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#147776 - 12/17/08 12:32 AM Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
Avantgardenabi Offline
Full Member

Registered: 07/17/08
Posts: 496
Hello, everyone,

I am not sure if this topic was discussed in the past, but my short search did not give me any results, so I would like to start this thread. \:\)

Why are natural keys white and accidental keys black?

I recently realized that some early 19th-century antique pianos have white accidentals and black naturals instead.

So when did the standardization, if not the restriction of the freedom, of the color of piano keys begin to form?

Also, when did the arrangement of these piano keys take its shape? I do know that the invention of piano is mainly attributed to Bartolomeo Cristofori of Italy, who improved harpsichord's design.

So I am perhaps safe to suppose that a harpsichord already had such arrangement of keys that we see today. \:\)

Why are pianos' accidental keys shorter and taller than natural keys? Why not otherwise?

I would like to listen to your knowledge and guesses about these questions, so please feel free to leave any comments.

Please kindly excuse my curiosity, too.

Thank you. \:\)

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#147777 - 12/17/08 12:40 AM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
Horowitzian Offline
8000 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/18/08
Posts: 8453





Sorry, could not resist! \:o

Good question, though, but I'm afraid I'll have to wait for others to chime in. \:\)
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#147778 - 12/17/08 01:43 AM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
Terry C. Offline
Full Member

Registered: 09/28/08
Posts: 316
Loc: Melbourne, (Suntree) Florida
Avantgardenabi,
I never have thought about this, though i think it should peak some interest here. I just don't have the answers.

Horowitzian,
Is this the first time you've posted pictures of your Steinway? \:D Nice piano and i'm GREEN with envy! ;\) :p They are making green houses for the enviroment now days,why not green pianos.there has to be a market for them! :rolleyes:


Be well and happy,
Terry C. \:\)
_________________________
Proud owner of a Rebuilt 1912 Feurich concert grand with the new Phoenix system.
5th generation piano makers
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#147779 - 12/17/08 01:47 AM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
keyboardklutz Offline
Yikes! 10000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/21/07
Posts: 10856
Loc: London, UK (though if it's Aug...
It's to do with ivory. Clavichords and harpsichords had wooden surfaces. That picture makes me feel sick.
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#147780 - 12/17/08 01:47 AM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
Horowitzian Offline
8000 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/18/08
Posts: 8453
\:D On one hand, I wish it was mine, since it's a D. On the other, I wouldn't have such a nasty looking monstrosity in the house... :rolleyes:

Good thing that was a one off piano, huh?

Good ol' ebony for me, thank you very much. :p


 Quote:
Originally posted by Terry C.:
Horowitzian,
Is this the first time you've posted pictures of your Steinway? \:D Nice piano and i'm GREEN with envy! ;\) :p They are making green houses for the enviroment now days,why not green pianos.there has to be a market for them! :rolleyes: [/b]
_________________________
Close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and nuclear weapons.

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#147781 - 12/17/08 01:56 AM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
sotto voce Offline
6000 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/15/06
Posts: 6163
Loc: Briarcliff Manor, NY, USA
Dang, that bilious color made me think of one of those Gibson-era custom Baldwins.

Steven
_________________________

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Schumann: Toccata Op. 7
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#147782 - 12/17/08 01:57 AM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
Horowitzian Offline
8000 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/18/08
Posts: 8453
 Quote:
Originally posted by sotto voce:
Dang, that bilious color made me think of one of those Gibson-era custom Baldwins.

Steven [/b]
Seasick green, I call it.

Ghastly, is it not?

BTW, check your messages.
_________________________
Close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and nuclear weapons.

