Why not 100, 200, or 70? Why only 88? Is this standard some kind of testimony to the original creator of the piano, or is there any technical reason for it?
Let’s find the answers to these questions.
The piano is indeed a versatile instrument, but like all the other instruments that we know of, it has an evolutionary history all too grasping and fascinating.
It is a general observation that the refined versions of everything are better in many ways imaginable. Same is the case with the piano and its original models.
Bartolomeo Cristofori is the man credited for refining harpsichord and clavier, and creating the first ever pianoforte, a name coined in the 1700s by enthusiasts, including Scipione Maffei who called it a harpsichord with quiet and loud notes.
As you can imagine, the pianoforte was adopted by music lovers from all over Italy and the rest of the West. Composers from these areas composed heartwarming music, but that music was limited and only confined to the four octaves range of the 49 keys.
For composers like Liszt, Mozart, and Chopin, there had to be more keys and octaves.
As the time passed, the evolution of the piano took pace, and according to documented accounts, between the 1770s and 1820s, pianos with five and a half, six, and seven octaves were produced. However, there is an uncertainty about the number of the keys until the 1880s.
The advent of 88-key pianos
From what is present as an evidence of the emergence of 88-key pianos, Steinway & Sons are to be credited. They are thought to be the pioneers of such a piano with 52 white and 36 black keys with A, B, and B flat lower notes, and a range of seven octaves.
Composers were lucky enough to see the creation of a versatile piano. Soon they started composing music that fitted well in this range and was more dynamic and repetitive.
Why manufacturers followed Steinway’s suit?
Basically, it had become a norm to follow the exact pattern of the piano created by Steinway because of its appropriateness and perfection. However, there was a technical reason for it also.
Our ears feel more comfortable with the range present pianos have (between 27.5 Hz and 4186 Hz). Any note outside this range is uncomfortable to hear because it is either too high or too low. The piano makers at the time of Steinway were aware of this fact and this is the reason they followed his genius.
Not everyone followed it, though.
There are some models of pianos that have either less than or more than 88 keys. For example, Bosendorfer produces 92-key pianos. There is even a 102-key piano present. Pianos like these produce frequencies that are either more or less than the upper or lower limits of the human-audible frequency range. For your information, the lowest frequency ever played on a piano is 16.3 Hz. It was played in the Stuart & Sons Concert Grand. Could people hear it?