Piano and Harpsichord Keys and Keyboard Compass

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Keys and Keyboards

This article provides a short history of keys and keyboard compass. The German word "Klavier," which can refer to any keyboard instrument, possibly derives from the Greek word "celava" which means club (because most of the early organ keys were hit not played); but it is more likely that it came from the Latin word "clavis," meaning key, as this is where the English word key derived from. On early organs, the keys were marked with the pitch. These were translated into letters which were called "clavis."

The Roman water organ had a row of little levers. Evidence for this can be found on mosaics and carvings dating from before the collapse of Imperial Rome. During the tenth century there was an organ at Winchester Cathedral with 40 stops and two manuals, probably consisting of lever type keys, all naturals with no accidentals, taking, it is said, three men to play it. The organ was the first instrument with a keyboard, and the weight of its keys, like that of many other instruments, varied. So much so, that it took the strength of a man's fist to push down one of the crude levers, which to us would hardly be recognisable as a key. It was not unknown for players to be called "organ beaters." Organ players began complaining of uneven touch on the organs. A contract between an organ builder and Rouen Cathedral in 1382 refers to the repair of the keyboard with the purpose of making it more uniform and lighter in touch. However, parts of an organ dated 226 AD and found near Budapest had keys no heavier than those of a modern piano. Throughout the ages, touch has been one of the gripes of the performer. Even the great Silberman, who trained most of the great piano makers of the 1700s, was criticised by J. S. Bach, who said that Silberman pianos were too hard to play. This was around 1733.

The first sharp to be added to the keyboard was probably the F sharp, according to academic research. A painting by Van Eyck suggests that the fashion around 1430 was for narrower keys than in earlier years, with the use of sharps confirmed. Since around 1450 the keyboard has remained virtually the same except for minor variations in the width of the keys and the coverings of the short and long keys respectively as white and black or black and white.

By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, keyboards consisted of what we would call the naturals, or white note keys, with the church modes as the basis for the musical system. The interval of an augmented fourth, between the notes we would call F and B, was considered discordant, so the B was often lowered, bringing in an extra note, B flat, shorter and narrower, between the A and the B. After the B flat probably came the E flat, then C sharp and finally G sharp. They would have been tuned more or less as pure thirds to the natural keys, that is, the B flat as a true third below D, F sharp as a true third above the D etc. But today's arrangement of naturals and sharps or flats was depicted in a painting as long ago as 1361. Almost 300 years later, in 1619, Praetorius wrote that there were still to be seen a few keyboards with one short key, the B flat. Attempts were being made to play on two keyboards with one hand at the same time by 1555 or soon after.

Until the beginning of the 19th century the naturals were slightly shorter from their fronts to the sharps (this is more to do with playing technique than design) and often the naturals were darker in colour and the sharps lighter. The custom of having the naturals a darker colour was said to have originated in France to show off the player's hands to better advantage. A piano made by Zumpe in 1766 had the black notes divided into two sections controlling different strings, to allow for the tuning of sharps as sharps and flats as flats. Each octave could be divided into thirty-nine steps. The practical difficulties of playing such a thing ensured that it did not catch on.

It seems that around 1700 ivory was used for key covering at times. Many and varied materials have been used for this purpose, including bone, mother-of-pearl, porcelain, tortoise-shell, silver, boxwood, cedar, ebony, pear and other rare and polished woods. At times the fronts of the naturals were beautifully carved. In 1816 a set of new replacement keys for a Broadwood grand would have cost £3 s0 d0, and for a square £2 s15 d0.

The English and Viennese actions arrived on the scene around 1772 and the fronts of the Viennese keys were more often ivory, like those on a modern piano. Silberman's keys used very thick ivory, 2.5 mm. French and English keyboards had moulded, inverted step-like keys which used decorative box woods and sometimes the fronts were carved as well. Sometime in the 1830s they changed to the key front shape we know to day.

Clagget in 1788 patented the idea of putting glass on keys and later the French were using porcelain. This was all an attempt to get the customer to buy the cheap end of the piano lines.

In 1862 Cellulose was first made artificially from gun-cotton by A.Parkes, of Birmingham UK. Called "Parkesine", it could simulate ivory. In 1869 John & Isaiah Hyatt (1837 - 1920), of New York, produced Celluloid from camphor and pyroxlin (cellulose nitrate), and in 1870 Hyatt was granted a patent in the USA. Cellulose has been used for the key coverings on the cheaper pianos since then.

