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The traditional music keyboard

John S. Allen

The traditional keyboard configuration is remarkably well-suited to its purpose, considering that it developed though historical accretion, not as a result of any coordinated plan.

A seven-tone per octave keyboard corresponding to the white keys of today's keyboard was common in the late Middle Ages, and could play the diatonic modal scales common in the music of the time, corresponding to the steps between the white keys of today's keyboard. In order to allow an instrument to play in different musical keys, it became necessary to add the accidentals, (sharps and flats, or black keys) to create half steps between the whole steps of the seven-tone keyboard. The first recorded keyboard with this arrangement was built by one Nicholas Faber in Halberstadt, Germany in the year 1361.

The traditional keyboard has certain important advantages. It also has serious disadvantages.

Advantages of the traditional keyboard pattern:

There are important conceptual, practical and ergonomic advantages to the traditional keyboard. Any attempt to improve on it should recognize these advantages, so as not to forego them:

Appropriate size of keys

The Halberstadt keyboard had keys probably 2 inches (5) cm) or more wide, intended to be played with the entire hand. Such keyboards are still used for carillons. The spacing evolved downwards until it was small as possible without cramping of the fingers of a typical adult's hand. Narrower keys are practical only as long as adjacent keys need not be played at the same time, as with the left-hand chord buttons of the accordion. Wider keys reduce the number of keys which the hand can span, as well as the number which the arms can span.

The traditional keyboard has fewer keys at the front of the keyboard than at the rear, and the black keys elevated above the white keys so the thumb and fingers may be extended in opposite directions to span several keys without depressing unwanted keys.

The length of keys is also important in keyboard technique. The traditional black key, at 3 to 4 inches in length, is just long enough to let a finger and the thumb comfortably play the same key in quick succession or at the same time. A typewriter-style keyboard with an array of keys in a hexagonal or square grid can be played only by the fingers, not the thumb, though such a keyboard has sometimes been used in music, particularly on accordions.

Hand positioning by sight or by touch

The keys of the conventional keyboard have a distinct pattern which repeats only once per octave. The two-tiered arrangement of keys makes it possible to recognize this pattern by touch, so it is possible to position the hands over the desired keys by feeling them without looking at them.

Large existing literature and performance tradition

A very large amount of music has been conceived for the traditional keyboard, in a great variety of styles. This music is idiomatic to the traditional keyboard and depends to some degree on the particular key pattern of that keyboard.

Full freedom of modulation and transposition

The traditional keyboard permits full freedom of modulation, and transposition of patterns to begin with any key. This freedom is limited only by the non-uniform fingering of the traditional keyboard, which makes some patterns easier to play in one musical key signature than in another.

Fig. 1 Keyboard Symmetry (John S. Allen, 1997)
Symmetry of the traditional keyboard (1.4 KB GIF)


The traditional keyboard is symmetrical about the midlines of the D key and the Ab key. Since the performer's two hands are mirror images of one another, fingerings of the same sequences of notes are different in the two hands. However, it is possible to use the same fingering in both hands when playing two keyboards, one with the order of the pitches reversed. This trick can make some music easier to play, especially music with similar figures (e.g. in unisons or octaves) in the two hands. The two keyboards are preferably placed opposite one another, more or less as shown in the drawing,. A reversed keyboard is not practical for music which makes idiomatic use of the difference between the two hands.

Disadvantages of the traditional keyboard:

The traditional keyboard has some very serious conceptual and practical disadvantages:

Limitation to 12 pitches per octave

Due to its repeating pattern of 12 keys, the traditional keyboard is inherently, conceptually limited to twelve pitches per octave. When the keys are used to control more than twelve pitches per octave, the range of pitch within a hand span is decreased, and the pitches fall out of their usual and traditional relationship with the keys.

Binding to 12-tone equal temperament

The practical limitation to twelve pitches per octave ties the traditional keyboard very closely to the equal-tempered twelve-tone scale, seriously compromising the musical possibilities of the keyboard. Any scale other than the equal-tempered one eliminates full freedom of modulation.

The traditional keyboard therefore has a constricting and deadening influence on the use of pitch. Music for other types of instruments which do not have this inherent limitation is made to conform to the limitations of the traditional keyboard, for several reasons.

  • Since the keyboard allows a composer to play several musical voices at once, many composers use it as a composing tool. Keyboards impose their conceptual limitations on the works that composers sketch out using them.
  • Keyboards eliminate entire classes of pitches which are "in the cracks" between the equally-tempered intervals; in particular, natural 7ths and 11ths as well as other intervals used in classical and folk music traditions in many parts of the world.
  • Any instrument which plays in unison with a keyboard instrument in an ensemble must conform to the pitches of the keyboard instrument. Even within the 12-tone system, then, the keyboard instrument restricts nuances of pitch whether used for expressive purposes or to improve the consonance of intervals.

Computerized instruments can somewhat overcome this limitation, because they allow pitch assignments to be redefined quickly and easily. To some degree, reassignment can be automated; though automation can not be complete because many pitch combinations, even in ordinary diatonic music, are ambiguous. Computer software is available commercially to reassign pitches.

Different fingering patterns for the same musical patterns

Different fingering patterns are required to play the same musical patterns when they start with different keys. As a result, learning to play the keyboard is unnecessarily complicated, and some fingerings are awkward.

Finger rolls only for some key combinations

Rapid grace notes may be played by sliding a finger from one key to another when the second key to be played is lower than the first -- in only ten of the twenty-four combinations of adjacent keys on the conventional keyboard. Consequently, such grace notes are highly idiomatic to the key signature in which they are played.


The arrangement of keys in the conventional keyboard is ascribed to Nicholas Faber of Halberstadt in Saxony, who first used it in an organ completed in the year 1361. For a description and illustration of this keyboard, see Partch, Genesis of a Music, pp. 373-374, citing Grove’s Dictionary (1935 edition), 7:741, 742, or Wilkinson, Tuning In, p. 39.

A typewriter-like keyboard is used for chording with the left hand on the conventional piano accordion, and for both hands on the concertina and the Russian baran accordion. It was also applied in the experimental Motorola Scalatron, a microtonal instrument.

Many electronic synthesizers can be retuned to any desired scale; but playing becomes cumbersome and non-intuitive in a scale with more than 12 pitches per octave.

[Top: John S. Allen's Home Page]
[Up: Introduction to keyboard articles]
[Previous: Rethinking the Keyboard]
[Next: Refining the Traditional Keyboard]

[contact John S. Allen by e-mail]

Contents 1997 John S. Allen

Last revised 1 April 1997