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What are the Black Keys on a Piano – Identifying Them

What are the Black Keys on a Piano – Identifying Them
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Black keys? There’s a musical band from Ohio named after the minor keys on pianos. This musical group is known as The Black Keys. Well, we like to think that’s an unusual but amazing name.

This group has thrilled the hearts of lots of people with great music and positive vibes. You should know this piece isn’t about to discuss them, at least not yet. Rather, let us talk about what they are named after.

Say hello to black keys on pianos.

If you are anything like us, we have sight issues with the black color. Amazing shade for some. However, there’s just one problem: we do not like it. Seems sort of dull and unappealing to us. However, as a pianist, we have seen the wonders of the black color, or at least what it covers.

This dull color (for me) is capable of making bright and lively music. Ironic, isn’t it? If you must know, the possibility of a good piano music is largely dependent on two or three things.

This has nothing to do with the color of the piano. These pertinent factors include the piano player, the state of the piano as an instrument, and sheet music played, if sheet music is used. Although our views are subjective, we definitely have great pianists. 

For instance, we are lovers of classical music. In that regard, Beethoven tops the chart for us. His piano sonatas are amazing and should be a point of call for every classical musician. To read more about this, you can click here.

So, what are the black keys on a piano?

The musical keys and notes come in either the white or black color. This is a manufacturer’s tradition that hasn’t and wouldn’t change anytime soon.

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In this article, we will address what black keys on a piano are, the history of the use and modifications, among other things. If your aim is to learn any of these or more, just sit back and read on.

If you prefer a visual explanation of this article, below is a detailed and helpful video.

Video: What are the Black Keys on a Piano (Identifying Them – Part 1)

The White and Black Keys on the Harpsichord

Obviously, the use of the white and black color is unanimous for every piano manufacturer. From Yamaha, Motif, Steinway and Sons, to a host of others; the white and black keys are used the same way.

In our time playing and writing about this amazing instrument, we have never seen otherwise. The white and black keys are what they are on every type and brand of the piano.

Especially with electrophones, their digital functions may be different. This might be evident with key transposition, tempo, demo recording, among others. Still, one thing stands out with them. They all have the white and black keys which is a universal and age-long practice.

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Haven established that, how did it all begin? Did any other color ever come into the picture? Was there ever any modification to the use of the black (and white) keys?

At every point in time, these two colors have always been the shades for piano keys. The organ, acoustic and digital piano, keyboard, harpsichord…. all these instruments used and still use these two colors only. 

You should know the white and black keys existed before the invention of the piano. How is that possible? Good question!

A couple of instrument precedes the piano. Particularly, the harpsichord existed prior to the pianoforte, as the piano was called at that time.

The pianoforte’s invention by Bartolomeo Cristofori was aimed at correcting the inability of the harpsichord to play in certain ways. Considering that the word pianoforte means soft-loud, that part of the harpsichord’s inability is apparent.

In contrast with the harpsichord, the pianoforte could play musical pieces with dynamics. A player could play soft or loud, suspend selected notes, as well as all notes. In this context, the high point of the pianoforte, was the effectiveness of the pedals.

Beethoven was one pianist who enjoyed this possibility compared to his classical counterpart. The likes of Mozart and Haydn graced the stage when the harpsichord was the available option. Beethoven had an edge. He was trained with the harpsichord but met the pianoforte along the line.

In his assessment of Mozart to one of his students, Beethoven inferred something unusual. He affirmed that Mozart was an amazing composer, nonetheless, his pieces where void of dynamics. Well, this was largely as a result of the harpsichord’s inability.

Let’s get back to the place of black keys on the harpsichord. There is a major difference between the use of the black key on the harpsichord and the piano. What is that?

Simply, the colors were switched.

Below is a video explaining why the colors were switched

Video: Why Were the White Keys and Black Keys on the Piano Reversed?

As things stand, the major music keys are white keys. On the other hand, black keys represent the minor keys.

As against this known trend, the case was different with the harpsichord and instruments before it. The major keys were black, while the minor keys were white. This is unlike the pianoforte, piano, and the keyboard

The person responsible for this change was Sebastian LeBlanc. Sebastian was a friend of Bartolomeo Cristofori, the inventor of the pianoforte.

After expressing his admiration for the instrument, Sebastian LeBlanc suggested a switch in the color pattern of the keys. As we have it today, the advice was taken and upheld.

For the early pianos, the major keys were black, while the minor keys were white. As against the early pianos, the major keys are white while the minor keys are black on the present-day piano.

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This has informed the pattern found with the present-day piano. The major keys are white, while the minor keys are black.

What Informed the Color Switch

Some historical assumptions cannot be entirely proven. This decision falls into that class. Some theories stress that identifying black major keys was a hectic process, especially for newbies.

