The story of the humble piano key reveals significant detail about the evolution of the instrument. It might at first seem like a minor consideration, but actually, the devil is so often in the detail and this is certainly the case for piano keys. There is a common agreement that the first pianos were developed by the Italian Bartolomeo Cristofori roughly around 1700. These instruments were similar to their predecessors the harpsichord in appearance but wholly different in respect of how the tone was produced.
Early piano keys were made from a range of different woods that were commonly available in the early part of the 19th Century. Remember, that some early pianos resembled the harpsichord keyboard layout where the white and black keys were effectively reversed. One of the favored woods used by piano manufactures for the black keys was ebony.
Ebony is not as easily found today as it was in these early days of piano manufacturing. It is a beautiful brown-black hardwood that will sink if placed in water. What makes this wood so appealing is that when carved, or shaped into a key it can be polished almost to the reflective quality of a mirror. This brings a glossy look to a piano keyboard that is quite appealing and perhaps gives the impression of luxury and quality.
Other woods that were used for the darker, black keys were exotic ones such as spruce, sugar pine, or basswood. As the shorter keys (the black ones), were played less frequently, it was felt by many manufacturers that the wood could be a compromise. Interestingly, the distinction between black and white keys on all pianos is an important one as it helps to visually separate one set of keys from another. Also, the black keys are narrower than the white ones helping pianists develop a feel for the geography of the instrument that would be far more difficult if they were all the same shape.
The white keys of the piano were up until the early 1960s, made of woods like ivory. As hard as it is to believe in the times in which we now live, and with the awareness we have regarding the environment, ivory was the preferred material for the white keys on the piano. What it explains is the term ‘ivories’ that is often used to describe the piano keys. It also gives you the origin of the phrase ‘to tickle the ivories’; or in other words, play the piano.
On older model pianos you may well discover that the keys on the instrument are ivory. How the ivory was used varies. Sometimes you may have the rare opportunity to see a piano with solid ivory keys, more likely is that the keys are half ivory and half plastic. This can be reasonably easily spotted on the white keys as you can see a thin line roughly half-way up the key where the manufacturer has joined the ivory to the other material.
Whilst the idea of using ivory is quite abhorrent today, other disadvantages accompany its use. Ivory, as a natural material, is porous and as a result, will change color over time becoming yellowed and often brittle. This can lead to keys chipping and becoming unusable for performances.
As you would anticipate, the replacement of ivory keys is now only possible through the re-fitting of keys from old pianos. The use of new ivory is rightly banned. If you are the owner of a piano that dates back before the 1960s it may be worth looking to see what material you have been playing on, if only to recognize the history of piano manufacturing.
The world of piano manufacturing has moved forward considerably since the 1700s, and as you would expect, so has the production of piano keys. Many pianos today have longer white keys made of a hardwood that is hollow inside and with a thin layer of plastic applied to the top surface where the pianist would press the key.
There are many different types of plastic used by the leading piano makers that can give a different ‘feel’ to each piano. This can be a crucial factor in deciding which piano is right for you. Yamaha for example, have developed their own plastic covering that they call ‘ivorite’ that they claim has the feel and look of ivory.
The advantage of the plastic covering over the traditional ivory is that it is hard-wearing, replaceable, affordable, and considerably more ethical. Other examples of natural materials include ‘vegetable ivory’, which comes from the tagua nut. There is an extremely hard, white-colored part of the seed of the ‘Elephant Plant’ and the ‘real fan palm’ from which this vegetable ivory can be extracted. Such is the density of the material, it is ideal for something like piano keys but is not in plentiful supply. It originates in both South America and Africa.
Black keys on pianos are commonly also a type of plastic or resin occasionally with higher-end pianos sporting ebony keys. Even though ebony is still an expensive wood, some manufacturers prefer to use it over manmade alternatives. It is after all durable, aesthetically pleasing, and good to work with. Some of the resins that have been developed offer the modern pianist a comfortable and attractive playing keyboard that will be a pleasure to play and demonstrate longevity.
Most electronic piano keyboards have their keys made from plastic, making them easier to lift and move around as needed. Many ingenious mechanisms are supplied with contemporary electric pianos to provide a ‘real piano feel’, that are increasingly convincing as manufacturing techniques evolve.