Why are there Black and White Keys on the Piano?

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012 Uncategorized

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When I was first asked this question I almost laughed; it seemed like such a simple question. Then when I started to think of the answer I realized it was much more complex than I initially thought; so here is the answer for you!

The most important reason is, if you had all white keys, it would simply be impossible to find your place on the keyboard – you would have to start at the bottom and count up all the keys to find a specific note! The black keys create a simple visual cue, a repeating pattern of groups of 2 black keys and 3 black keys which help you find your place on the keyboard.

However, keys aren’t simply laid out in order of black and white without meaning; there is a basic logic behind the layout which reflects the basis of major/minor tonality. When it comes to pitch, the distance between all adjacent keys on the piano– from black to white, white to black and where they occur, white to white – are all the same; they are all half-steps apart.

But what is the significance of the pattern of black keys relative to white keys? The white keys of the piano form a C major scale! It is a series of whole steps (2 keys together, one key between) and half steps (2 keys together, no keys between) in which they are all whole steps except between the 3rd and 4th notes (E and F), and the 7th and 8th notes (B and C). So when you play all the white keys from C to C you are playing a C major scale!

You can play in any key on the piano by utilizing specific black keys when playing in any key other than C major. This is reflected in key signatures, a topic for another video for you!

9 Comments to Why are there Black and White Keys on the Piano?

  • Of course this does not hold true for all string instruments; being fret to fret is the minor 2nd distance n therefore keeps going in a chromatic order or all the way, to say open to the 12 is an octave n entails the 13 place and beyond . . .

  • Julianne Guitry says:

    Thanks for the great video :) A simple question with a logical answer.
    Julie

  • Brian Lotter says:

    Saying that they are because C would be major is like saying the sky is blue because we like blue. If it was meant to purposefully create a major scale, then why wasn’t C called A? In fact, if anything, they are positioned to create a minor, since we categorize starting on A.

    The original keyboard instrument had only a diatonic keyboard structure (250 BC), IE all white keys. After which it is theorized that a Bb was added to get away from the natural tritone that happened between F and B (some scholars believe that it was in fact the F# that was added first, for the same issue.) After that, more notes were added, and different keyboard layouts were used and tried. With the evolution of the keyboard came a general consensus to have the keys set up in a way that one layer would be a diatonic scale, and the other, a pentatonic scale.

    There is a much larger ‘rabbit hole’ question here, but this should explain the original question a bit better.

  • Greg Lundell says:

    Robert,
    Ken Bedes got me on your email list a couple of years ago, after tuning my piano in Lake Forest. Ever since, I have viewed, read and enjoyed learning from you the various aspects of the piano. Our family’s piano is a 1929 Brambach that we had fully refinished and restrung in 1980. I’ve loved and played it all my life, and try to incorporate your teachings into my playing. Thank you for producing the videos and continuing to send them to me.
    Best Regards.

  • On occasion I have been asked to play a harpsichord. On these keyboards the colors black and white are reversed. Why?

  • Jed Levine says:

    I don’t know if this is true, but I read somewhere that the reason the black keys are raised and in the up direction from the white keys is to accommodate the human hand, so the shorter thumb would play the white keys and the other four fingers can play white or black.

  • One more obvious point; if there would be only white keys with no raised onse of whatever color, the intervals would become too wide for the human hand.

  • Ron Fone says:

    Surely if all the keys were white and laid out next to each other would not the key board itself be almost twice as wide??!!!

    The video was excellent…please add me to your mailing list.

    I am a seventy one year old man who is sftruggling to learn to play, having never had a lesson in my life…it sure looked easy!!!

    Regards,

    Ron Fone

  • Ricardo says:

    Hi,

    Why, are the steps and half steps where they are in the major scale? I mean, why is the half step between the 3rd and 4th notes (E and F) and not betwen 4th and 5th, or 5ht and 6th…?

    Thanks,
    Ricardo

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