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#147783 - 12/17/08 01:59 AM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
keystring Offline
Yikes! 10000 Post Club Member

Registered: 12/11/07
Posts: 12304
Loc: Canada
 Quote:
Clavichords and harpsichords had wooden surfaces.
That is interesting. Ebony is a very hard wood which can withstand the impact, the same reason why violin fingerboards are (should be) made of ebony. Kbk, do you know what wood they used for the black keys? When and why was there a transition, do you know?
 Quote:
Why are natural keys white and accidental keys black?
I'm wondering whether it's right to call them natural and accidental. In C# major all the keys are black except for E# and B#, and an accidental would lead you to a white key. ;\)

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#147784 - 12/17/08 02:07 AM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
Avantgardenabi Offline
Full Member

Registered: 07/17/08
Posts: 496
Keystring, to your question: I believe in C major all the natural keys (without any exceptions) are white. \:\)

Why couldn't piano makers just use ivory for accidental keys? Better yet, why ivory?

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#147785 - 12/17/08 02:21 AM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
keyboardklutz Offline
Yikes! 10000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/21/07
Posts: 10856
Loc: London, UK (though if it's Aug...
They used ebony for naturals though sometimes cheated for the top notes (as they were not used that much) and dyed a different wood. My experience would say ivory allowed for a technique more suited to piano.
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#147786 - 12/17/08 02:26 AM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
TEHunter1 Offline
Full Member

Registered: 01/13/08
Posts: 54
Here's my Theory:

Many organ, harpsichord, and general keyboard instruments of the pre-fortepiano era had black naturals and white sharps/flats. This eventually got changed, so there had to have been a reason right?

My thought, is that, due to shadow, there is a dark spot between notes. If a natural is black, it could be hard to see where the key 'seam' is. so solution? invert colors. Make sense?

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#147787 - 12/17/08 02:26 AM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
currawong Offline
6000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/15/07
Posts: 6044
Loc: Down Under
 Quote:
Originally posted by keystring:
I'm wondering whether it's right to call them natural and accidental. In C# major all the keys are black except for E# and B#, and an accidental would lead you to a white key. ;\) [/b]
Or a black key if you have a harpsichord like mine \:\)
I believe the correct terminology when you're talking about the actual bits of wood rather than the musical sounds produced by pressing them, is "sharps" and "naturals". My harpsichord has ebony naturals and bone-topped sharps.
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#147788 - 12/17/08 03:08 AM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
keystring Offline
Yikes! 10000 Post Club Member

Registered: 12/11/07
Posts: 12304
Loc: Canada
Thanks, everyone. I never realized that those keys were called anything other than black and white keys. :p Wouldn't it be better if the black ones were called "accidentals" since the sharps are also used to play flats?

Kbk, I'm wondering how the ivories are better suited to the playing of the fortepiano. I was imagining the smoother texture, perhaps.

I suppose that ivory would not mould well to the shape of the sharps, plus they would want to preserve the contrasting colours.

A very interesting question.

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#147789 - 12/17/08 10:15 AM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
ScottM Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/11/05
Posts: 556
My theory is that the black naturals made it hard for the eye to easily distinguish one key from another peripherally because the black had so little contrast with the black gaps between the keys. From a sensory standpoint I can see how having white naturals would make a piano easier to play.
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#147790 - 12/17/08 11:28 AM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
kenny Offline
7000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/29/01
Posts: 7051
Maybe it was cost.
Solid ivory sharps would be much more expensive than those thin ivory covers for the naturals.
Just a guess.

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#147791 - 12/17/08 06:32 PM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
whippen boy Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/02/05
Posts: 3886
Loc: San Francisco
 Quote:
Originally posted by kenny:
Maybe it was cost.
Solid ivory sharps would be much more expensive than those thin ivory covers for the naturals.
Just a guess.
Good point, but there is another consideration: most of the instruments I know have bone or ivory-topped sharps (as Currawong mentioned), rather than solid.

So if cost was the main objective, it seems pianos would have ivory-topped sharps and wood naturals.