While this is not entirely proven to be the reason, there could be an element of truth in it. The dull nature of the black shade would have proven difficult to identify, especially in places without enough illumination.

So how did pianist of those times cope?

This is not so hard to answer. The world has witnessed a handful of blind piano virtuoso. How did they achieve this?

Regardless of the stress and difficulty, humans can achieve so much. Just if they set their hearts to achieving it.

Against all odds, Beethoven composed mind-blowing sonatas and other musical works without the ability to hear it. He could not even hear the applause of the appreciative audience after the performances.

With these examples, the black color for the major keys was the least of problem any determined pianist could encounter.

Another theory explaining the switch in color was the use of wood and ivory. It is believed that both wood and ivory were used to make the piano keys. On one hand, black keys were made of ivory, while the white of wood.

By a wide margin, the price of ivory exceeds that of wood. As a matter of fact, the process of getting ivory is usually illegal in many places. Considering the potential extinction of elephants and the ideals of animal protection, using elephant tusk is highly prohibited in many parts of the world.

In plain terms, using ivory has always come at a huge price. This is either financially, legally, but definitely as a result of its scarcity.

White keys are more than black keys. In those days, the piano keys were not up to 88 as we have on the conventional acoustic piano. As with the harpsichord, the initial sets of Pianoforte consisted of 60 keys.

Let’s imagine the colors were not switched and ivory was still used to make black piano keys today. What would this mean?

This would mean there would be 52 black keys and 36 white keys, as against what we have today. This means manufacturers would need to make 52 black keys with ivory and 36 white keys with wood.

To cut the cost of production, the color switch was made. This meant more wood was used than ivory. In order words, more cheap stuff was used, making the pianoforte affordable for more people.

The harpsichord was usually an instrument of luxury in the courts of royalties and high-class citizens. The common man could not have access to this instrument except through the church. This is a major reason why most of these composers had history with the church.

The likes of Joseph Haydn, Handel, and a host of others fall under this category. If the theory was true, this would have informed why subsequent composers could have the piano within their personal reach.

Identifying Black Keys

As stated earlier, white keys are major keys, while black keys are minor keys. If you are a beginner, any white key you strike on any piano is a major key. In the same vein, any black key struck is a minor key.

That leads us to the question of how to identify the white and black keys. No worries as this is not rocket science. There is a simple technique that can be learnt to aid this.

First things first, you should know all the music keys.

Music Keys

There are 7 major keys in music. These keys are the first 7 letters of the English alphabet. The letters A – G are the major keys in music. In the context of music, the letters A – G are not called letters or alphabets. Rather, they are known as keys.

Rather than saying letter C, you would say key C Major. In plain terms, the 7 letters are known as keys. On pianos, the major keys are the white-colored keys.

Minor Keys

As earlier pointed out, the minor keys are the black colored keys on pianos. They are 5 in total. To understand them, you have to understand the concept of accidentals in music.

What are accidentals?

Accidentals consist of 3 main signs. At the preliminary level, you should pay attention to the first 2 signs. The 3 signs are:

# – Sharp

♭- Flat

♮ – Natural

The Sharp (#)

This sign raises any note or key by a semitone. It is more like moving forward in music. For instance, if you were on key A Major and used a sharp, you would move forward to Key A#. That is pronounced as Key A sharp.

The Flat (♭)

The flat is directly opposed to the sharp sign. It means that the key or note is lowered by 1 semitone. This is like moving one step backward in music. For instance, if you just played key B major and applied a flat, that would take you back to key B♭.

The sharps and flats are the basis of the minor keys. There are minor keys between major music keys, except in between B – C and E – F. In plain terms, let’s go over the minor keys in between the major keys.

Between:

A – B      =             A# or B♭

B – C      =             None    

C – D     =              C# or D♭

D – E     =              D# or E♭

E – F       =             None

F – G     =              F# or G♭

G – A    =              G# or A♭

If you observe the illustration above, you’ll see there are the 5 minor keys in between the major keys.

You can call a black or minor key by its sharp or flat names. For example, you could either say F# or G♭. Either way, you would be saying the same thing. In light of the aforementioned, there are 12 music keys: 7 major keys and 5 minor keys.

Major KeysMinor Keys
Key AA# or B
Key BC# or D
Key CD# or E
Key DF# or G
Key EG# or A
Key F
Key G

What Are Black Keys

The minor keys are located right in-between some of the major keys. As with the piano and every other inclined instrument, black keys are in-between some white keys. To this end, we need to identify white keys first.

If you look closely at the piano or keyboard, you’ll notice black keys are in sets of twos and threes. The twos or threes may come first. Whichever comes first isn’t so important.

