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A keyboard [ kʰlavi̯aˈtʰuːɐ̯ ] (from Latin clavis 'key' , figuratively speaking 'key'; French clavier , Italian keyboard , older also keyboard ; Spanish teclado 'keyboard' , tecla , German 'key' , English keyboard ), also keyboard or Manual / Pedal , refers to a series of keys that are used on piano , organ , celesta , accordion , hurdy-gurdy , key fiddle , etc. v. a. a mechanism, action or electronics are put into action for the purpose of sound generation or pitch control.

The English term for keyboard and keyboard, keyboard (from English key , 'key' , 'key') is used in German for a group of electronic keyboard instruments.

Development of keyboards with 12 keys per octave

Keyboards of the organ in Halberstadt Fig. By Praetorius (1620) - the lower keys in the treble piano are about 6 cm wide. Pictured are keyboards with two rows of keys, two keyboards with eight and four keys at the bottom right and the earliest known keyboard with seven and five keys at the top right.

Today's keyboard instruments usually have two rows of keys, which are distinguished by the pair of terms lower keys (mostly in front) and upper keys (mostly further away from the player, higher than the lower keys and in a different color).

This modern keyboards evolved gradually from a single-row keyboard, as already for Hydraulis of Ktesibios is assumed, usually with seven keys and tones per octave. These seven tones correspond to a specific diatonic scale. In order to be able to start corresponding diatonic scales with other fundamental tones, additional keys were gradually added, which subsequently formed a second row of keys. Two examples of early two-row keyboards show Praetorius' images of the keyboards of the organ of Halberstadt Cathedral by Nicholas Faber , 1361, extended 1495.

Short octave clavichord , labeled

Until the nineteenth century, the lowest (i.e. major) octave of all keyboard instruments was typically not completely semitone. Instead, instruments were almost always built with so-called short octaves (C, F, D, G, E, A, B, B) or broken octaves (in addition with F sharp and G sharp; there are also some variants of the short octave from G 1 ). Until the middle of the 18th century, the large C sharp was mostly left out.
(→ short octave )

Howe and Wood in the USA implemented a symmetrical arrangement of the “6-6 keyboard” (with 6 white and 6 black keys) compared to the common “7-2-3 system” (7 white and 5 black keys) , but goes back to the German inventor Otto Quanz.

Keyboards with more than 12 notes per octave

Harpsichord with "broken" upper keys
Harpsichord universale with 19 notes per octave

Keyboards with more than one note per key

By retuning the actually monotonous tongues of the accordion so that they are tuned alternately in quarter-tone intervals, 24 tones per octave can be played with 12 keys. Such accordions are used by contemporary composers of serious music such as Veli Kujala, but also in traditional music in Egypt. One of the most important representatives of the tradition in Egypt is the accordionist Sheikh Taha.

Another solution with more than one tone per key uses the so-called “Enharmonic Pipe Organ” from the organ building company Schumacher, currently on permanent loan from the Prayner Conservatory in Vienna. It has an automatic system that recognizes the chords according to key images and controls the whistles according to a certain predetermined harmonic analysis.

Keyboards with more than 12 keys per octave

Quarter-tone keyboard after W. Möllendorff

In order to reduce the intonational problems of making music using changing basic tones or to be able to use tone systems with micro-intervals , keyboards were expanded beyond the twelve keys per octave that are commonly used today.

In some solutions, the additional keys are "won" by dividing the upper keys. With them, the term is used broken for upper keys that are executed several times in order to avoid enharmonic confusion. If there are double keys (mostly for D flat / Eb and G sharp / A flat), it is a subsemitonium (= "sub-semitone" in the sense of subdivision). This means that you can also play in keys with several accidentals in a mid-tone tuning without the fifths “rubbing” ( wolf fifth G sharp – E flat).

According to the description by Michael Praetorius (1619), the "Cembalo universale" or "Cimbalo cromatico" has not only the five divided upper keys but also ice and his, so that an octave has 19 tones: C, Cis | Des (divided key) , D, Dis | Es (split key), E, ​​Eis, F, Fis | Ges (split key), G, Gis | As (split key), A, Ais | B (split key), H, His.

The archicembalo , invented by the Italian music theorist and composer Nicola Vicentino in 1555, was also equipped with broken upper keys . It had a total of 36 keys per octave, which were distributed over two manuals.

The keyboard of the Orthotonophoniums has 72 keys per octave with their associated 72 pitches. Intervals, chords and modulations can be played in pure tuning in all diatonic keys.