I think keyboardklutz has the right idea: ivory naturals are harder than wood, and it is more suited to the heavier blows required on a modern piano action. The sharps seem to get less wear-and-tear so it seems only 'natural' to make them of wood.
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#147792 - 12/17/08 07:57 PM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
jman37 Offline
Full Member

Registered: 12/13/08
Posts: 155
Loc: Tampa, fl
I think many of the older pianos had ebony wood, which is naturally black, for sharps and flats.

Ivory for the naturals..

It would be interesting to see some history as to why it has ended up this way.
_________________________
On the mountain of the lord it will be provided.

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#147793 - 12/17/08 08:16 PM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
whippen boy Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/02/05
Posts: 3886
Loc: San Francisco
 Quote:
Originally posted by jman37:
I think many of the older pianos had ebony wood, which is naturally black, for sharps and flats.
I think some builders still use ebony. I know it is used in new pipe organs.
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#147794 - 12/17/08 08:28 PM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
jman37 Offline
Full Member

Registered: 12/13/08
Posts: 155
Loc: Tampa, fl
Decided to change your post, Mr whippen?
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#147795 - 12/17/08 08:28 PM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
Horowitzian Offline
8000 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/18/08
Posts: 8453
 Quote:
Originally posted by jman37:
I think many of the older pianos had ebony wood, which is naturally black, for sharps and flats.

Ivory for the naturals..

It would be interesting to see some history as to why it has ended up this way. [/b]
Many builders still do use ebony. And no, it is not always black, though the finest ebony is. I've seen guitars with rather brown ebony fingerboards. I imagine that piano keys tend to get the blackest ebony, though.
_________________________
Close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and nuclear weapons.

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#147796 - 12/17/08 08:30 PM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
Horowitzian Offline
8000 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/18/08
Posts: 8453
 Quote:
Originally posted by jman37:
Decided to change your post, Mr whippen? [/b]
What is this supposed to mean?

Is there some law against editing your posts?

There, I changed my post. :p
_________________________
Close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and nuclear weapons.

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#147797 - 12/17/08 08:34 PM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
curry Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/17/02
Posts: 3770
Loc: Hamilton Twp, NJ
Ebony (Diospyros spp., family Ebenaceae) are species of tropical hardwood trees favored for their hard and beautiful wood. Only the black or brown heartwood is used commercially. There are more than 300 species of ebony, ranging in size from shrubs to trees taller than 100 ft (30 m). The best commercial ebony comes from India, Madagascar, Nigeria, Zaire, and the Celebes Islands. Most species of ebony are found in the tropics, but some are found in warm temperate zones. The latter includes the American persimmon (Diospyrus virginiana), whose heartwood is not a full black and does not have the extreme density that is so desirable for carving and fine woodwork. Aggressive harvesting of ebony has rendered many species of ebony rare and endangered, and consequently, quite valuable.

Plants in the Ebenaceae family have simple, alternate, coriaceous (or leathery) leaves that are oblong or lanceolate, and vary in length according to species. The flowers are white or greenish-white, with at least four stamens. The globular fruits are sought by animals and humans alike because of their sweetness when ripe. Some indigenous tribes use the fruit to make beer. The leaves and other parts of the tree are used in traditional medicine to treat intestinal parasites, wounds, dysentery, and fever, but laboratory tests have not verified the efficacy of this medicinal usage.

The wood of the ebony is so dense, it rapidly dulls tools used for working, sawing, or turning it. Even termites will bypass a fallen ebony log. This density contributes to ebony's commercial appeal, as it results in a finish that will take a high polish, adding to its beauty. The properties, attributed to ebony through both fact and myth, have been recognized for many generations. It has long been a favorite material for carving in Africa. Some rulers in India had scepters made from it, and also used it for their drinking vessels as it was believed to neutralize poisons. Today, ebony is used for many purposes, including tool and knife handles, furniture, inlay work, wall paneling, golf club heads, and musical instruments. For many years ebony was used for the black keys on the piano, but increasing costs have necessitated the use of synthetic substitutes. Today, only the most expensive concert pianos are still made with ebony. Ebony is also used in stringed instruments for tension pegs and fingerboards.