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However, for the records, the acoustic and digital piano usually starts with 3 black keys. In contrast, synthesizers usually start with 2 sets of black keys. As established before now, whichever starts first isn’t so important.

The second thing you’ll notice is that no 2 or 3 sets of black keys follow each other. After a set of 2 black keys, you’ll find a set of 3 black keys. If that isn’t the case, you’ll have 3 black keys and 2 black keys following. You could use any of these set of black keys as your focal point.

The white key before every set of 2 black keys is Key C Major. From that point, you can start counting. After that, you have D, E, F, G, A, and B. You will notice that the white key before every 3 black keys is Key F Major. Let’s give a visual description of white keys.

Key C –  White key before every set of 2 black keys.

Key D –  White key in between every set of 2 black keys.

Key E –   White key after every set of 2 black keys.

Key F –   White key before every set of 3 black keys.

Key G –  White key after key F

Key A –  White key after key G

Key B –  White key after every set of 3 black keys.

Once again, you will notice there is no black key in between key B – C, as well as key E – F. now that you know how to identify white keys, you are one step close to knowing black keys.

Simply put, the black key names are influenced by white keys around them. For instance, the black key between key A – B is key A# or B.

The sharp sign indicates that it is a step ahead of the white key. The flat sign indicates it is a step backward from the white key. The table below shows the major keys on one end and minor on the other.

Major KeysMinor Keys
Key AA# or B
Key BC# or D
Key CD# or E
Key DF# or G
Key EG# or A
Key F
Key G

Some tutors use the chopstick and folk technique in describing black keys of the piano. The 2 sets of black keys sometimes are figuratively called the chopstick. On the other hand, the 3 sets of black keys sometimes are figuratively called the folk.

Black Keys – How Many Do We Have?

The number of black or white keys on any piano inclined instrument is not unanimous. By piano inclined instrument, we mean the organ, harpsichord, keyboard or synthesizer, and instruments in that category.

For the conventional acoustic piano, we have 88 keys in total. That includes all the white and black keys. Black keys are 36 while white keys are 52. The same cannot be said of every like patterned instrument.

The Black (Minor) Keys – Are They Minor?

First, you should understand a usual practice in music. There are lots of English terms and concepts that have different meaning in music.

For instance, the words – staff, rest, flat, natural, and keys –are all English words with entirely different meanings in music.

Owing to this fact, the word minor does not exactly mean trivial or less important. Unlike the English inclined meaning, the word minor in music is not less than the major. In plain terms, the major and minor keys all have the same qualities.

The minor keys can do everything the major keys can do. For instance, you can run the diatonic or chromatic scales using black keys as your tonic.

As a matter of fact, the white and black keys are arranged in a particular order. For example, the next key after key A is not key B. That would be key A#. So, in that order, you have key A, Key A#, and key B.

The only keys that have exception from this pattern is B – C, as well as E – F. This is because there is no black or minor key in-between these keys. Asides from them, every other white key has black keys in-between them.

To highlight the importance of black keys, they make identifying white keys easier. It would be very difficult to know white keys on pianos without black keys. With this illustration as shown above, you see how relevant black keys are in this regard.

Key C –  White key before every set of 2 black keys.

Key D –  White key in between every set of 2 black keys.

Key E –   White key after every set of 2 black keys.

Key F –   White key before every set of 3 black keys.

Key G –  White key after key F

Key A –  White key after key G

Key B –  White key after every set of 3 black keys.

You can see how black keys are important in identifying every white key on any piano. Unlike white keys placed touching each other, black keys come in 2s and 3s. This makes key identification very easy.

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Final Notes

Black keys are what they are – integral parts of the piano’s key composition. They carry the exact value of the white key and nothing less.

In this article, we have discussed the historical modifications to black keys. In plain terms, we observed that the colors were switched after the pianoforte was invented. What used to be black keys became the white, and the white keys became the black.

Other than that, the natural shades, white and black, have been solely used for the piano keys. Many things about the piano keys have changed over the years. However, the use of the white and black keys remains.

For instance, the properties used to make the piano keys are items that have changed. Things such as plastic, ivory, and synthetic wood have been used to make the piano keys.

Furthermore, we discussed how to identify black keys, using the accidental signs as focal point. Do not forget the rules; the name of the black key is influenced by white keys around it.

For example, the black key between C and D will take the name C and D. The only difference will be the use of the sharp or flat key. For C and D, the black or minor key in between would be C# or D.

The sharp (#) sign indicates that black key comes after the white key it is named after. In contrast, the Flat sign (♭) indicates that black key comes before the white key it is named after.

In passing, the major difference between the ancient harpsichord and the pianoforte was also discussed. Haven learned all this, make good use of these black keys, as you run the scale and play good music with it.

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