How many keys are on a piano?

Publish Date: 3 April 2024
How many keys on a piano

In 1700, Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori wanted to make a unique harpsichord that had the ability to play both softly and loudly.

This led him to create the first hammer mechanism and build the first piano in existence.

The pianoforte had only 49 keys and sounded more like a harpsichord, with each key being narrow in width.

Throughout history, piano making has been refined, with piano makers and manufacturers experimenting with different keyboard sizes and keys of various widths.

The works of Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt, among other romantic composers, are all infamous for their challenging repertoires, demanding more keys to be added to the piano and a more powerful tone.

Over time, the number of piano keys has grown, and in this guide, we’ll be delving into the rich historical evolution of the piano and exploring how the key count has grown to the standard we know today.

The anatomy of a piano

The basic structure of a piano truly is an engineering marvel, made up of a soundboard, hammers, strings, pedals and, of course, the keyboard.

At the front of the piano sits the keyboard, a crucial component that serves as the link between the pianist and the instrument.

When each key is pressed, the action stack is activated, and this translates the movement on the keyboard to hammers, which swing forward and cause the strings to vibrate and produce the desired note.

Above the strings are all the tuning pins, which are used to adjust the strings, and holding everything together is a cast iron plate that houses the tremendous force of the instrument.

Underneath the keyboard, you’ll then find the space where vibrations of the strings go through the bridges onto the soundboard, which is what helps amplify the sound.

It’s here you’ll also find the trap work and pedals to control various aspects of the piano’s sound and functionality, such as sustain, softness, and damping.

The keyboard itself comprises a series of black and white keys that allow players to produce a wide variety of tones and melodies.

The keys are arranged to follow a very distinct pattern in which there are alternating groups of white keys, also known as naturals, and black keys, also known as sharps and flats, repeating across the keyboard.

On some historical harpsicords, you may notice this pattern reversed so that the white keys were the sharps and flats, and the black keys were the naturals.

The layout forms the foundation for the piano’s architecture and allows players to produce sounds with ease.

Exploring the standard piano key count

So, to answer that all-important question, how many keys does a piano key have?

The answer is 88 keys, which is the universally recognised configuration consisting of 36 black keys and 52 white keys, totalling seven full octaves plus a minor third.

Each octave contains eight white keys and five black keys that follow a consistent pattern of intervals and pitches.

Since the 1890s, the 88 keys on a piano have been the standard number within the music industry to ensure musicians have a consistent and comprehensive range of notes and tones to explore.

Whether you’re a fan of classical compositions or opt for more contemporary pieces, the 88-key piano provides every player the versatility and expression they need to produce incredible works, making it an indispensable tool for composers, musical artists and educators globally.

What is the significance of 88 keys?

On the surface, 88 is a somewhat arbitrary number of piano keys, and it begs the question, why not more, or why not less?

The piano was initially invented as a successor to the harpsichord to fulfil a desire for dynamic control. For this reason, it was named the ‘forte piano’, which, when translated from Italian, means ‘loud soft’.

The first forte pianos originally had 49 keys on a piano, and this number gradually increased to match the needs of pianists as the years went on before settling at 88.

The universal adoption of 88 keys as the standard for pianos is rooted in practicality and musical requirements.

The range provided by 88 keys allows pianists to experience a vast range of sound, but when you start to add more keys, the auditory range of the human ear becomes an issue.

As the frequency level of a pitch nears the upper and lower limits of the ear’s auditory range, it becomes more difficult to distinguish the pitches. The piano starts to sound less like distinct pitches and more like a mixture of sounds that do not translate well.

The current 88 keys already experience some of these auditory issues at the extremes of their range, with pieces that feature both very low and very high pitches played simultaneously, making it difficult to hear each note clearly.

In addition to the limits of the human ear, most composers have little interest in writing notes that extend beyond the 88 keys, as the current configuration already allows players to tackle a range of repertoires with confidence.

Composers in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Beethoven, wrote pieces that could not be played on the pianos available at the time, so they were expanded to facilitate these notes.

Now, in the modern day, whether you’re interested in exploring the intricacies of a Chopin nocturne or want to indulge in the powerful chords of a Rachmaninoff concerto, having these 88 keys on a piano allows artists to play the full range of sound.

The historical evolution of the piano

The evolution of the piano started centuries ago and dates back to the Middle Ages, however, as mentioned, it wasn’t until 1700 that Bartolomeo Cristofori would create the first piano as we know it today.

