Playing piano

Why do pianos have 88 keys

So why exactly do pianos have 88 keys? Well before you run to the nearest piano and start counting it’s probably worth mentioning there’s no hard and fast rule saying a piano absolutely must have 88 keys, it’s just that’s the number most pianos have as standard.

Part of the explanation here is one of tone, in that the human ear can’t really detect notes lower than the lowest A on the keyboard or higher than the highest C. Whilst there are some modern pianos that make use of these lower keys, these haven’t yet caught on as the industry standard.

Another big reason that 88 keys have stuck around as a standard for so long is that there really aren’t that many pieces that require more than the 88 sounds, there’s a lot of potential ways to combine 88 tones to make music and mankind as a whole has not worn them out just yet.

Probably the biggest issue impacting on the decision to keep 88 keys as standard for over a century is just the size requirement. Besides the obvious cost implications at work here, larger pianos containing more specialized parts being predictably more expensive, there’s a consideration for what the average piano player can comfortably deal with.

A grand piano is already a big enough beast that it requires a whole dedicated space, adding another foot of size is not exactly convenient. Imagine for a second how much available space someone is liable to have either in their home or on a concert stage. Increasingly grand pianos are just impractical without a lot of forward-thinking.

This size issue hits manufacturers too, the average production of a standard grand piano can take 1 to 3 years to manufacture 88 key models. It would not be feasible to spend years of time and mountains of capital researching, designing, and building a gigantic piano with more than 88 keys. They would have to have a great deal of confidence that such a unique piano would be purchased, which would normally only come from pre-ordering. In an unsurprising twist, there really aren’t that many people who custom order bespoke colossal pianos. However, brands like Bosendorfer and Stuart and Sons are known for their unique instruments. Bosendorfer, for example, has a 92 key piano model.

The final aspect of why the 88 keys is that at this point it’s just the historical norm, Steinway pianos debuted the 88 key model in the late 1800’s which offered a good balance of tones and size, and the rest of the industry followed suit. It’s a solid piano design that’s worked perfectly for over a century and is beloved by the majority. So, there is a brief overview of why pianos have 88 keys, tone, versatility, history, and no small amount of economics.

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