The Marvelous History of Piano Keybord

In this article we want to start with a description of the hydraulis (a "father" of the organ), the first musical instrument with a keyboard. The keyboard is an important feature that characterizes the instruments. It has gone through several intermediate forms and designs over the two thousand years of its existence.

The Invention of Piano Keyboard

The first keyboard of the Ctesibian hydraulis consisted of several bars arranged in a row and coming out of the body of the instrument - valves, which were also valves for air access to the instrument pipes. The performer was required to extract each sound with two separate playing movements: the first - to open the valve, the second - to close it. Naturally, this way of playing was very inconvenient; however, the elementary simple music of that time put up with this shortcoming.
The second stage was the introduction by Vitruvius of intermediate angular hinges, which turned the horizontal translational movements of the keys into vertical ones - push and lift. Although such a device did not yet have a device that returns the keys to their original position, it was much more convenient than the original one. This type of keyboard has been used in organs for over a thousand years.
The next step was the invention of a device that returns the keys, in the form of weights on the rear shoulders of the keys, or springs placed under them. It was applied, apparently, only in the XIII century, that is, shortly before the appearance of the first stringed keyboard instruments.
Since then, exactly this keyboard design has been preserved as the most convenient to use and meets the requirements of performing musical works that have become more complex over time.
Another direction in the development of the keyboard was the distribution of the levers included in it and their differentiation in size, shape, color and relative position. The primitive organs of the early Middle Ages, which had a small diatonic scale, were content with keys of the same shape and size. Over time, when the scale underwent chromatization and the number of sounds of different heights within an octave increased, a number of changes had to be introduced into the design of the keyboard. To distinguish diatonic sounds from chromatic, they created a contrasting color of the keys and their different shapes. The key sizes are close to the size of the fingers.
Despite the fact that already quite early - around the beginning of the 17th century - the arrangement of 12 keys in an octave was established, with their distribution in two rows (7 lower ones with tones of the scale to C major: c, d, e, f, g, a, h and the top five with semitones cis, dis, fis, gis, b), some inventors have proposed a different arrangement and number of keys per octave. This was due to the following considerations.
On the one hand, the modern tuning principle was not immediately found on an evenly tempered scale of 12 semitones, where, at the same time, the keys became lighter and the sounds cis and des, dis and es, fis and ges, gis and as, ais and b (hes) were combined. This, apparently, became possible because they felt their altitude proximity to each other. The idea of ​​equal temperament was first expressed by the Spanish musical scientist Ramos de Pareja in 1482, but it was finally formalized and practically sanctioned only at the beginning of the 18th century. Gradually, the musicians came to terms with a slight falseness of semitones and some keys close to C major and adopted 12 keys in an octave as the most convenient arrangement for playing.
On the other hand, attempts have been made to build claviers with more keys per octave to meet the demands for finer tuning in untempered systems. During the second half of the 16th and the entire 17th century, "enharmonic" and "universal" keyboards with 19, 31, and other numbers of keys per octave were repeatedly proposed. However, all these complex and inconvenient for playing and setting keyboard designs had disappeared by the beginning of the 18th century. Since then, the existing 12-speed keyboard has remained in use. Different colors of the keys of different rows began to be used very early. At first, the lower keys were made of light beech wood, halftones - from dark varieties of walnut, rosewood or bog oak. Later, ebony was also used. In expensive instruments, the keys were covered with tortoiseshell plates, mother-of-pearl and inlays.
At the end of the 17th century in France, the reverse arrangement of colors was used: the lower keys were pasted over with ebony plates, and the halftones were covered with bone. This manner of finishing the keys quickly spread throughout all Western European countries and lasted almost until the beginning of the 19th century, until it was replaced by a modern way of finishing. The success and spread of such a gloomy and dark keyboard finish is due, according to the famous instrumentalist Kurt Sachs, to the "gallant" style that prevailed at that time. Against the dark background of the keyboard, the snow-white, sleek hands of clavichord players and harpsichordists of that time stood out more prominently, just like black flies on powdered faces in white wigs emphasized their whiteness even more. With the fall of the "gallant" era, the appearance of the keyboard changed, especially since with white lower keys the boundaries between them stood out more clearly in the form of dark slits, which was imperceptible with ebony keys.

