This post has nothing to do with how to play piano. It does, however, impart information that is necessary to properly learn the piano or at the very least for you to be able to have some intelligent conversation about this grand instrument.
The Keyboard Layout
Most pianos will have 88 keys. However, the piano keyboard is best studied if broken down into a 12-key section. At the heart of the piano is this 12-key section repeated over and over (7 times+) to form the full keyboard layout. We use what is called the “musical alphabet” to name the keys. The musical alphabet runs from A – G. The left end of the piano will start on the musical alphabet letter A, and it will end on the musical letter alphabet C.
Now that is only 7 letters, and we have 12 keys in each section. This is where the terminology of sharps and flats will come into play. Technically, every key on the keyboard has various names. The “C” key can either be C or B# (B sharp). You will decide which name to give each key depending on the scale you are playing or key you are playing in. If you go the left, it’s a flat. If you go to the right, it’s a sharp.
Note: When you hear someone speak of “C” (for example) in the music world, this could mean a few different things.
- This could be the one physical note of C (in any of the different sections).
- This could be the chord C major.
- This could be referring to “playing in the key of C (major)”, which means to play in the C major scale.
We will cover more about scales further down. There are no sharps and flats in the C scale, which makes it the easiest key to learn to play in. You can learn about the C Major Scale here.
Black and White
When you look at the piano, it is natural to assume that the black keys have a different function than the white keys. However, this is not the case. Every key on the piano is equal in musical value. They are all what the music world calls a half-step or semi-tone apart from each other. The music will start to take shape after you apply patterns to it. Patterns are used to arrive at the makeup of the various scales, chords, and fills that are used to compose songs. Even many people that are playing “by ear” don’t have a clue about music theory, patterns, etc., but they are still using music theory, just unbeknownst to them.
The black keys have no different value than the white keys, but in order to make the piano easier to play, they came up with the black/white scheme. If the black keys were the same size as the white keys, then the piano would need to be twice as long, which would be huge and impossible to play. Also, breaking the keys up by color gives the player the ability to tell the keys apart by sight. In addition, the black keys are in alternating groups of two and three.
Under the Hood
The inside of the piano looks like a harp. At the left end are really long strings, and as you progress to the opposite end, each string is just a little bit shorter than the last one. The long strings make the low notes, while the short strings make the high notes. Each piano key is wired to its own string, so that when you hit the key, it plucks the desired string. If you look inside the piano, you will see that the black keys and the white keys keep the same string reduction pattern. (C is shorter than Bb, C# is shorter than C, D is shorter than C#.)
A Little Music Theory
Each key is used to start its own scale, using a scale step-pattern. The Major Scale uses the following step pattern: whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step. Refer to the “What does it mean to play in the key of C?” post for more diagrams and explanations.
Since there are 12 main keys, there are 12 Major Scales. The 12 Major Scales are: C, G, D, A, E, B, F#/Gb, Db, Ab, Eb, Bb, F. You can find the accompanying chord charts for each scale here. Notice that the scales are not listed in normal alphabetical order. They are, instead, listed in what is called the circle of fifths, which goes above and beyond your basic intro that I’m doing here. But the short of it is this: G is 5th note up in the C scale. D is the 5th note up in the G scale. A is the 5th note up in the D scale, etc. By the time you get all the way down to F, it will bring you back full circle to C, because C is the 5th note in the F scale.
This was a good “get your feet wet” lesson. You may not remember everything that you read, but if you here the terminology, you might be able to fake through the conversation. The more you study, the more you will know.