Take a brief survey of the history of the piano and you will quickly discover that not all pianos are created equal. This is especially true when it comes to considering the number of keys they are manufactured with. Very early examples of pianos were not as they appear today. Not only were the mechanical constructs and materials different, but the key allocation considerably shorter.
In fact, these first pianos could easily be mistaken for their predecessor, the harpsichord with the characteristic reversal of the black and white keys. (Amongst many stories, the thought was that the five white keys, often used to play sharps and flats, were less frequently used and could therefore be made of an ivory whereas the other seven keys of each octave were often used and needed to be made of a darker wood).
61 Versus 88 Key Pianos
Initially, pianos would have had between four and five-octave keyboards which compared to the standard seven and a quarter octave pianos common today seems quite limited in range. To an extent, this was as a result of manufacturing techniques, that limited range, but also mirroring what was expected from musicians of the time. As composers became increasingly daring and demanding in their musical aspirations and the production of pianos became established and reliable, the instrument grew to the full eighty-eight key pianos of today.
Another reason why pianos were made with a smaller range was space. As the instrument grew in popularity and became more affordable, more people wanted to buy one but not everyone has a room in which to accommodate a nine-foot, eighty-eight keyed Steinway Concert Grand. Eavestaff Pianos (Established in London in 1823), developed what they called a ‘Mini Piano’, to address this issue of space. This novel invention challenged Eavestaff to create an instrument that not only fitted into modest spaces but one that was robust and sounded convincing.
Producing a small piano that can compare to its larger cousins is not as easy as it may first appear and their solution left the instrument with tuning problems. Some of these instruments also have shorter keys and are not as responsive as other pianos are. This alongside a weaker resonance makes them, especially these days, somewhat too much of a compromise and more a historical curiosity.
‘Kemble’ (founded in 1911), also made smaller pianos that were popular for many years, notably in England where they were made. The Kemble piano was a six-octave instrument but one that was celebrated for its warmth of tone and high-quality manufacturing. For many, instruments like this and the Eavestaff equivalent were pianos for beginners, especially children who would not have needed the range of a full piano keyboard. The Kemble Piano company moved its manufacturing to the Far East around 2009 and the small piano is no longer a member of their current range.
Part of the reason that upright, mini, or miniature pianos are not in demand is the rise of the electronic keyboard. These come in a bewildering selection of options that range from 61 – 88 note keyboards. When these electronic counter-parts came to the musical market in the early 1970s, the instruments were rudimentary and limited in functionality compared to what is available today. Manufacturers like Casio and Yamaha took the lead in this area and still lead the field today in terms of ‘smaller’ keyboards that produce sound electronically.
Many of these keyboards are deliberately made with shorter ranges than the eighty-eight keyed piano. The 61-keyed keyboard is an ever-present feature of many music classrooms and studios. As an educational tool, it is invaluable, not only for its portability but for its compact design.
In a classroom music situation rarely is there a need for a full-length keyboard and a 61 keyed electronic instrument offers a perfect compromise. These instruments come with an impressive range of sounds, loops, tutorials (in some cases), and are easy to play. This is largely because, at the less expensive end of the ranges, they are not supplied with weighted keys just ones with touch sensitivity which is enough in a classroom situation. They also link nicely via MIDI to computers which is a huge advantage in today’s music lessons.
If what you intend to do is learn to play the piano, then there is no substitute for the real, acoustic instrument. As it is not usually more expensive to purchase an 88-key piano compared to a 61-key piano, then the decision is pretty clear. Then, you have the advantage of an instrument that has all the resonant properties that you would wish to hear in a piano together with every note you are ever likely to need to perform almost every piece ever written. Besides, I cannot find a manufacturer who is still producing 61 key pianos, as the industry standard appears to have moved directly to the eighty-eight key models.
By comparison, you could, if you were short of space and wanted a portable instrument, look at the impressive range of keyboards produced by Nord. These instruments are at the top of the musical range of options and offer a completely convincing piano playing experience. Roland has recently added a model they call ‘The Go: Piano’. This new inspiration from Roland offers a wireless connection to the internet, complete portability, full-sized keys, and touch sensitivity that they claim feels very close to playing an acoustic instrument. The Go: Piano has exactly 61 keys and gives a range of tremendous possibilities for anyone wishing to learn the keyboard.
61 keys versus 88 keys boil down to sound quality, available space, and level of experience. Second-hand, full-sized pianos can be purchased cheaply with their shorter, versions still available of you search piano suppliers in your country. Electronic keyboards are incredibly sophisticated today and can give genuinely viable alternatives to acoustic pianos, with 61 – 88 key variations and prices to match every budget.