Modern pianists will know that a piano comes with 52 white keys and 36 black keys. Keys are a major part of the instrument and we’re so used to seeing them that it’s not often that we wonder what the keys are made of. The keys that you love to play as a pianist actually have a rich history that dates back for many years.
Read on to find out more about the different materials that have been used over the years to create piano keys and what the keys are being made from today.
A History of Pianos
Let’s find out more about the history of the piano before we jump into focusing on the piano key. The piano is a beloved instrument to many people. It was originally made by Bartolomeo Cristofori in approximately the year 1700. He was an Italian instrument maker and he originally called the piano the clavicembalo col piano e forte. The early piano was thought to have originated from the harpsichord.
The way that the piano was made was that Cristofori plucked the strings from the mechanism inside the harpsichord using a hammer and created what we now know as the piano.
Nowadays the piano is one of the most commonly played instruments and it is loved by musicians around the world. It started to gain popularity in the 1760s. Once the 1800s rolled around it was becoming a status symbol of the elite. If a piano adorned your drawing room you were considered to be affluent and in with the elite crowd.
Pianos and Ivory Keys
The very first pianos originally had keys that were made from sugar pine. This is one of the largest types of pine tree in the world. The wood that was taken from the tree had a straight grain pattern which meant it was a great material for construction sound-producing pipes on what would come to be known as the organ.
When the piano started to become more popular in the 1760s there was a spike in the USA’s and Europe’s demand for elephant ivory. By 1840 the USA was considered to be the world’s largest importer of ivory above any other country.
Ivory is a material that is often associated with wealth and opulence. It’s not surprising that manufacturers of pianos decided to use ivory to make the keyboard of a piano. The white keys would be made from ivory whilst the black keys would be made from ebony.
To make the white keys the ivory would be cut into flat thin pieces. Each one of these pieces would be split into three. Then the three pieces were mounted on top of the wooden keys. Just one elephant tusk could make up to 45 keyboards at a time.
Because ivory has a smooth feel and at the time it was cheap to get hold of it became the go to material for constructing piano keys. It started to change in the 1950s as laws came in to protect elephants with ivory tusks, and the selling and trading of ivory became illegal.
Piano Key Layout
There are literally thousands of components that go into pianos and each part has its own special function. Most modern pianos today will have a total of 88 white and black keys. The layout is made up of 52 of the long white keys that make the notes of the C major scale and 36 black keys which are shorter. The black keys also are raised above the white keys and are set back further on the piano keyboard.
The longer keys were traditionally played more often than the shorter ones which is why they were originally covered in ivory. This was because it was a hard-wearing material. The shorter black keys weren’t played as much as the longer ones so they were made from dark wood like sugar pine or spruce. This is how black and white keys were formed on the traditional pianoforte keyboard. Even now the keys are still referred to as the ivories even though the material was abandoned completely in the 1970s.
Modern Piano Keys
Elephants and any other animal that yields ivory are now classed as endangered species all around the world. Over the years most countries have banned the selling and trading of ivory so that it is illegal to do so. Because of this law many manufacturers of modern pianos don’t use ivory to makes the piano keys.
Aside from ivory being a highly controversial material to use for a piano key, it also has other downsides too. The keys that had been made from ivory would often chip faster than plastic keys would. Ivory is also a porous material which means it absorbs the dirt off your fingers and yellows quickly and easily.
Nowadays you will find that the piano keys is being made of:
Yamaha was the first keyboard maker credited with making plastic keys which were a hybrid material called ivorite. This is a synthetic plastic that has some of the properties that ivory has like absorbing moisture and having a smooth texture. Plastic keys like this are affordable, accessible and relatively easy to make. Many other piano makers followed Yamaha’s lead and most now use synthetic plastic to build the keys on piano.
Once ivory became unavailable for pianos there was a search for a suitable substitute for it. The closest material found is vegetable ivory which actually comes from a palm tree. It naturally grows in South America, being most prominent in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. Each seed produces the material which is now known as vegetable ivory.
Inside each seed from this plant is a dense and hard substance which is called hemicellulose. This is the material that can be carved, treated and then polished to look like the real tusks of an elephant. Once this process is done the white wood can be used to create keys as well as other fake ivory artifacts.
Unlike real ivory keys that require an animal to be killed, vegetable ivory is renewable as the tree produces seeds throughout the year. It’s classed as a renewable resource because nothing has to be killed or chopped down in order to obtain it.
Unfortunately, there is a downside to these seeds. They are really small, growing to a maximum of 8cm. This significantly limits their use for making large amounts of keys for the piano.
Spotting Ivory Keys
Many people have mixed feelings about having a piano with ivory keys. On one hand, having a grand piano with ivory keys really does look beautiful. They are smooth to the touch and many pianists argue that they are better quality than the modern piano key.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, ivory has a long and chequered past. Throughout history, millions of elephants have been slaughtered just for their tusks. Elephants are now registered as an endangered species because of this, and the species may still become extinct as illegal poachers still kill these animals for their tusks.
The reality is that if you have a piano dated before the 1950s, it’s more than likely that it has ivory keys. There are also other ways you can spot non-plastic keys such as:
- Pattern – Look closely at the pattern. A fingerprint pattern indicates that those keys are not plastic.
- Texture – Plastic is smooth whereas other materials will have a texture to it.
- Look – Ivory is prone to chipping and will also yellow over time. Plastic keys are much more durable and retain their color more efficiently with little to no maintenance.
- Build – A plastic key will be made as one single solid piece whereas non-plastic keys are made into three very noticeable parts.
Before you clean your keys you will need to dust them off so that any dust resting on the surface is removed. You can do this with a duster or even a soft brush. To disinfect the keys you can use a solution of filtered water and white vinegar. Use a soft cloth and wipe each key down vertically, taking time to dry the keys off between wiping them. You also should change cloths between cleaning the black and white keys.
What are piano keys made of today?
Most piano keys are made from plastic or something called vegetable ivory. Other piano keys may also be made from wood. It all depends on the make and model of the piano. If you have an older piano then it’s more than likely the keys will be made from ivory. There are simple ways to check if they are, such as looking for the joining lines on the key or observing the texture which will be different from plastic.
Are piano keys still made from ivory?
No, the selling and trade of ivory were stopped years ago. Piano keys these days do not make the use of ivory, opting instead for plastic and other hard-wearing materials. New piano keys aren’t made from this material but older baby grand and grand piano keys may still be made from ivory. It all depends on when your piano was made.
Are piano keys made out of elephant tusks?
Old piano keys were made of elephant tusks as they were commonly made from ivory. Modern piano keys aren’t made from this material. Ivory was considered the best material for piano keys because it was hard-wearing and had a beautiful look to it. It was easy to get a hold of as well at the time that pianos were becoming popular.
When did they stop using ivory for piano keys?
The ban on the ivory trade started in the 50s, with the full ban coming into enforcement in the 1970s. Once this law was passed the selling and trading of ivory was prohibited around the world. There are still countries that use ivory but in the USA it is illegal to have a new piano with keys made from this material. Instead they should be made from plastic or the plastic hybrid called ivorite. Some keys can also be made from vegetable ivory.
Whether you have an old or new piano we hope our guide has helped you find out what piano keys are made of.