What Are the Black Keys on a Piano?

Unlike a piano’s white keys, the black keys have more complicated names. The white keys of the piano are A B C D E F G, and then the pattern repeats; these notes are known as the “natural” notes. The black keys are modifications of these notes. The sharp (♯) modifier moves the pitch up or to the right, by one key. So the black key to the right of C becomes C♯ (read C sharp). 

The flat (♭) modifier moves the pitch down, or to the left. So the black key to the left of D becomes D♭. Note that the black key between C and D is called either C♯ or D♭. C♯ and D♭ are enharmonic equivalents since they are two names that refer to the same note. 

So, what are the black keys on a piano called? The black key are named D♭, E♭, G♭, A♭, B♭ or alternatively C♯, D♯, F♯, G♯, A♯. This can be seen in the visual below.

Black key names displayed on a keyboard

Black notes aren’t the only ones that can have a ♭ or ♯ in their name. Sometimes a sharp or flat will modify a note from one white key to another white key. For example, E♯ modifies E to the key usually referred to as F. Thus F is the enharmonic equivalent of E♯.

Displays that F is the enharmonic equivalent of E♯
E#=F

How Many Black Keys Are on a Piano?

There are 36 black keys on a standard 88 key piano (upright or grand pianos). On a 61 key instrument (usually a keyboard) there are 25. Depending on which note is the starting note the number of black keys on a piano can vary, but here is a rough guide. (Based on these diagrams).

# Keys# White Keys# Black Keys
32 (keyboard)1913
36 (keyboard)2115
49 (keyboard)2920
54 (keyboard)3222
61 (keyboard)3625
76 (keyboard)4531
88 (standard grand/upright piano or keyboard)5236
92 (grand piano rare)5438
97 (grand piano rare)5740
108 (grand piano several in the world)6345

Were Black Keys on a Piano Always Black?

Some pianos, especially this old one from Mozart’s time (1750-1800), used black long keys and white short keys.

There are several advantages to our current white long key, black short key model.

  1. Historically white keys were topped with ivory, a tough bone tissue that can be found in the tusks and teeth of elephants, warthogs, hippopotamuses and even narwhals. Black keys were made from dark dense woods such as ebony. Ivory beats wood in durability (which this elephant already knew) making them better suited to the more often used white keys.
  2. Using black long keys makes it difficult to see the shadow between keys. With white long keys the shadow creates a border.

Since the 1970’s we’ve decided that we actually like our elephants; currently ivory is not used in the production of piano keys

Do All Keyboards Have 5 Black Keys Per Octave?

This is the layout of one octave on a standard keyboard. There are 5 black keys and 7 white keys. This is how all keyboards are organized right?

One octave of a standard keyboard layout

The short answer is no. The long answer…

Doubling a frequency produces a pitch exactly an octave higher. Similarly plucking two strings, one that is half the length of the other will produce two pitches an octave apart. 

As music developed in Europe an octave was split into the twelve semitones westerners are familiar with.

Some cultures however, split the octave differently. For example the Druhpad, an old North Indian form of music, split the octave into as many as 84 units. (Research Indian Ragas for more information).

Not only is 12 notes to an octave arbitrary. Tuning so that each note is equally viable is tricky. For example, historically tuning a keyboard to a C major scale often caused other keys to sound out of tune. One way around this was by providing extra black keys as shown in the YouTube video below. 

Notice how the D♯ and E♭ are two slightly different pitches.

Modern pianos/keyboard instruments are tuned using the equal temperament system in which each note is 12√2 times higher than the note before it. This eliminates the need for any extra keys, or complicated tuning systems. 

What Are The Black Keys on a Piano For?

Let’s explore the function of the black keys by consider what a keyboard looks like without them. Notice there is no way to distinguish one note from the next at a glance

Keyboard layout with no black keys

Black keys every other note is hardly better.

Keyboard layout with black keys every other note

And finally our current layout. 3 followed by 2, allowing for visual distinction and 12 notes to a scale all in one! In fact, the placement of the black keys is how intermediate and advanced pianists internalize note names.

Standard keyboard layout with 2 black keys followed by 3 black keys

So what are the black keys on a piano for? They efficiently organize the 12 keys per octave in a recognizable pattern.

What are Black Keys Made of?

Black keys were traditionally made of ebony – a dense dark wood that glosses nicely. White keys were traditionally plated ivory – which comes from tusks (such as elephant tusks).

Black keys are made from ebony wood (shown in this picture)
Traditional pianos had black keys made from ebony, a durable wood shown above.

Modern keyboards usually use a high quality plastic topped keys.

Making Music with the Black Keys

Can you make music with just the black keys? Yes! The video below shows the “Black Key Etude” by Chopin, named because the right hand only plays black keys! I love the way the right hand arpeggiates down the keyboard; I can’t tell if it sounds more like a sparkling fountain or a galloping horse. It’s amazing what restrictions can do to spur the creative process.

Playing any combination of black keys will not create the same level of dissonance that can be found playing white keys because the pitches are farther apart. This makes them good to improvise on. 

To illustrate this, I like Lang Lang’s rendition of the “Black Key Etude.” Even with the accuracy of an orange he can make the black keys sound good (sort of). 

Now its your turn, make some music with just the black keys. For inspiration follow this quick improvisation guide:

  • Play a low, or far to the left, black key and hold down the right most foot pedal – or damper pedal 
  • Play several black keys going up the piano starting in the middle
  • Play several black keys going back down
  • Try skipping around
  • Release the pedal and take a bow

Increase the complexity of this exercise by naming the notes as you go.

Conclusion

You should now know the names of the black keys, the history and evolution of black keys on the piano, and different ways they are used in music. From here I recommend

And a related article that beginner pianists may be interested in: “What’s Easier to Learn, Guitar or Piano?”

Happy practicing!

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