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Understanding the Piano: Keys & Notes

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson introduces the basics of piano keys and the notes they produce. Included are sections on the parts of a piano and how they produce sound when working together as well as understanding the intricacies of sharps and flats.

Tickling the Ivories - AKA Playing the Piano

The piano is one of the most enduring instruments in music over the last several centuries, incorporated in classical compositions, jazz, rock and roll, country, R&B, blues, and many other genres. In popular music, many performers' careers jump-started from their skills at the piano. These include such outstanding names as Elton John, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, and even Ozzy Osborne. Even without playing the piano as a primary instrument, many musicians use this instrument to aid in composition. So, with such encouragement to learn this versatile instrument, let's begin with understanding the parts of a piano and how the keys correspond to musical notes.

Student learning to play
Student learning to play

Parts of a Piano

While you may know that pressing the keys help make the piano's sound, you may not know how all the parts work together to create that sound. When a key is pressed, two things happen inside the piano. A hammer connected to the key moves forward to strike the strings while a felt barrier called a damper lifts away from the strings. When the key is released, the hammer falls back to the resting position and the damper returns to the strings to stop their vibration. It is the vibration of the strings that produces the sounds we hear. Finally, those sounds can be altered by the pedals at the bottom of the piano. They can prolong the sound of all the strings' vibrations or prolong those produced by select keys.

Parts inside a piano
Parts inside a piano

Notes and Keys

Standard pianos have 88 keys: 52 white and 36 black. The white keys produce basic notes ranging from A to G while the black keys produce sharps and flats, sounds halfway between standard notes. Looking at the keyboard, you may notice that the black keys are placed between most of the white keys but are missing in a few places. This is because certain notes cannot produce sharps and flats, depending on the note, without it sounding the same as the next note over.

Notice that there are no markings on the piano to show that a black key is a sharp or a flat. This is because it is both a sharp note to the white key to its left and a flat note to the white key to its right. Essentially, this means that an A-sharp is the same sound as a B-flat. Where there is no black key to separate two white keys, we use the next standard note to play a sharp or a flat of a note. This occurs with E and F as well as with B and C. A good way to think of it is that E sharp is really F and F flat is really E. If you look at the illustration below, you can see which keys produce which notes.

Notes and Octaves
Notes and Octaves

Octaves and Middle C

So now that we can see where all the notes correspond to the keys, you might ask why there are 88 keys if all the notes come from a pattern of 12 keys, 7 white and 5 black. If you run your finger along the keys from the far left to the far right, you will hear the sounds getting higher pitched, meaning the sound frequency is higher, as you go. Each time the pattern of 12 keys repeats on the keyboard, that set of notes is in a higher octave than the pattern to the left. An octave is a measurement of all the sounds between a note played at one pitch and the reappearance of that note at a higher pitch.

There are 7 full octaves on a standard piano with 4 additional keys. To the far left, the keyboard begins with A and ends with a C on the far right. The EF and BC issue of flats and sharps also helps us remember where notes are on the keyboard because the black keys are separated into groups of 2 and 3 keys. The white key to the left of a group of 2 black keys will always be a C while the white key to the left of a group of 3 black keys will always be an F.

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