Why does the piano have 88 keys?
The standard piano has 88 keys: 52 white and 36 black. But who decided that this number would be the norm and why?
Before the invention of the piano, composers wrote music for the harpsichord, which has only 60 keys. This meant that all their works were limited to the five-octave range of this instrument.
Around 1700, Italian master instrumentalist Bartolomeo Cristofori decided that it was time to update the harpsichord, and came up with a new keyboard instrument with a percussion mechanism. Cristofori worked at the court of Ferdinando de ‘ Medici, where he was the Keeper of musical instruments. In the collection of the Medici mentions a “Arecibo” (lit. an instrument resembling a harpsichord), invented by Cristofori. It had a completely new shock-damping mechanism, two keyboards, and 49 keys. The poet and journalist Scipione Maffei described this instrument as “gravicembalo col piano, e forte” (harpsichord with piano and Forte). This is how the piano got its name.
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Cristofori’s invention became popular and composers began to write more music for the piano. However, the small range of this tool limited their creativity. In order for such great composers as Mozart and Haydn to create their masterpieces, manufacturers increased the number of keys in the instruments. By the mid-19th century, the piano had already 7 octaves, so romantic composers such as Chopin and Liszt made the most of the instrument’s wide range in their pieces.
In the late ‘ 80s, Steinway first released a piano with 88 keys. Other manufacturers followed this example and this keyboard became the standard. Anything outside this range is considered too high or low for the human ear.
However, there are a few exceptions. For example, a Stuart and Sons Grand piano has 102 keys and costs about 20 million rubles (£220,000). Bösendorfer produces a piano with 92 keys. 4 additional notes are painted black and are almost unused. However, the added bass strings add a harmonic resonance that contributes to the rich overall sound of the instrument.