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I've often wondered why there needs to be a different colour in the keys on pianos, organs and keyboards. After all, their location and shape differentiates them regardless. I can understand the need for blue and red strings on harps, as otherwise all the strings would appear the same, with disastrous consequences! But for blind players, their colouring makes no difference, and, let's face it, most seasoned players rarely look at the keys in any case.

And, who first came up (when), with the plan that two colours would be an idea? Or is it simply aesthetics - forerunners to the piano having the colours reversed?

There must be some relevant history involved here - materials possibly being the reason for black and white. If so, how did someone find that ebony and ivory were the best, and what other materials (other than the now ubiquitous plastic) were used? Touch may have been a contributory factor, although organs and pianos have a very different touch.

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    The answer should be fairly obvious: To make it easier to distinguish the accidental keys, among others.
    – user59346
    Jan 24 at 13:12
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    It's not simply that they're different colors. Historically, they're different materials. That creates something of a chicken-and-egg problem. Are they different colors because of the different materials, or are they different materials in order to have different colors.
    – Aaron
    Jan 24 at 15:06
  • See also music.stackexchange.com/q/14954/78419 Jan 24 at 15:09
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    Btw, "Why do we do it this way and not that way" questions are often difficult and dead-end into "Well, just because that's the way we do it." But I'm very interested in the history part. It's clear enough that early approaches were varied, and that we wound up with a convention, but when did it solidify? Aside from the fact that it would render an existing answer outdated, you might wanna edit to focus more on that. Jan 24 at 18:14

3 Answers 3

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That reasoning doesn't hold water. Few people are blind, but everyone is a beginner at some point. Therefore building instruments like this would make sense even if experienced users didn't need color-coding. I'm also not convinced that they don't; peripheral vision is a thing, and visual and tactile cues to orientation are bound to work better than just tactile ones, simply because you can see things farther in advance than touch them.

Edit: Case in point: The very few grand piano models that extend the lower octave beyond the customary A,, are careful to have all keys below that point, upper and lower, installed in black. I cannot think of another reason than that they want to avoid confusing the peripheral vision of players who are used to the standard extent.

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  • The peripheral vision may be a thing, but doesn't change the fact that the black keys are further away, and are a different shape. Making them all the same colour wouldn't make life much, if any more difficult for beginners, in my view. I didn't want to start a debate, only to unravel why they are different colours.
    – Tim
    Jan 24 at 12:35
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    @Tim While I don't know if that's the reason, keep in mind that most of human history didn't have 100W lightbulbs. Keys of the same colour are likely to blur into one another if the lighting is dim and/or you have less than perfect eyesight. Contrasting colours stand out much better.
    – Divizna
    Jan 24 at 15:18
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    @Divizna - that's a bright idea - food for thought.
    – Tim
    Jan 24 at 15:22
  • The Imperial Bosendorfer originally had a cover over that lowest octave, so it looked like an 88. But I mistakenly thought the colours were reversed. Wrong!
    – Tim
    Jan 25 at 9:22
  • The "case in point" is inaccurate. It holds for Bösendorfer models. If doesn't hold for Stuart & Sons (a more recent maker). Érards 90 key model goes down only to subcontra G which is a white key. So I suppose that you could write "some" instead of "the very few". Jan 26 at 15:45
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Imagine a time where black keys were cheaper to make, which is probably why harpsichords and older fortepiano used to have black "white keys" and white "black keys" (see picture in this article).

As @Divizna commented, "most human history didn't have 100W lightbulbs." If every key were black, it would be harder to orient yourself while split-second peeping at the keys before the occasional jumps in the music that are farther than an octave, even though as you said, seasoned players look mostly at the score, not at the keys.

If cost was no longer the reason, why then the color scheme was switched? The above cited article advanced this reason:

It was also suggested that the black keys on the piano made it difficult to detect the spaces between the keys. This, in turn, led to difficulty in telling the exact locations of the keys. By switching the colours, the black spaces became highly visible and playing became easier.

If the only requirement is so the dark lines between the keys are visible, in the age where smartphones have fashionable colors (like these iPhone 15 color options), why not make all keys (including the black keys) white or tinted with light colors such as light grey, light yellow, or light pink? Maybe someday piano makers will do that, instead of simply changing the wood finish color (example: white, gold leaf, pink). I would think having light monotone color for all keys would be fine, even for beginning students, but going to extreme by removing all black keys is a no go, despite the effort to modify a piece like Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum works by using only white keys. At least that experiment shows how a seasoned pianist can manage to play a relatively complex piece without mistake when 1) all keys are white, 2) have exactly the same shape, and 3) there's no marking where the middle-C is. We can still clearly see the gap between these all-white-keys piano. Adding back the "black keys" in the white color would make that piano even more functional and easier to play.

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  • I like the idea that the tiny spaces separating the white keys make them easier to see, but has that actually been substantiated anywhere? With proof, this should be the reason. And, when, and by whom?
    – Tim
    Jan 25 at 15:38
  • @Tim That all white keys piano should make it obvious, see a frontal picture of that piano which is essential for the pianist to do jumps (see the video at this page, minute 0:42-1:00; you can make the video full screen). She hesitates to jump to D2, but becomes easier when she jumps to E2, F2, and finally G2. With no black keys I don't see how she could find which key to press in the sea of 52 white keys. The dark lines must help. Jan 25 at 16:14
  • You missed the point, I think. Not considering just all white keys, but leaving the black ones there, but colouring them white too. That piano, I would consider folly. And, too wide for the usual 88 notes.
    – Tim
    Jan 25 at 16:32
  • @Tim I understand you are looking for historical substantiation, but I haven't been able to find it yet. The above is some kind of empirical test :-). I have a feeling she counted the # of keys to locate the D2 for the first jump (before that she was busy in the middle region). I found the original YouTube video including the weird "before" segment, showing her coming to the piano & finding the key for the initial C3 + C2 grace note. Yes, it's folly, but same width as regular piano; they just use the C8 key for all the remaining 52 keys. Jan 25 at 16:34
  • With the 'black' keys still in place, it wouldn't matter what colour they were - D will always be between the two 'black' (or any other colour) keys, if you understand my question.
    – Tim
    Jan 25 at 16:37
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White keys came into preference when they were made of ivory. Ivory is porous, wicks sweat away, provides a superior feel and allows better performance.

Try to find an old piano that has ivory keys and you will understand.

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  • An interesting thought. Hard to find ivory keys these days - on a piano worth playing.
    – Tim
    Jan 25 at 9:24
  • I once took lessons for a few months on an older Yamaha CFX with slightly yellowed real ivory keys. It DOES feel different. Yamaha now use synthetic ivory named Ivorite for some of their pianos; haven't tried it yet. Jan 25 at 13:39

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