In its earliest iterations, the piano boasted a more modest key count that held around 60 to 70 keys. Over time, however, advancements in craftsmanship and technology have refined the piano’s form and function and paved the way for music innovation.

The transition to the modern 88-key piano can be traced back to the 19th century when there was a yearning for musical expression and innovation.

It was in the 1880s that Steinway & Sons popularised the 88-key instrument, and many other piano manufacturers during the period followed suit.

The main reason behind this standardisation is that more pianists were travelling around the globe for concerts and preferred having a standard number and size of keys on pianos.

As a result, the full-sized keyboard was more widely accepted and became the gold standard in piano design.

In 1909, Bosendorfer designed and crafted the Bösendorfer Model 290 Imperial, a nine-and-a-half foot concert grand with an incredible 97 keys.

The instrument was built at the request of Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni, who wanted to play piano transcriptions of Bach’s organ works, which required a more extensive tonal range.

The extra keys were coloured black so that Busoni could tell them apart from the standard 88 keys.

For 90 years, Bosendorfer’s Imperial was the only concert grand piano in the world with 97 keys, until 1990, when Stuart & Sons of Australia built a 108-key grand piano. This impressive instrument can be likened to the range found in a large pipe organ.

This begs the question, why do manufacturers top at 88 and not give all pianos this many keys?

The answer is, as previously discussed, pitches higher or lower than the standard 88 are less discernible to the human ear and only really come to life when played with other notes.

Miniature and extended keyboards

While it’s clear that the 88 keys on a piano remains to be the preferred key count, there are still variations that exist to cater to specific musical needs and preferences.

Miniature keyboards, named as such for their reduced number of piano keys, offer a more compact and generally portable alternative for musicians on the go or with limited space.

These keyboards often house 61 keys or fewer, making them ideal for travelling or home learning.

For example, Yamaha offers a range of miniature keyboards, such as the Yamaha PSS-A50, a portable digital keyboard designed to provide ultimate freedom for beginners with only 37 keys.

There is also the higher end Yamaha Reface CP model that again only has 37 keys but is designed specifically for sound designers, music creators and keyboardists working on music at home and travelling to perform.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are some pianos that boast an extended range of keys beyond the traditional 88, which cater to the more ambitious demands of performers and composers.

These instruments, known as extended keyboards, often include additional bass notes or treble extensions as well as supplementary keys to allow the pianist to expand their musical horizons.

As discussed, the Imperial Bosendorfer is an excellent example of a piano that was designed in the early 1900s with an extended keyboard containing a whopping 97 keys.

Since then, we have seen Stuart and Sons introduce a 102-key piano range back in 2010, and in recent years, they have gone a step further.

The Big Beleura is the latest release in extended pianos with an incredible 108 keys and nine octaves in response to new compositions spanning a nine-octave range written by Artur Cimirro in 2012.

Choosing the right piano

If you’re at the start of your musical journey or simply looking to upgrade to match your needs, selecting the right piano is an incredibly important decision.

Whether it’s an upright piano or grand piano, choosing to purchase a piano is an investment for any musician, so it’s crucial to be mindful of factors such as your budget, available space to house the instrument and your musical goals.

All of these factors must be carefully considered when weighing up the models available, but you may also want to consider the number of piano keys to determine their suitability for your needs.

Most beginners will be advised to start with the standard 88 keys to ensure that your learning is not limited to the reduced keys and so that there is ample room for growth.

However, if you are someone with an interest in sound design or lean towards the genres of electronic music or pop, you may also find value in exploring keyboards with reduced key counts.

Let us help you find the right piano

The keys on a piano represent more than just a number; they demonstrate a rich history of musical innovation and craftsmanship.

Composers, musicians and manufacturers throughout the centuries have pushed the boundaries of musical expression to create the 88 key piano we know and love today.

At Markson Pianos, we understand the importance of choosing the right piano to accompany you on your musical journey.

For more than 100 years, our family run business has been dedicated to providing musicians throughout London and around the world with world class pianos and expertise.

We supply from an extensive range of new pianos from some of the world’s leading manufacturers, including Bosendorfer, Yamaha, Feurich, Kawai and more.

Whether you’re interested in a more compact but incredibly powerful upright or a magnificent grand, we’ve a wide variety of pianos for you to choose from.

If you are in the process of looking for a new piano, then don’t hesitate to get in touch with our team by dialling 020 7935 8682 or email us at to learn more about hire costs.