From about 1959, the most common covering for both white and black keys has been acrylic plastic. The keys made by Lindner for about ten years from 1961 were of plastic and hollow and tended to break.

In 1963 Pratt, Read & Co. introduced a moulded plastic shell wrapped around the wooden core of the keys so that no wood was exposed. At present there is an embargo on the use of ivory for key coverings.

Odd Keyboards

In 1862, Vincent suggested making a keyboard with six rows of keys to make possible the playing of any scale with the same fingering. In 1837 Obendrauf of Vienna made a pianoforte with a keyboard designed so that children could play intervals and chords with ease, but it is not known what the octave span was on his piano.

In 1841, John Dwight patented a seven-octave piano with a convex keyboard so the player could reach the extremes of the compass more easily.

Bosanquet designed a generalised keyboard harmonium with 53 keys to the octave in 1876. General Perrot Thomson in the mid-nineteenth century and Bosanquet in the 1880s made harmonia for scientific purposes with 72 and 80 finger keys to the octave respectively.

The dummy keyboard was in use before this time but in 1890 or thereabouts Virgil invented the Virgil practice clavier which was rather more elaborate. Pianos with pedal keyboards had also been known for some time and were made until the First World War or a little later.

Mangeot created a sensation in Paris in 1878 with a two-manual piano. Each hand had its own keyboard, but the keys for the left hand were reversed, making the furthest note to the left the highest pitched. Pianists could play scales and arpeggio passages with the same fingering but with the hands moving in opposite directions. In 1878 Percival patented a piano with two keyboards placed back-to-back vertically, 16 inches wide. The compass was split between the hands. Paul Janko patented Vincent's idea for a keyboard with six rows of keys in 1882.

In 1895 Pleyel patented a piano with a keyboard at each end, apparently similar to that by Persson in 1850.

In 1929 a two-keyboard piano was made by Steinway's factory in Hamburg, Germany. The two keyboards, one with the usual 88 notes, the other with only 76, The 76 note keyboard plays notes an octave above the ones on the 88 keyboard. Pressing a key on the shorter keyboard activates a mechanism inside the piano that pulls down the corresponding key on the lower keyboard, but an octave higher. The piano was rebuilt by Steinways in 2007

The Keyboard Compass

It can be safely said that the development of the keyboard compass has been governed by man's lack of technology, rather than man's desire for music. In the early fourteenth-century organs, 14 keys per manual was the norm. Later improvements in the link work and trackers, such as that by Praetorius in the later fourteenth century, made it possible for the increase of the compass and pipe size without compromising the gaps between keys as on other contemporary organs with a larger compass.

Early clavichords had few keys. In the roof on the nave of St. Mary's church, Shrewsbury, built during the first half of the fifteenth century, there is a carving of a clavichord with nine keys. In the basement of a church built in 1472 at Certosa in Tavia, there is a picture of King David playing an instrument with eight keys. He plays with the right hand, and it has eight strings.

The Venetian inventor Spinnette produced a four-octave harpsichord in 1503. The oldest surviving harpsichord, dated 1521, now at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, has a compass of nearly four octaves and shows the use of the short and broken octave idea. This is to provide a range of notes greater than the compass of the keyboard.

The first virginal is attributed to the harpsichord maker Ruckers (Antwerp, 1575-1667), and had 21 naturals and an overall key width of 502 mm from B to A. Ruckers produced some two-manual instruments with the bottom manual running from second octave C to sixth octave F and the top manual from second octave C to sixth octave C, with these last two keys coming inline with each other and tuned to the same pitch. In other words, the top manual was tuned a fourth higher than the lower manual. Most of the Ruckers instruments from 1620 had a range of C to E. A two-manual harpsichord dated 1599 runs F to F.

The Bonafines spinettino had a compass of C to E with 25 naturals. This was around 1690. The 1722 Cristofori piano ran C to C with forty-nine notes in all. By about 1726, some harpsichord keyboards had expanded to five octaves and one from 1700 has four and half octaves. In 1745, Francisco Perez Mirabal was making pianos in Spain. There is a piano in Madrid said to be his and the compass runs G to G.