A keyboard for quarter-tone music with 24 keys per octave was developed by Willi Möllendorff at the beginning of the 20th century and demonstrated on a harmonium.

Types of keyboards

Keyboards are subject to strong pressure to standardize, as musicians want to be able to play as many instruments as possible with a movement pattern that they have learned. As a result, the keyboard shape customary in today's pianos could and can maintain a dominant position, although at least in some areas there are other keyboards that are structurally, musically and ergonomically more sensible. By arranging the twelve keys of a keyboard in rows of two by six keys, the octaves are clearly brought together, making wide intervals easier to play.

The usual keyboards of modern pianos

Schematic representation of an octave section of a standard keyboard

The usual keyboards of modern pianos have 12 rectangular keys per octave, arranged in such a way that the seven main tones form a lower, front row (lower keys) and the five additional chromatic tones an upper, rear row (upper keys).

The console of an organ with four manuals

In the case of instruments with several keyboards (organ, harpsichord ) one speaks of manuals (from Latin manus "hand") if the keyboards concerned are to be played with the hands, and of the pedal (from Latin pes "foot") if the keyboard is played with the feet. Instruments with multiple pedal keyboards are very rare.

Instruments with several keyboards usually have couplers . These can be used to "connect" different keyboards to one another and thereby play registers from one keyboard that are actually assigned to another keyboard.


The pitch serves as a reference point when comparing keyboard sizes and key widths and comprises three octaves in the middle area of ​​the keyboard, i.e. it is usually measured from the left edge of the lower key C to the right edge of the lower key h1 plus a lower key space. For historical keyboard instruments, this value is usually 47.5 ± 0.5 cm. The dimensions of keyboards for pianos and grand pianos manufactured today are usually based on DIN 8996. This stipulates a width of 118.0 ± 0.4 cm for seven octaves, which corresponds to a pitch of 49.56 ± 0.168 cm.

Range of the keyboards

The notes on the keyboard

The range of the keyboards increased continuously until the end of the 19th century. In the more recent present there are again instruments with a smaller range of the keyboards for special applications.

Historical development:

  • In the Renaissance and early Baroque periods, keyboards with 49 keys (4 octaves) and less were common.
  • By 1750 the number of keys had increased to 4½ to 4⅔ octaves. Around 1750 the number of keys on stringed keyboard instruments and organs began to split: While the sizes of stringed keyboard instruments continued to grow, the number of keys and the range of manuals on the organ stagnated at the said 4½ to 4⅔ octaves.
  • Stringed keyboard instruments (clavichords, keel instruments, pianofort) from the time of Mozart, up to around 1800, have a range of 61 keys (== 5 octaves).
  • After 1800, at the request of pianists and composers, the number of keys increased rapidly. Sometimes regional accelerations and delays occur: 5 ½, 6, 6 ½, 7 octaves, finally in the last quarter of the 19th century to 7 ⅓ octaves, whereby almost the entire spectrum of tones that can be heard differently in pitch is covered .

Today the keyboard includes

  • Upright pianos and digital pianos usually 88 keys (7 ⅓ octaves from A 2 to C 5 );
  • some large concert grand pianos up to 97 keys (8 octaves from C 2 to C 5 ); the “additional keys” of the subcontractive octave (C 2 to G # 2 ) are often designed in a different color
  • Entry-level digital pianos, semi-professional keyboards or synthesizers mostly 76 keys (6 ⅓ octaves), rarely 73 (6 octaves);
  • Keyboards for hobby musicians (“standard-size keyboard”), many midi keyboards and some electric pianos 61 keys (5 octaves);
  • Some specialty synthesizers (e.g. bass synthesizers) and keyboards (for children) 49 keys or less (up to 25).

With organs , the number of keys in the manuals fluctuates very strongly. Efforts to standardize usually relate only to the geometric dimensions. In new buildings, the number of keys in the manuals is 56, 58 or 61 keys (4½ to 5 octaves, chromatic from C).

Ergonomic variants

Piano division (dimensions)

The division means the division of the octave width to the corresponding keys. With the piano division , each key is the same width, and the black keys are not all centered. When dividing the rows , the back keys for F, G and A are made wider.

Radiant keyboard

The radiant piano was an attempt to further improve the ergonomics of the piano. Although the front edge forms a straight line, the keys run diagonally towards the player and meet at an imaginary intersection behind the player. Radiated instruments are rare. Ibach founded a "Strahlenklaviatur GmbH in Barmen" for marketing purposes . This can also be found in the Memorial of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg No. 32 of June 12, 1909. The radiation keyboard is specified there as patent no. 7933 of May 18, 1909. Similar arrangements have found widespread use for pedal keyboards in organs and are now more often built as radial pedals alongside the traditional parallel pedal.

