Standard pianos have 88 keys (52 whites and 36 blacks), but why do they have so many? Is it a norm? Right since the piano’s invention, composers wrote various music for harpsichord having only 60 keys. It meant that everything is written was limited to the harpsichord’s five-octave range. Later, the 1st piano got invented in the year 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristofori, a musical instrument technician based in Padua, Italy. He developed the piano with the idea that it was time to update the harpsichord and eventually came up with a new keyboard instrument having a hammer mechanism.
Cristofori worked for the Florentine court of Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici during 1688. His task was to look after harpsichords and other instruments. In 1700 as mentioned by Medici instruments, Cristofori invented an Arpicimbalo i.e. an instrument that resembled the harpsichord. It had a brand-new hammer and damper mechanism with two keyboards and a range of four octaves (49 keys).
Later in 1711 Scipione, a journalist and poet described this invention as “Gravicembalo col piano, e forte’” or Harpsichord with loud and quiet sound. It is here when pianoforte found its name.
Composers Felt The Need to Expand Their Range of Music
Just after people came across Cristofori’s amazing musical invention, composers started working on more and more music for the piano. However, the four-octave range of the instrument was limited which made piano manufacturers design new pianos having more keys to let composers like Mozart and Haydn write challenging materials for a fuller keyboard.
Later when Romantic composers such as Liszt and Chopin started writing music in the mid-1800s, pianos started to have seven octaves that allowed them to compose pieces having more ambitious range such as bafflingly virtuosic ‘La Campanella’.
The Invention of the 88-Key Piano by Steinway
By the late 1880s, Steinway a piano manufacturing company created an 88-key piano and since then this model has been the standard and still in use. This model had seven octaves and three additional lower notes (B, B flat, and A) below the bottom C. It comes with 52 white keys and 36 black keys (sharps and flats), with each octave made of seven white keys and five black keys.
Why Didn’t The Piano Manufacturers Go Beyond 88-Keys?
Most composers today write piano music fitting within the range of the 88-key model. The manufacturers also accept it as the limit because anything beyond it is considered too low or high for the human ear. However, there are exceptions. In 2018, Stuart and Sons came up with their 9-octave piano having 108 keys.
There is another piano with 97-keys sold by Bösendorfer having nine extra black colored keys helping to distinguish this model from the standard 88-keys. However, the additional keys are rarely used but their extra bass strings do add harmonic resonance contributing to the rich, overall sound of the instrument.
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