasn’t until about 500 years ago that the pattern of five black and seven white keys that we see today became the standard. Keyboards with this pattern were used for pipe organs, harpsichords, clavichords, and eventually for the piano. On some older keyboards, the colors are even switched, with the regular keys black and the sharp and flat keys white.
In the past, keys were covered with white ivory or made from black ebony wood, which is where the colors come from. Modern piano keys are covered with good-quality plastic that has a similar feel to ivory, lasts a long time, and does a good job of protecting the wooden part of the key.
Fun with Black Keys
Did you know that if you play only the black keys on the piano, you’re playing in what’s called a pentatonic scale? This scale of five tones is special because of the pure, simple harmonies they create. It’s used in many music traditions around the world, such as Asian folk music and Celtic folk music. If you play on the black keys, no matter what you play it’s probably going to sound good. Sit down at the piano and give it a try. For extra fun, put down the damper pedal and let those harmonies ring!
It’s a Good Thing Pianos Have Black Keys
Black keys on a piano keyboard are very important. They give us a recognizable pattern that helps us quickly find notes, and they provide all the sharps or flats we need to play in any key signature. Thank you, black keys! You help make the piano the amazing, versatile instrument that people love to learn and play all over the world.