Goldhammer keyboard

The “Goldhammer keyboard” goes back to an attempt at reform by Otto Goldhammer, employee of the Institute for Musicology in Leipzig. The upper keys are rounded at the front and their edges run vertically, so they don't widen downwards, which makes the front playing surfaces of the white keys a little more spacious. The white keys of the semitone gaps B – C and E – F are chamfered so that wider fingers cannot get stuck. Goldhammer also designed keyboards of different sizes for one and the same grand piano, so that they could be changed for children's hands. However, the Goldhammer keyboard could not prevail.

Chromatic keyboard

The chromatic keyboard (from the Greek chroma color) is a keyboard on which all twelve semitone steps of the octave should be equal. On the chromatic keyboard, the upper and lower keys (with their own names) follow one another evenly. Heinrich Josef Vincent (1819–1901) propagated in his brochure “Die Neuklaviatur” from 1875 radically the chromatic layout of the keyboard (the C then fell on an upper key) and pointed out that Bernhardt Schumann , a doctor in Rhinow near Rathenow in the Mark Brandenburg , had come up with the idea of ​​a new keyboard 15 years earlier. The chromatic keyboard could not prevail at that time, but at the beginning of 2007 a MIDI controller called AXiS was introduced, which has the chromatic keyboard. Instruments with the chromatic keyboard belong to the 6-plus-6 instruments .

Jankó keyboard

Scheme of the Jankó keyboard

The Hungarian Paul von Jankó (1856–1919) invented a keyboard in 1882 in which the twelve keys of an octave are arranged in constant alternation as upper and lower keys. Each key has three points of attack, so that the keyboard appears on the outside as a terrace of six rows of keys. Its advantages are a smaller octave span, which enables very wide chord fingerings and new figurations, easier inclusion of the thumb in the game and chromatic glissando effects.

Keyboards with round keys

Chromatic button accordion

Keyboards with round keys are common worldwide. These round keys are usually called "buttons", hence the keyboards "button keyboards", more rarely "button keyboards". They can be found on many types of accordions and concertinas .

A major advantage of this key shape is the space saving: Compared to the usual piano, more keys are accommodated in the same area. This has ergonomic advantages - for example with octave handles - and enables smaller instruments. There are also organ pedal keyboards that are designed according to this principle.

There are many different systems for assigning the individual keys.

C-handle system with 3 main and 2 auxiliary rows
B-handle system with 3 main and 2 auxiliary rows
Stradella bass , excerpt (only in bass)

Key fiddle keyboards

The various forms of key fiddles have their own group of keyboards, usually called keyboards . They have their own keyboard structure. The hand grabs the keys "from below" with the palm facing upwards. The rows of keys are arranged in semitone steps with several rows on top of each other with a fifth or fourth interval . Diatonic keyboards are also used for simple instruments.

Details of the mechanics and keyboard of a Swedish key fiddle with three rows of keys
historical key fiddle from Mora (Sweden) with diatonic keyboard

Keyboard of the hurdy-gurdy

Hurdy gurdy around 1700 (Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg)

Similar to the key fiddle , the melody strings of a hurdy-gurdy are shortened with a keyboard, which is usually called a keyboard. The structure is similar to that of the pianos, but the seven root tones are arranged behind the five chromatic tones. The chromatic tones are thus achieved by rolling the fingers.

Hurdy-gurdy keyboards have a range from a ninth to two octaves, and occasionally two and a half to (very rarely) three octaves. Especially instruments for historical performance practice are occasionally diatonic, i.e. only equipped with a row of keys with the main tones, or some of the chromatic tones of the second row are missing.

A standard that has been widespread in French construction since the 18th century has 23 keys, with a series of root notes from g 'to g' '', with the f '' 'missing. For pieces that require an f '' ', the f sharp' '' is retuned to an f '' '.

It is common practice to transpose hurdy-gurdy by stringing them differently. This means that in the diatonic seven-tone row, the root tones no longer sound, but instead, for example, the tones of G major with a range from d '' to d '' ''.

Color, material and maintenance of keyboards


Usually at a today piano keyboard (z. B. on wings and autoclaving the upper keys (cis / Des, Dis / Es), the sub-keys (C, D, E, F, G, A, H) in a bright, F sharp / Ges, G sharp / A sharp, A sharp / B flat) designed in a dark shade. In the past, the variant with dark lower and light upper keys was also used.


