When Did 88 Keys Become Standard on the Piano?

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This is a common question. Sometimes you will see pianos with more keys, (as in the Bosendorfer Imperial and Stuart & Sons concert grand pianos) but most of the time they have less. Is this something to be alarmed about? Let’s explore this subject.

The original design of the piano evolved from the Harpsichord which had about five octaves of keys. Throughout Beethoven’s life, the piano evolved in its robustness as well as the keyboard range. He demanded more out of the instrument in regards to dynamics utilizing techniques that simply outgrew what pianos of the time were capable of producing.

By the middle of the 19th century, pianos typically had 85 keys. By the end of the century, pianos began to emerge with the now standard 88 keys. It wasn’t really until the late 1880s when 88 keys became standard on pianos.

So if you have a piano or a keyboard with less than 88 keys is it something to worry about? It really depends upon the music you are playing. If you’re playing very old music – that was originally written for the harpsichord or early piano – it won’t be an issue at all. However, if you play a great deal of 20th century music, then you might want the full 88 keys but it really isn’t a deal breaker since these keys are used sparingly.

Much like the sostenuto or middle pedal, 88 keys are a late development in the the evolution of the piano and not necessarily something you absolutely need unless you’re playing a great deal of relatively modern music.

Thanks again for joining me Robert Estrin Robert@LivingPianos.com. Please keep those questions coming in!

9 thoughts on “When Did 88 Keys Become Standard on the Piano?”


  1. Thank you for the information. I always throught it would be Romantic music. but since 88 wasn’t standard they wouldn’t have used them-especially the early Romantic composers like Chopin.
    Again, Thank you for the information.

  2. Deborah,

    Robert gave a brief overview of the instrument’s frequency range. However, this is a complex story where a more in depth response may be available via Paul Corbin a French piano Technician who has recently published a paper on this very subject.

    Given the period of so called romantic music, pianos did not have 88 keys as Robert points out. It was an 1880s addition and by then well into the Impressionist period.

    In fact, a number of makers built pianos with more keys than 88 up until Bosendorfer released their Imperial model in 1900. The first maker to build more than 85 or 88 was Henri Pape in 1844. His down striking grand had 97 keys F to f and was built to demonstrate the tensile limits of the music wire of his time.

    There is no standard frequency range for the acoustic piano but rather a convention or tradition of usage. In fact, the limits are defined by physics and practical application. It is possible to add approximately 2 octaves to the 1880’s standard and once and for all build pianos with 108 keys or 8 octaves for every tone of the chromatic scale. This is in fact, where makers have been aiming for 300 years.

    Your question is based in the fear mongering of moribund piano players who often tend to shun change and innovation forgetting that the piano has been a major source and focus for innovation in music during its long evolution.

    Bring on 108 keys and then we can play the compositions of Artur Cimirro the Brazilian pianist composer who has had the guts to venture into these realms.

  3. I have always found that whenever I play a piano with less than 88 keys I do miss the extra keys. I have a baby grand at home with 88 keys. Nothing that special 1950s Eavestaff 4’6 baby grand but I’m really happy with it for what I paid, and it fits in the room!
    I have a smaller electric piano with 76 keys whioh I take to gigs and I really find that its actually too few and I had not realised just how much I used the full keyboard until I started using this smaller keyboard as well.

    So people looking for a piano/keyboard to buy for their kids to learn on. Please get at least a 85/88 key acoustic piano!

    Its also probably worth noting though that pianos with 85 keys might be too old unless fully restored, and if it is a later piano with 85 keys chances are it is a “cheaper” instrument in the first place.

  4. In my long career playing at piano bars and regular skuzzy bars, I often played on pianos with 88 keys,not all of which worked.I have clipping from a Las Vegas paper in which a columnist was present when a string snapped on the little spinet I was playing on stage (at the Showboat..many years ago). He found an opportunity to wax eloquently over my “wondrous ability to avoid playing that broken key”.
    It was great press.

  5. Robert is a fellow who absolutely loves pianos and piano technology. I would love to be able to afford a Bosendorfer and hope this great instrument preowned some day might be available from him.

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