In many parts of the world, the piano is not a trivial instrument. Religious centers, clubhouses, and many places benefit from the melodies the piano is capable of producing.
As the last few centuries have proven, it has come to stay and can only be modified.
If you have ever thought or asked “what are piano keys made of?”, the answer will be stated in this article.
What Is A Piano?
Frankly, the piano’s definition has experienced changes over time. For instance, about 180 years ago, the traditional acoustic piano would only have qualified as a piano.
However, the place of electrophones and digitally compliant musical instruments have changed the definition. As a result, the word piano is nothing short of an ambiguous word. This is considering that a lot of instruments fall under the category.
When people say the word piano, they most often refer to the acoustic piano. This is understandable considering that it is the longest-serving piano option available.
Why Do the Piano Keys Look the Way they Do?
On the traditional acoustic piano and everything constructed to look like it, there are precisely 88 keys. This includes both the white and black keys.
The white-colored keys are more than black keys. Precisely, there are 36 black keys and 52 white keys.
White keys represent the piano’s major keys, while the black represents the minor keys. But it was not always this way. Originally, the harpsichord and other like-patterned instruments that influenced the birth of the pianoforte followed a trend.
They used the white color for the minor and black for the major. The pianoforte, as it was called back then, followed this trend. It is reported that Sebastian LeBlanc, a friend of the pianoforte’s inventor, raised the suggestion which was upheld.
The color switch was because of aesthetic appeal as well as convenience for learners and players.
With the majority of the keys black, the look was somewhat awkward. Furthermore, finding your way around the piano was going to be a difficult task, especially for newbies. As a result, the color switch was and is still a welcome development.
Materials for Piano Keys – Past and Present
To get the desired black major key color, piano manufacturers fell back to using ivory. This was made from the tusk of elephants, a commodity which was expensive and hard to come by.
This explains the reason why it was only courts, churches, and high-profile individuals who were able to get this instrument.
On the other hand, the white minor keys were made from ebony or some other special wood. Although not as luxurious and expensive as ivory, these woods were on a league of its own.
In the absence of the valued ebony wood, alternatives included basswood or spruce, sugar pine, and other kinds of dark wood.
However, the high point in manufacturing this instrument was the use of ivory. Other than a show of performance aesthetic, it was a pointer to class, royalty, and prestige at large.
So, at what point did this change?
Well, the change was not swift, but gradual. Considering that the colors were changed, the use of the expensive ivory reduced drastically. With the change came more need for wood and less for ivory.
It was at this point that middle-class individuals began to have the once antique instruments within their reach. However, the change did not stop here. This is because various environmental and safety motivated policies played a huge part in the way piano keys were manufactured.
The sale, purchase, and general trade of ivory are prohibited for two major reasons.
The first is geared towards animal rights protection. The second is to prevent the possibility of extinction. This is because of the alarming number of elephants that fall prey to poachers.
These regulations are taken seriously by the international community and sovereign nations. For instance, in Ski Lanka, violation of this rule comes with severe penalties. This is not to say ivory is not an item on the black market.
However, like it or not, piano producers realized that violating these regulations was not worth it. As a result, they opted for other means.
Also, the policies did not only affect the then conventional use of ivory. The use of ebony was subsequently affected. This was triggered by policies aimed at preserving wildlife and endangered species of plants.
Manufacturers began to explore other wood materials permitted by the authorities. However, the industrial revolution played a vital part in the use of synthetic items such as plastic.
As with some of the products, the keys were light-weighted but served the same purpose. The electrophone structured synthesizer or piano keyboard is a typical example of such an instrument. How did clients react to the use of such material?
Frankly, the feeling was divided. We like to think there were two perspectives: the conservatives and the liberals.
The conservatives were bent on upholding the piano’s history, steering clear of additions that could alter it. The use of plastic and the feel it gave was considered unacceptable. Such people argued that the piano was not just about performance but feeling.
On the other hand, the liberals were alright or even excited about the features instruments like the synthesizer provided. The digital features were a welcome development by these folks.
Among other reasons, the invention of the digital piano was to meet the expectation of both kinds of clients.
Also, to help conservative pianists, some brands have made headway with synthetic products. For instance, brands such as Yamaha have come up with a synthetic product called Ivorite.
This product is synthetic but has the feel of ivory. As a result, it is termed artificial ivory in some quarters. The use of such products does not violate state or environmental policies but meets the conservative’s expectations.
Many digital piano manufacturers opt for the use of these items. This is to have the perfect blend of the previous tradition and digitalization.
Below is a video explaining the materials used to make the piano.
Video: What are piano keys made of? | Cunningham Piano Co.
Other than the use of plastics which is common with making piano keys, wood is still a viable option. Some wood products have been proven to have the feel of ivory when used for making piano keys. Various hard nut species fall into this category. An example is with tagua nut.
As seen in this article, the materials used in making piano keys have gone through various modifications.
This has been caused by various factors ranging from wildlife and environment concerns to aesthetic appeal. Whichever form it takes, the piano is undoubtedly an instrument that has come to stay. It is only left for musicians to make the most of every form it takes.