Keys….. The word “keys” has a dual meaning for pianists as it refers to both the keys of the piano, which we touch to set in motion a mechanism which produces the sound, and the musical keys (C major, D minor etc).
The modern piano has 88 keys – 52 white keys and 36 black keys for a total of 88 keys. Many older pianos only have 85 keys and some piano manufacturers extend the range further in one or both directions (the Bosendorfer ‘225’ and ‘290 Imperial’ models, for example, have 92 and 95 keys respectively). Today keys are usually made of spruce or basswood (spruce is typically used in high-quality pianos). Black keys were traditionally made of ebony, and the white keys were covered with strips of ivory, but during the 1950s makers such as Steinway decided to cease using ivory on financial and moral grounds. Now that elephants and other ivory-yielding species are designated as endangered and protected by treaty, piano makers use plastics almost exclusively (“legal ivory” can still be obtained in very limited quantities). Also, ivory tends to chip more easily than plastic. The Yamaha piano company invented a plastic called Ivorite, that they claim mimics the look and feel of ivory. This has been taken up by other piano manufacturers.
The key is the point of contact between the pianist’s fingers and the mechanism within the piano and a huge amount of information can be transmitted from key via the pad of the finger to the rest of the pianist’s body. This information is then rapidly processed to make decisions regarding arm weight, articulation, tone control…. all of which have a bearing on the type and quality of sound produced.
More about the mechanism (“action”) of the piano here
For many musicians, each musical key has distinct characteristics or “personality”(and I am sure I am not alone in having “favourite” keys). For some of us, A major is warm, D major is bright and cheerful (Mozart apparently described it as “the happiest key”), while C minor is dark and stormy and E minor is deeply serious and melancholy. Christian Shubart, a German poet, composer and organist, assigned specific characteristics to each key. (Read his descriptions here.) And for some of us, each key comes with its own distinctive colour as well as a personality – this form of synaesthesia is shared by certain musicians and composers, including Franz Liszt, Gyorgy Ligeti, Olivier Messiaen, Leonard Bernstein, Itzhak Perlman and Stevie Wonder, and also the author of this blog.