Modern Piano Keybord Improvements

But there were also attempts to change and "improve" the modern keyboard, based on rationalization considerations. Two directions can be noted here. The authors of proposals of the first type proceeded mainly from considerations of the chromatic and enharmonic arrangement of the keys, which would make fingering in various scales and keys more uniform and convenient and would eliminate the hegemony of the C major scale. Attempts at inventions of the second kind refer to changes in the shape of a conventional keyboard in order to make it more comfortable to play.
The earliest construction of a "chromatic" keyboard belongs to I. Hubsch and dates back to 1784. Apparently, this invention was not successful and was soon forgotten. The chromatic keyboards proposed by Dr. Krause (1810) and V. A. Lunn (1843) did not meet with sympathy in pianist circles. However, despite the failure of the first attempts, the factories of Schiedmeier and K. Gebauer produced two more chromatic keyboards in 1874, and two years later a society for the promotion and distribution of chromatic keyboards (Chroma-Verein) was even established in Germany. In the same year, the Ibach factory released such a keyboard.
A special place among the chromatic keyboards is occupied by Paul Janko's keyboard, improved by Franke and Blutner (1887). A feature of the Yanko keyboard is that each key has three pads for pressing, arranged in a terrace-like manner. When alternating the keys c, d, e, fis, gis and b in the first, third and fifth rows, with the keys cis, dis, f, g, a and h in the second, fourth and sixth rows, these pads form a stepped keyboard of six rows.
Thanks to this, Janko achieved complete uniformity of fingering in all keys, as well as the possibility of a very wide arrangement of chords, reaching a distance of almost two octaves between extreme sounds. Unfortunately, fatal design inconveniences and uneven loading of the keys in different rows were the reason that pianists did not like this ingeniously built keyboard and also did not gain popularity, although some German factories until recently produced a small number of instruments equipped with both ordinary keyboards and Janko keyboards. Of the keyboards of the second kind, we should note the repeatedly proposed arched keyboards, such as the “round piano” by G. Staufer and M. Gaidinger (1824), the arched keyboard by Gustav Neuhaus (1881), and finally, the keyboard of the New Zealand cellist Klutsam (1907). The latter proceeded from the anatomical and physiological considerations of the greatest convenience when playing. To do this, he gave the keyboard a double curve, corresponding to the pianist's most economical movements, especially when playing in extreme octaves. For some time, such a keyboard aroused interest and became widespread, but also did not find wide application.

Similar goals were pursued by the ray-shaped keyboard proposed by A. Schultz (1908). Being straight along the front of the instrument, this keyboard differs from the usual one in that its keys are not parallel, but radially in the direction from the center to the sides and forward from the player.
A special place is occupied by Olbrich's keyboard (1890), which differs from the usual one by reduced semitones.
The history of the invention of different systems and forms of keyboards has shown that, despite numerous attempts to modify the keyboard and even the obvious convenience of some of them, the usual form of the keyboard still remains predominant and quite stable in practice. It can be assumed that the routine and tradition of piano schools and methods, which are reluctant to adopt various innovations, play a significant role here.
The sound volume of the piano during the 19th century expanded significantly: from 5 - 5.5 octaves to 7 and even 7 1/3 octaves (A2 - a4 or c5). An interesting attempt by the Besendorfer factory in Vienna to further expand the sound volume: the concert grand piano of this factory - "Imperial" has a volume of more than 7.5 octaves - from F3 to C5. However, this design was not particularly successful, since the four extreme lower sounds are poorly perceived by the ear and difficult to tune; this makes one think that the sound volume of the piano will be kept mainly within the boundaries of 7 1/3 octaves indicated above.

Why the Piano Has Exactly 88 Keys?

Let's start with the fact that in the first piano, which was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori in the early 18th century, there were only 54 keys. But as piano music developed, keyboard manufacturers began to adapt to composers, for whom a larger range made it much easier to express their ideas in music. .
Everything came to the point that by the end of the 19th century a certain standard was developed: pianos were made with a range of 7 ¼ octaves. Or 88 keys. If you translate this into frequencies, you get a range from 27.5 Hz to 4186 Hz. And although the human ear is on average capable of picking up sounds in the range of 20-20000 Hz, in the upper register everything above 4 kHz is mostly perceived as barely audible noise. And what is below the lower notes of the piano is like a very low rumble.
In fairness, we note that sometimes the masters still make instruments with more than ninety keys, adding a few notes in the lower register. But this is done not in order to actively use them in the game, but in order for the rest of the piano sounds to receive additional overtones, making the timbre deeper and velvety.
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