Why Do Pianos Have 88 Keys? The Answer Revealed

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Have you ever asked yourself why do pianos have 88 keys? It’s important to note that pianos didn’t always have 88 keys, but rather the number of keys evolved throughout piano history.

The first pianos had fewer keys, like a harpsichord. But, back in the early 18th century, composers wanted to expand the pieces they could write. So the piano evolved as an instrument, and in 1880 Steinway introduced the 88 key piano that we use today.

In this article we take a look at the history of the piano, its evolution and different manifestations over time, and through this discover why pianos have 88 keys.

How the Piano Evolved: A Tour Through Piano History

The evolution of the piano happened gradually over hundreds of years. Before the modern piano as we know it today was invented, musicians would compose and play music on the harpsichord. This classic instrument looks similar to a piano, although it is a lot smaller, with only 60 keys and five octaves.

The Harpsichord

Harpsichord

Bartolomeo Cristofori is credited as the person who invented the piano. He was a musical instrument technician from Italy and he decided that the harpsichord needed an upgrade. Not only was it restricted to 60 keys, the tone it produced was very limited. So he decided to invent a new keyboard instrument that had more to it.

Harpsichords work in a similar way to a piano. The sound from a harpsichord is created when a mechanism called a jack plucks the strings within the instrument. This plucking effect gives the harpsichord its distinctive tone.

It also two keyboards, one situated above the other, and no sustain or damper pedal. Piano pedals, when used correctly, can be used to create emotion when playing a piece of music.

Sadly, the music of harpsichord had very little emotion, which is why it was due for an overhaul.

The plucking mechanism also meant there was no way to play notes loud or quiet, everything just sounded loud.

The plucking technique, combined with the limited number of keys, restricted the type of music that composers could create. Although many very famous composers, like Bach, composed some of their most famous pieces on a harpsichord.

The First Piano is Invented

Vintage piano

To continue our search for an answer to why do pianos have 88 keys, let’s go back to Cristofori and find out how he invented the standard piano as we know it today.

In 1668, he was looking after the harpsichords of the Florentine Court of the Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici. Needless to say, a grand prince is going to have a lot of instruments, and Cristofori spent his days tending to the instruments.

The harpsichord was a very popular instrument but he believed that he could adapt it so that it would produce a richer and more robust tone.

So, he set to work, and an inventory of Medici’s instruments contain a note from 1700. The note states that Cristofori had invented a new hammer and damper mechanism with 49 keys over a range of four octaves.

Fun Fact: In 1711, journalist Scipione Maffei described it as a ‘gravicembalo col piano, e forte’ or a harpsichord with quiet and loud. And so the ‘pianoforte’ or piano found its name.

Those first pianos still had two keyboards and black or white keys. But alongside the piano keys and hammer mechanism, a pedal was introduced which allowed the pianist more control over the sound they produced.

Composers Use the New Piano

Black and white photo of man's hands on piano keys

Composers couldn’t get enough of the new pianoforte and began composing a range of music the likes of which had never been heard before.

Can you imagine it? It was the 19th century equivalent of hearing Rock and Roll for the first time.

But there was still a problem with the piano. With the introduction of a hammer mechanism the piano definitely produced a richer sound with more dynamic range, but it still only had 49 keys over four octaves.

By now, composers, like Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart were on the scene and they were becoming frustrated by the limitations of only 49 keys on a piano making a four-octave keyboard.

Enter the Piano Makers

Steinway & sons logo on a grand piano

Due to the demands of Beethoven and his composer friends, piano manufacturers began to make pianos with more keys.

With the addition of the extra keys, composers could now create more music, and more elaborate pieces.

The music they produced had more range, from the deepest bass notes through to the highest C at the top of the keyboard.

These new instruments also eventually lost their dual keyboard, and instead pianos began to be introduced with both black and white keys, just like today’s pianos. The black keys represented sharps and flats, while the white keys represented natural notes.

The additional piano keys meant that piano builders had to make the instrument bigger and stronger to accommodate all the extra strings and hammers.

Because of their size, Piano makers were now producing pianos with an iron frame so they were sturdy enough to contain all the extra mechanisms. Unfortunately, this made the pianos incredibly heavy and difficult to move.

From Four Octaves to Seven Octaves

Now we move on to the 19th century in our discussion of why do pianos have 88 keys. By the mid-1800’s, even more keys had been added and the piano had now graduated up to seven octaves. But at this point in time, pianos are still not quite a full 88 key keyboard.

However, more keys enabled popular composers of the time to write even more ambitious music.

Composers like Franz Liszt begin to make full use of the piano keyboard, writing piano music like the beautiful and baffling La Campanella.

85 keys become the new normal

For a large part of the 19 century, pianos had 85 keys.

If you enjoy playing classical music you may notice that you never use the full 88 keys. This is because it’s only later pieces from 20th century composers that include the full range of 88 keys.

Steinway Produces an 88 Key Piano

Steinway & sons piano

In the late 1880s, Steinway created the 88 key piano by adding three extra keys at the treble end of the keyboard. It’s not long before other manufacturers started to produce acoustic pianos with 88 keys.

So why do pianos have 88 keys in the end? Because Steinway made one, and it became the standard.

The Classic Piano Keyboard

By the late 19th century we begin to see an instrument resembling today’s pianos with 88 keys. An 88-key piano is equal to 8 1/4 octaves .

The keyboard is made up of or 52 white keys and 36 black keys including sharps and flats. Each octave has five black keys and seven white keys.

Why did piano manufacturers stop at 88 keys?

Modern piano music is composed on an 88 key standard piano. Adding additional treble or bass notes would be pointless as the human ear would struggle to hear anything above or below that range.

Also, additional keys would mean bigger and heavier pianos, and if you’ve ever tried to move a piano you’ll have some idea of just how heavy they already are.

Modern Pianos and Digital Keyboards

Modern digital piano and piano bench in a room

Today, all modern acoustic pianos have 88 piano keys. But music continues to evolve, and technology allows digital pianos to sound exactly like an average piano. And yet, a digital piano may not have the full 88 keys.

A digital keyboard instrument can make music with as little as 25 – 37 keys. It may have a smaller keyboard, but it can still produce a wide range of music.

If you want to learn an instrument, you can buy small, portable keyboards that have 49, 61 or 76 keys. So you can still play great music without an 88 key piano.

FAQ

Do any pianos have more than 88 keys?

While most pianos have 88 keys, there are some exceptions. Stuart and Sons created a nine-octave piano in 2018. This unique instrument set a new world record with 108 keys.

Bösendorfer also produces 97-key pianos. Those nine extra keys are colored black so that they stand out. They are rarely used keys on a piano that has them, but the extra bass adds resonance that creates a rich tone that’s amazing to get from one instrument.

Do you have to learn on an 88 key piano?

Top view of woman playing the piano

No, it’s not necessary to learn on a standard 88 key piano. It’s far more affordable as a beginner to get a digital piano with less than 88 keys. Every keyboard repeats the same octaves, they just get higher as you go from left to right.

You will still be able to play all the songs you want, although you will have less range from lower to higher notes. However, unless you intend to learn some classical pieces, that shouldn’t be a problem.

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about the author
Andy Kovacs
Andy started playing piano as a small boy, first classical then jazz and blues. He is a classically trained concert pianist, audio geek, writer, music teacher, and frequent dive bar gigging musician.