Check our other article where we wrote some honest reviews of cheap piano keyboards. Keyboard pianos usually have 88 keys, for the biggest models, that are used professionally. But you can also find keyboards with 76 or 61 keys, each suited for a certain type of player.
Understanding the history
Long-time ago there were different keyboard instruments and one of the most intensely used of them was the harpsichord, and it only had 60 keys. Thus, when composers wrote music for it, they were limited to a range of five octaves only.
The world of music progressed and the piano appeared around 1700, and it was created by Bartolomeo Cristofori. He thought that the harpsichord and the other keyboard instruments of that time needed a revamp and that’s how he created the pianoforte, which used a hammer mechanism to create sounds.
However, this new instrument which came with the brand-new mechanism had a range of only four octaves or 49 keys. In terms of that, it was certainly not a progressive instrument. But the piano was capable of playing sounds both loud and soft (its name actually means quiet and loud), and that’s why it was so appreciated.
The old piano was limited
This initial piano was, however, limited, both in terms of build quality and sound. It wasn’t as robust as nowadays’ pianos and it could also only have a range of 60 keys after some developments that were brought to it.
Interestingly enough, Bach was one of the people who popularized the piano, although the story says that he destroyed one early model with an ax because he detested it. Fortunately, later versions were pleasing enough for him.
With time, the piano managed to become more popular than the old harpsichord. That’s why instrument producers like Stein and Broadwood started to put more emphasis on creating high-quality pianos. They were striving to meet the demands of musical composers and players of that time.
That’s why, as time passed and the music entered the Beethovian period, pianos started to have a range of 72 keys, which was close to six octaves. Furthermore, the classic wooden frames were replaced by stronger, more durable cast iron frames. The piano was now able to stay in tune for longer and this also allowed it to keep more strings in tune.
Pianos evolved gradually until they reached the full-size that we know today, that of 88 keys. This number of keys was reached by the time Chopin and Liszt were composing and they needed the seven and a quarter octaves. That was the period when the form that we know today was set.
It seems like, with 88 keys at their disposal, composers have the possibility to fully express themselves, and they rarely need anything more.
What about electric pianos?
Although pianos and electric keyboards can have the same number of keys, their evolution was different. Electric pianos emerged alongside the classical acoustic piano. In 1949 the pre-piano appeared, which was a creation made by Rodes, and it only had four octaves or 48 keys.
The reason this piano was created, and its name states this as well, is that it’s made for people that want to start playing the big instrument but they aren’t ready yet. So beginners will find the pre-piano the best choice. But it wasn’t such a big success.
In the 1960s the Fender Rodes Mark One electric pianos appeared and they had 73 keys, so they were almost as big as the real deal. However, they had a slightly different sound, one that resembled a vibraphone.
These electric pianos were used more for music la jazz or pop at that time, unlike the piano, which was still a great choice for those looking to play classical music. There were other brands, such as Wurlitzer, who also made electric pianos from the ‘50s, and their instruments had a range of 64 keys.
Again, these were used more for pop, rock, or jazz. It was a sound that was similar to the one of the piano, but distinctive enough to be used in other purposes.
Nowadays you can find electric keyboards that have the same number of keys as a grand piano, and they also give you the possibility to play both classical music and other genres. However, there are also some stranger keyboards that offer you the possibility to do other things.
The development of keyboard instruments and their range has always been dependant on the composers, their ambitions, and what they want to do. That’s why, since the mid 19th century, composers experimented a lot with alternative tunings that weren’t as suitable to the western taste for music.
Their pianos contained different octaves, some pianos weren’t created with octaves in mind but with quarter-tones for example. And that’s why these instruments can be found with a large variety of keys.
With quarter-tones involved, there were piano manufacturers that were created using two keyboards placed one next to another, or with one keyboard above the other. That’s how the “double” piano was created in 1924 and it had 176 keys.
But why 88 keys?
Having 88 keys gives composers all the things they need for an impressive piece of music, and you can fit any kind of subtle emotion and expression with the help of 88 keys. The contrast between the low and high notes is just right.
Most experts agree that if you extend the range of the piano more than 88 keys, the resulting notes would be awkward to play. But that’s not the main issue, as the biggest problem would be that the sounds will be out of the comfortable range of what the human ear can listen with pleasure.
Of course, piano manufacturers don’t always take that into consideration and they created models with more keys, for those more eccentric composers that want to go beyond the 88 keys. There are companies like Stuart & Sons who create pianos with 108 keys, and they extend the range both in the high and low notes.
Bösendorfer is another company that likes larger pianos and they create one with 92 keys, which adds 4 notes to the lower end of the piano, taking the bass to a low F. they say that these notes make the piano more resonant and it helps with the tone.
How many keys should your keyboard have?
Full-sized 88 keys
Keyboard instruments with 88 keys are often the ones used for professional purposes. You wouldn’t actually get this piano if you were a beginner because it’s quite expensive and difficult to play. It’s also one of the most expensive instruments in terms of maintenance, and you also have to do that regularly.
The advantage of the full-sized keyboard is that it’s the ideal size for experienced players who know how to play the piano. It gives you the possibility to play a wide variety of music pieces, and you can also compose many new things on it.
While not offering the whole range and variety of tunes that you can get from 88 keys, 76 keys are still enough for some people. Electric keyboards usually come with this number of keys, and they are more advantageous than pianos in terms of price.
Beginners wouldn’t necessarily afford them, but sometimes they are good for new piano players. The advantage of these keyboards is that they are usually portable because they’re also smaller. As a result, they are a great choice for intermediate players that have a bit of experience and they’re looking to practice both at home and away.
Most of these keyboards also come with a function that splits them in half, so that the student can play on one side of the keyboard, while the teacher on the other side, making the whole learning process easier.
But if you’re really looking to learn, the best choice would be a keyboard that has 61 keys. The great aspect of these keyboards is that you can find anything here, suiting any needs. If you really want something cheap, you can find it. But if you need something of great quality, yet small, you’ll find that too.
You can also get your hands on a 61-keys acoustic piano if you wish. You can always start small and expand your range and style when you start to learn more.