Burney, writing about this period many years later, said: "The ladies at that time, wearing hoops, which kept them at too great a distance from one another, had a harpsichord made by Merlin, expressly for duets with six octaves." The square pianos made by Broadwood of 1780 had five octaves, yet there were still some produced with a smaller range. Anton Walter, who made pianos for Mozart, used nearly five octaves. In 1763 Johann Heinrich Silberman, nephew of Gottfried Silberman, was making a piano with five octaves in Paris.

In 1790, Broadwood was the first to extend the keyboard range to five and a half octaves and it is possible that the company made a grand with six octaves in 1794. However, Albrecht made a square grand with five and a half octaves going from F to F. This piano is at present in Charleston Museum and dated 1790. At the Finchcocks museum in Kent, a Broadwood grand from 1801, catalogue number 25, runs F to F (see list below). Amber Kasper, an Austrian maker, was still making squares with a three and a half octave compass, F to C, with an octave span of 153 mm, which was short, as most makers have spans over 160 mm. It is possible this square was for children. It was made about 1800.

An upright made by Hawkins in 1803 had a five and a half octave keyboard F to F octave span, 158 mm, and no pedals, just knee stops. Muller's upright of the same period had five octaves running from first octave E. Between 1803 and 1816 Beethoven owned an Erard which allowed him to reach from sixth octave F to seventh octave C.

Broadwood's price list of 1816 speaks mostly of instruments with six octaves, but mention is made of a cabinet piano with additional keys. This probably ran from bottom C, which was usual, to seventh octave F. Broadwood's grand of 1818, made for Beethoven, had six octaves. Liszt played on a six-octave Erard in Paris in 1824. The square pianos of the period usually ran from first F to seventh C, but Broadwood's price list of 1828 shows some squares with six octaves, running from F to F. The Broadwood grand that was in the Museum at the Royal National College for the Blind, Hereford, around 1831, runs from first C to seventh F.

In the 1840s Broadwood made pianos with the seventh A as the highest note. It would seem that by 1850 pianos were made also being extended to bottom A, so by this time some pianos had seven full octaves. At the Finchcocks Museum in Kent, a Broadwood grand from 1850, catalogue number 31, runs A to A. Pianos with a compass of seven and a quarter octaves 88 note had arrived before 1870. It is known around that date Chickering shipped a piano from Boston to New York with that range.

In the UK Pohlmann & Son, Halifax in their 1871 advertisment claimed to be the first manufacturers in Britain to adopt the 88-note keyboard.

In 1908 Bosendorfer extended the range down to C below bottom A on their large Imperial Concert Grand, which has eight octaves. The lowest note is C below the usual A, up to the top C, 97 keys in all. The piano is 9 feet 6 inches long Width: 5'9", Waght net: 1.255 lb. The standard keyboard of today is 88 notes, A to C, seven and a quarter octaves.

Octave spans and compasses of various keyboard instruments

Octave Spans and Compasses of Historical Organs
Name Date Octave Span Compass Type
Anonymous c. 1790 162 mm G-G / B-B
Anonymous c. 1860 125 mm F-F / C-C
Alexandra Pere 1859 163 mm C-C Harmonium
Avery 1782 161 mm C-E
Byfield 1766 164 mm G-G

Octave Spans and Compasses of Historical Clavichords
Name Date Octave Span Compass Type
Lindholm och Soderstrom 1806 162 mm F-F
Schmahl 1807 164 mm C-F

Octave Spans and Compasses of Historical Spinets
Name Date Octave Span Compass Type
C. A. c. 1700 162 mm GG / BB

Octave Spans and Compasses of Historical Virginals
Name Date Octave Span Compass Type
Adlam Burnett 1976 165 mm C-E
Guarracino 1668 167 mm C-E

Octave Spans and Compasses of Historical Harpsichords
Name Date Octave Span Compass Type
Adlam Burnett 1983 167 mm B-B
Antunes 1785 165 mm G-G
Blasser 1744 164 mm F-F
Fr. Ant. L 1716 170 mm C-C
Gregori 1797 167 mm C-E
Kirckman 1756 162 mm F-F
Maboon 1742 163 mm G-G