Organ keyboard with mammoth ivory , ebony and maple

The material of the key must be as dimensionally stable as possible in order to prevent the keys from jamming in the event of climatic fluctuations. The material of the upper and lower key coverings should be highly resistant to hand perspiration and abrasion resistance and should be easy to clean. The keys of a keyboard on mechanical instruments are usually made of fine-grained spruce. Plastics, bones, mammoth ivory and all types of wood are used as covering for the lower keys. The use of (elephant) ivory is prohibited for reasons of species protection. Plastic, ebony , grenadilla or other woods are used as the top key coverings . In addition to the materials mentioned, mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell are also used for button buttons .

For pianos and grand pianos, ivory (whitish shade) was used for the lower key coverings and ebony (black shade) for the upper key coverings. With most harpsichords and some organs , however, the lower key coverings are dark and the upper key coverings are light. Here the color is often determined by the choice of wood from which the key covers are made. In electronic keyboard instruments, the key and key cover are made as a homogeneous component made of plastic.

Care and preventive measures

Strong climatic fluctuations should always be avoided with wooden musical instruments. In the case of keyboards, this can lead to the keyboard covering becoming detached from the key or, if it dries out too quickly, cracking. An ivory keyboard should be able to release the moisture absorbed by the fingers after the game. This does not happen sufficiently under a closed piano lid, so the lid should remain open; about as long as you played. In the meantime, a “ piano runner ” can be used to protect against dust , which allows moisture to pass through but keeps dust out. With the introduction of alternative keyboard coverings, the piano runner became superfluous.

Giant electronic street keyboard

Special features of digital pianos and keyboards

Some keyboards on high-quality digital pianos and master keyboards have a weighted hammer mechanism ( simulation ). This brings you closer to the authentic feel of a grand piano , for example when performing repetitions . In order to imitate the feel of a grand piano as well as possible, the weighting can be graded - lighter in the higher octaves than in the lower ones, as is also the case on an acoustic grand piano due to the different energy requirements of the strings to be stimulated (graduated weighting). Older entry-level digital pianos (built before 2003) only work with weights and springs. Keyboards and cheaper synthesizers usually only have a spring-loaded keyboard, but the sensors can also contain aftertouch , e.g. B. to control the subsequent swelling of a wind instrument tone.

Since digital keyboard instruments are often used to simulate playing a traditional instrument, not only the touch behavior of different keyboards of digital instruments differs, but also the design - a waterfall keyboard like the Hammond organ, for example, with its slightly rounded edge at the front instead of the typical piano key protruding tongue is often used for jazz and rock.

Keyboards without their own sound generation are called master keyboards . These only consist of a keyboard and a MIDI controller that can be used to control an external synthesizer, a computer with software instruments or the like. Your keyboard should usually be universally usable, i.e. suitable for different playing styles, but it always represents a compromise. Often they are also used in discos and similar venues to control lighting systems.

Keyboards are also familiar with special forms, such as the Continuum fingerboard , which enables the infinitely variable control of several parameters (e.g. pitch, tone strength and timbre). Some provide portamento .

Mute keyboard

As a special form, there are so-called silent keyboards that lack sound generation. They are for training purposes only.

Web links

Commons : Music keyboards  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: keyboard  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Otto Quantz: A new chromatic keyboard and musical notation. 1877.
  2. Gottfried Rehm: Symmetrical keyboard arrangement for keyboard instruments. In: Guitar & Laute 4, 1982, issue 4, p. 185.
  3. The Enharmonic Pipe Organ (website visited on October 26, 2014)
  4. De Organographia. In: Michael Praetorius: Syntagma musicum . Volume 2. 1619. Reprint: Bärenreiter, Kassel 2001, ISBN 3-7618-1527-1 , pp. 63–66. A reconstruction by the harpsichord maker Keith Hill is in the Organeum in Weener
  5. (PDF)
  6. DIN 8996: 1985-01 . Keyboard for pianos and grand pianos; Dimensions. Beuth Verlag GmbH, January 1885 ( [PDF]).
  7. ^ Barbara Mühlenhoff: The piano factory W. Neuhaus Sons Calcar 1840-1919: Letters to the home . BoD - Books on Demand, 2009, ISBN 978-3-8370-9336-0 , pp. 78 ( ).
  9. ^ Heinrich Josef Vincent: The new keyboard. Their advantages over the disadvantages of the old . Malchin 1875.
  10. Homepage of the AXiS
  11. ^ Paul von Jankó: A new keyboard. Theory and examples for an introduction to practice. Wetzler, Vienna 1886.