Classical Connections: There in black and white

A Harpsichord keyboard with reversed colours.

Down at the local watering-hole last week, someone unexpectedly asked, “I wonder why pianos always have black and white keys?” It’s an interesting question, and I must confess that I’d never given the matter much thought, even though I’ve been playing the thing for years. Of course, it’s not only pianos that have keyboards. Accordions, organs, harpsichords and clavichords have them too. And so have other less obvious instruments such as the hurdy-gurdy, the calliope and the melodica.

Out of curiosity the other day, I looked up “keyboard instruments” on Wikipedia and the article began with the revealing statement: “A keyboard instrument is a musical instrument played using a keyboard.” Well, honestly, who would have guessed? The article went on to divide keyboard instruments into chordophones, aerophones, idiophones and electrophones. These are technical names used by musicologists and those engaged in acoustics and the physics of music: they are rarely used or even fully understood by most musicians.

As everyone knows, the piano produces sound when its keys are depressed, creating a series of rather complicated internal actions culminating in a hammer hitting a string or group of strings.  Most pianos have a keyboard of 88 keys, representing each note of the chromatic scale and covering about seven octaves. There are usually 52 white keys and 36 black keys. I say “usually” because it wasn’t always thus. During the piano’s history of over three centuries, the keyboard has become increasingly longer. The black keys are raised above the white ones; they’re narrower and lie further back, making them manageable by the human hand. If the piano keyboard had been designed by a dog, it would have looked completely different.

The piano has its origins in the pipe organs of antiquity which had small keyboards of only a dozen notes. Development continued more-or-less continually throughout the Middle Ages, and culminated in instruments such as the clavichord (which first appeared in the 14th century), the virginals (15th century) and the harpsichord (16th century). We can almost put an exact year on the invention of the piano. It appeared around 1700 and was invented in the Italian city of Padua by the well-known harpsichord maker Bartolomeo Cristofori. He called his new instrument a Clavicembalo col piano e forte, which literally means “harpsichord that can play softly and loudly”. The name was eventually shortened to pianoforte and then simply to piano. But it was significant, because most traditional harpsichords, which produced their sound by quills plucking the strings, could produce a limited dynamic range.

And this, in a roundabout way, brings us back to the colour of the keyboard. I decided to contact Stephen Peterson, a friend who works part-time in a museum and has an exceptional knowledge of piano history. He told me that during the 18th century, many keyboard instruments (including harpsichords, pianos and organs) had the colours reversed: the “black” keys were white, and the “white” keys were black. Some harpsichords used black keys entirely. Others he said, had natural brown keys instead of white.

Harpsichord keyboard with brown and white keys.

Gradually this colour scheme fell out of favour. With most of the keys being dark brown or black, it was difficult to distinguish them, especially in a candle-lit room. The mass of dark keys seemed to meld together. Steve explained that during the 19th century, the present colour scheme was adopted because the black keys stand out clearly in their groups of twos and threes. There are thin spaces between each of the white keys and to the eye they appear as dark lines. They give increased visual clarity to the keyboard so that an experienced pianist can recognise the correct keys immediately.

Part of a modern piano keyboard.

Black keys were traditionally made of ebony and the white ones were covered with strips of ivory. You may have heard the colloquial expression “tickling the ivories” which refers to the original coverings, made using ivory chips from the tusks of elephants and walruses. In the 1970s, the use of ivory was sensibly banned because ivory-yielding animals had become endangered species and protected by international treaty.

After the ban, keyboard manufacturers used white injection molded plastic but the material didn’t have the same “feel” as ivory and many pianists found the plastic too slippery. In response, scientists began working on alternative synthetic formulas. Yamaha for example, developed a plastic called Ivorite intended to mimic the look and feel of ivory; other manufacturers did likewise and various other ivory-replacement compositions include Ivorine and Ivoplast. The body of the white keys is usually made of spruce or basswood while the body of the black keys was made of ebony, a dense hardwood.

A coloured keyboard.

I suppose you might ask why other colours cannot be used. Why not have a keyboard of red and blue keys, or yellow and green or even a different colour for each key? Well, for one thing it would involve unnecessary cost, but more importantly, black and white provide the greatest possible visual contrast.

There have however been various commercial attempts to use coloured keys as an aid to learning. When my mother started me on the piano as a child, she obtained a teaching aid that included coloured stickers for the piano keys and a book of simple tunes that used similarly coloured notation. The idea (I suppose) was that the learner would form a stronger mental connection between the printed note and the piano key. However, within a few days we dispensed with the method entirely because it was too limited and simplistic. It couldn’t work with conventional printed music and could only be used with the simplest tunes within a narrow range of notes. Even as a child, I found it rather pointless.

Colour learning system.

Only yesterday, I noticed that one company is still confidently marketing much the same thing from all those years ago. The advertisement claims that you can “learn how to sound like a professional without years of lessons.” That statement is nonsense of course and the advertisers know it. While I admit that a colour system might be helpful for those with learning difficulties, for most people the best way to start is the good old-fashioned way: learn the geography of the keyboard. And in any case, if you want to play an instrument so that you “sound like a professional”, there are absolutely no short cuts. Sorry to disappoint you, but that’s the way it is.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Harpsichord Concerto No. 6 in F major, BWV 1057. Andrea Friggi (hpd), Ensemble Odyssee (Duration: 15:45; Video 1080p HD)

Writing about harpsichords reminded me of Bach’s wonderful harpsichord concertos. Today, much to the dismay of musical purists, they are sometimes played on a piano, but I shall not venture into that musical minefield. If you have never heard Bach’s harpsichord concertos before, you might be surprised to hear that this sounds familiar. It’s because Bach, who would never let a note go to waste, adapted his Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major (written about 1720) as a harpsichord concerto. He wrote this adaption in 1738, changing the key to F major in the process. The work is scored for a small ensemble of solo harpsichord plus two recorders, three violins and viola supported by cello and violone, a baroque five string fretted bass related to the viol. The solo harpsichord part uses much of the violin material from the original Brandenburg concerto.

The first movement is lively and dance-like and there’s a lovely slow movement with some beautiful recorder playing and a scampering final movement with brilliant ensemble work. I especially enjoyed the impeccable recorder playing; superb articulation and lovely phrasing. And notice the harpsichord keyboard, with its reversed colour scheme.  Bach’s music never fails to impress me with his masterful use of counterpoint and intuitive feeling for melody, shape and contrast. Even after two hundred years, this captivating music remains full of energy and joie de vivre.

If you use a computer, laptop or Smartphone, to view this video, the sound quality can be improved significantly by using good quality headphones.