I am wondering what happened in the fortepiano's history that made the keyboard colors switch (why black keys on some ancient pianofortes are now white on modern pianos).

Here is a picture of a baroque fortepiano with such a keyboard.

Baroque pianoforte (taken from http://hubpages.com/entertainment/Piano-in-the-Baroque-Period)

Did all pianofortes have this color pattern before?

  • That's a harpsichord, not a piano.
    – user53472
    Apr 17, 2019 at 8:53
  • @user53472 it is not a harpsichord. It is a fortepiano, a modern copy of an instrument manufactured in 1805. See commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/…
    – phoog
    Apr 19 at 9:55

1 Answer 1


You can find examples of both color schemes, and others, throughout history. It all depends on what was popular at the time and what a customer wanted to order.

Early on, in Europe, the "natural" keys were made of ebony or ebony veneer, while the "accidental keys" were of plain maple.

Later on, it became possible and affordable to import elephant ivory from Africa, and to construct ivory veneer to laminate to wooden keys. Somebody got the idea to make the accidental keys of ebony to contrast with the ivory on the natural keys.

It is entirely a manner of style of course. It has nothing to do with playing the instrument.

Some keyboard instruments were plain in their appearance, while others were very fancy and used expensive decorative woods and wood veneers, as well as elaborate painting and artwork.

At all times in history, as with today, you could order an instrument that was as plain or as elaborate as you were willing to pay for.

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A Ruckers harpsichord from the mid-1600s with custom-made deluxe ornamentation

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A contemporary replica of a Ruckers model from the mid-1600s without all the ornamentation, and with white natural keys and black accidental keys

  • 7
    Ebony was more expensive than Maple, Ivory more expensive than Ebony - like most things of the time, many would try to show off their wealth and status as much as possible. The natural keys are larger - making them of whatever more expensive and fashionable material of the time was likely one of the primary motivators for such change.
    – J...
    Feb 11, 2016 at 14:09
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    Side note: it is currently illegal to sell or transfer ivory in the US, including on antique instruments. It is also illegal to travel with ivory-containing instruments across the US border. For example: americanorchestras.org/advocacy-government/…
    – Yorik
    Feb 11, 2016 at 19:36
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    Thanks for your answer. But I was wondering since when (approximately) it has become common to have a majority of white keys (as in the modern piano)? Is it since the romantic era of it is more modern? Feb 11, 2016 at 20:01
  • 1
    My guess would be that white keyboards became more common after the time of Mozart.
    – user1044
    Feb 11, 2016 at 22:44
  • 1
    Side note: the Bösendorfer Imperial is famous for having more than the standard 88 kezs in the bass register, and the additional ones are all-black, so as not to interfere with the pianist's peripheral orientation. These are the only instruments I know of with mixed-color natural keys. Feb 12, 2016 at 8:45

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