Octave Spans and Compasses of Historical Pianos
Name Date Octave Span Compass Type
Adlam Burnett 1974 159 mm F-F Grand
Anonymous c. 1825 160 mm D-D Lyre Piano
Anonymous German c. 1815 135 mm F-f Portable Square
Bayes & Co 1793 162 mm F-F Square
Beyer 1777 162 mm F-F Square
Brinsmead & Sons c. 1885 165 mm A-A Upright
Broadwood & Son 1792 163 mm F-F Grand
Broadwood & Son 1795 164 mm F-F Square
Broadwood & Son 1798 164 mm F-F Square
Broadwood & Son 1801 164 mm F-F Grand
Broadwood & Son c. 1815 164 mm F-F Square
Broadwood & Sons c. 1820 164 mm C-C Grand
Broadwood & Sons c. 1820 164 mm F-F Square
Broadwood & Sons 1823 165 mm C-C Grand
Broadwood & Sons c. 1830 164 mm C-C Cabinet Upright
Broadwood & Sons c. 1848 166 mm C-C Grand
Broadwood & Sons c. 1850 165 mm A-A Grand
Broadwood & Sons c. 1858 C-C Square
Broadwood & Sons c. 1870 163 mm C-C Upright
Cristofori 1720 164 mm C-F Grand
Clementi & Co. c. 1800 F-F Grand
Clementi & Co. c. 1804 164 mm Upright Grand
Clementi & Co. c. 1815 164 mm F-F Grand
Clementi & Co. c. 1815 F-F Square
Clementi & Co. c. 1815 161 mm F-F Square
Clementi & Co. c. 1821 165 mm C-C Grand
Clementi & Co. c. 1822 164 mm C-C Grand
Clementi & Co. c. 1825 164 mm F-F Upright
Clementi & Co. 1825 164 mm F-F Upright
Collard & Collard c. 1835 166 mm F-F Grand
Collard & Collard c. 1835 165 mm F-F Square
Collard & Collard c. 1835 165 mm F-F Grand
Edwards c. 1825 F-F Upright
Ennever c. 1850 A-A Upright
Erard Freres 1901 160 mm F-F Square
Erard 1866 185 mm A-A Square
Erard c. 1860 Square
Fritz c. 1815 160 mm F-F Grand
Ganer 1784 162 mm F-F Square
Graf 1830 160 mm C-C Grand
Graf 1826 160 mm C-C Grand
Hancock 1779 164 mm F-F Grand
Henschker c. 1779 164 mm F-F Grand
Jakesch c. 1832 159 mm C-C Grand
Jones & Round c. 1840 165 mm Upright Grand
Kearsing c. 1831 165 mm F-F
Knowles & Allen c. 1805 F-F Square
Lengerer 1790 163 mm F-F Grand
Longmann & Lukey 1780 162 mm Square
Mercier 1831 163 mm F-F Upright
Pape 1884 163 mm C-C Upright
Pape 1843 163 mm C-C Upright
Pleyel c. 1840 164 mm F-F Upright
Pleyel et Compagnie 1842 164 mm C-C Grand
Rosenberger c. 1800 159 mm F-F Grand
Sauer c. 1805 160 mm F-F Pyramid piano
Southwell c. 1800 164 mm F-F Upright
Stodart 1787 162 mm F-F Grand
Stodart 1802 162 mm F-F Grand
Stodart 1807 161 mm F-F Square
Streicher 1867 166 mm A-A Grand
Walter & Shon c. 1800 153 mm C-F Square
Wilson & Whitby 1789 F-F Square
Zumpe & Buntebart 1769 162 mm G-G Square

Octave Spans and Compasses of Moden Pianos
Name Date Octave Span Hight Compass Type
Yamaha 2007 167 mm 731 mm C-C GB1 Grand
Yamaha 2007 167 mm 743 mm C-C U1 Upright
Yamaha 2007 167 mm 771 mm C-C PX124 Upright
Yamaha 2007 167 mm 736 mm C-C U3 Upright
Will Steinbergs 2007 190 mm 782 mm C-C Upright
Avery 1782 161 mm 162 mm C-E
Byfield 1766 164 mm 162 mm G-G

Barrie Heaton Dip. AEWVH, FABPT, FIMIT, CGLI (hon.), MMPTA (USA) © copyright 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002
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