14. Know your keyboard
Afraid by the 88 keys on a piano? Get to know them and make 88 new friends!
Indeed, one thing which is really overwhelming when you first sit in front of a piano, is this huge number of keys: 88!
I have got good news for you: there are only 12 different notes on a piano.
I mean 12 notes with different names. Which are all repeated on the keyboard.
The difference between them?
The pitch height: the keys on the left have a lower pitch than the ones on the right.
We will see that in a moment.
For now, I have another good news.
You just have to press a key to play a note.
I think that compared to other instruments, like a violin or a guitar, it is quite an advantage!
But for now, we are here to learn about the keys and the notes on the piano.
And make new friends!
Let’s start by learning the different notes and how to find them on the keyboard.
Notes and piano keys
Let’s have a closer look at the keyboard and different keys.
You have two different types of keys: white keys and black keys.
On the keyboard, you have white keys.
They give you 7 notes named with letters: A, B, C, D, E, F, G.
You see how they are placed on this illustration below:
And you have black keys.
The often avoided black keys, so mysterious and frightening.
I was afraid of using them for a long time.
Stupid? yes I know.
I didn’t understand that they are even better friends than the white key.
Why is that?
Because they have a pattern: 2 groups of 2 or 3 keys.
They are amazingly helpful to find all the notes on the keyboard!
Can you imagine a keyboard with 88 white identical keys?
Anyways, let’s get back to the notes.
The black keys give 5 extras notes with odd names: sharp or flat.
If you press the black key on the right of a D key, you will play a D sharp, also written D#.
If you press the black key on the left of a D key, you will play a D flat, also written Db.
Thus a D# is also a Eb since it is also on the right of the E key.
Similarly a Db is also a C#.
There is just two particularities:
1. There isn’t any black key between the E and the F white keys.
Because a E# is a F and a Fb is a E.
2. There isn’t any black key between the B and the C white keys.
A B# is a C, and a Cb is a B.
“Wow, this is complicated!”
OK, OK, let’s look at the image below to understand better:
In the end, you have 7 white keys + 5 black keys = 12 notes.
Here is a diagram with all the different notes:
As I said, these notes are repeated over and over on a full 88-keys piano keyboard. Thus if you memorize the image above, you will be able to identify them because it is the same pattern and the same position.
To help you see better where the different notes are on the full keyboard, I made the illustration below:
“But wait a minute, how do I know which note to play between all the 88 notes?”
Let’s see how now.
The middle C: your starting point on the keyboard
Since all the notes have the same name, you need a reference to know which one to play.
Indeed, if you know that you have to play a C, you also need to know which C to play!
The lowest one? the highest one?
That’s why there is a reference note on the piano, called the middle C. Also notated C4.
How to find it?
Sit down in front of the keyboard, at the middle between the two extreme notes (the position you should have to play anyway!).
Then in front of you, you will have a 2-note group of black keys.
The middle C is on the right of these black keys, as you can see on the image below:
Now, you know all you need about the keys.
But what about the notes? What is the pitch height?
Notes and sounds
Notes are names we give to different sound frequencies in the range of audible human ear sounds.
“Wait a minute, I haven’t signed up for a course in Physics!”
OK, OK, I know.
But I want you to fully understand what is going on here.
Because I want you to understand music.
To become musicians.
From day 1.
Don’t worry, I will do my best to make it easy to understand!
Each note corresponds to the frequency of vibrations produced by the piano when you press a key.
Even if you use a digital piano or a keyboard, you are reproducing (or synthesizing) vibrations made by acoustic pianos.
Let’s see how it works.
On an acoustic piano, when you press a key, you will trigger the movement of a small hammer.
This hammer will then strike a metallic string, which will vibrate.
Like on a guitar for example if you pull on a string and release it.
Watch here an amazing animation showing the mechanism behind a grand piano and how sound is produced:
The vibration of the string depends on its length.
The longer and thicker the string, the slower it vibrates.
Why? because it is more difficult to move it fast.
Like if you play with a rope.
If you put the same energy to agitate a thin rope and a thick one, you will be able to agitate the thin much faster.
It is not exactly like that here, but it is the idea.
So, the slower the string moves, the lower is the frequency of the sound produced by its movement.
Because a sound wave is a movement of the air coming to your ears.
The illustration below should help you to understand better the idea.
A slow-moving object will move the air slowly, produce a low frequency sound wave, and thus a low pitch note.
On your piano or keyboard, the keys on the left correspond to the thicker, longer strings.
And thus the low pitch notes.
Whereas the keys on the right correspond to the thinner and shorter strings.
Thus the high pitch notes.
When you move one key to the right, you increase the pitch.
Thus, you play a higher note on the staff.
Whereas if you go one key to the left, you decrease the pitch.
And you play a lower note on the staff.
Now you are all experts in the Physics of pianos!
OK, maybe not yet.
But, at least you understand the foundations of string musical instruments.
So you know what is going on when you press a key on your piano.
We have seen all the keys, white and black.
And how to find the note of reference on a piano: the famous middle-C.
Also, we dived a bit more into how a piano works and how it produces the different notes.
I hope you understand your keyboard better now.
You will use those keys!
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