Although there are many species of ebony, only a few provide commercial-grade wood, and the demand far exceeds the supply. Africa is the source of the most desirable, jet-black heartwood. It comes from the species Diospyrus crassiflora, commonly called African ebony. This ebony is prized for its intensely black core. With a wood-density of 64 lb/cu. ft (1,030 kg/cu. m), it has a specific gravity of 1.03 and will not float in water. It is found in Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, and Zaire.
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#147798 - 12/17/08 08:41 PM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
whippen boy Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/02/05
Posts: 3886
Loc: San Francisco
 Quote:
Originally posted by jman37:
Decided to change your post, Mr whippen?
Yes, I do it all the time. I thought my original post might be misconstrued as a 'dig', which was not at all intended.
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#147799 - 12/17/08 08:43 PM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
Gyro Offline
4000 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/24/05
Posts: 4533
There could be a number of reasons. Apparently,
the scheme used to be the reverse, with
the accidentals white and the natural
keys black. Maybe the white accidents
were solid ivory, and this became too
expensive, and it was more economical
use ebony wood for the accidentals and
wood with a thin ivory covering for the
naturals. Contrasting keys are not
an absolute necessity however. I've
seen old organs with wood keys, all of
them the same natural wood color.

But the current design, where the
black keys stick up above the white
ones and are indented and are in a
regular 2 and 3 grouping, is critical for
playing, as this allows the hands to use the
black keys as a reference to find the
white keys. Otherwise you wouldn't
be able to distinguish one white key
from another--a piano with all white
keys would be all but unplayable.

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#147800 - 12/17/08 08:51 PM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
jman37 Offline
Full Member

Registered: 12/13/08
Posts: 155
Loc: Tampa, fl
 Quote:
Originally posted by whippen boy:
 Quote:
Originally posted by jman37:
Decided to change your post, Mr whippen?
Yes, I do it all the time. I thought my original post might be misconstrued as a 'dig', which was not at all intended. [/b]
:)
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On the mountain of the lord it will be provided.

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#147801 - 12/17/08 09:08 PM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
Avantgardenabi Offline
Full Member

Registered: 07/17/08
Posts: 496
Curry,

Did you get your information about ebony from science.jrank.org? \:\)

I just found the exact same article. Please click this link:

http://science.jrank.org/pages/2238/Ebony.html

Thank you for everyone's comments. To make this topic more interesting:

This is an antique Erard piano believed to be once played by Liszt, and it has black natural keys. Please click this link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v3kX_T-yXmo

As whippen boy had mentioned, ivories are attached on top of accidental keys.

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#147802 - 12/22/08 12:14 PM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
sleepy Offline
Full Member

Registered: 04/26/06
Posts: 330
I found this tidbit -

"Until the beginning of the 19th century the naturals were slightly shorter from their fronts to the sharps (this is more to do with playing technique than design) and often the naturals were darker in colour and the sharps lighter. The custom of having the naturals a darker colour was said to have originated in France to show off the player's hands to better advantage."

You can read more at http://www.uk-piano.org/history/compass.html

Hope this helps (a little!)
sleepy

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#147803 - 12/22/08 01:16 PM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
stanw909 Offline
Full Member

Registered: 09/04/08
Posts: 195
Loc: SoCal
I think the real reason could be that sharps and flats are more difficult to play so the black keys represent darkness and evil.The naturals would be represented by white the color of goodness and light. ;\)

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#147804 - 12/22/08 01:18 PM Re: Why white for natural and black for accidental keys?
Horowitzian Offline
8000 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/18/08
Posts: 8453
 Quote:
Originally posted by stanw909:
I think the real reason could be that sharps and flats are more difficult to play so the black keys represent darkness and evil.The naturals would be represented by white the color of goodness and light. ;\) [/b]
Maybe the black keys are just spacers, like guitar frets. \:D \:D
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