Updated: Sep 2, 2022
So, I don't expect people to read these pages in their entirety at once, but definitely keep this blog post up for a while on a browser window so you can click through on these links at your leisure.
These links all bring up stuff that will cause you to question everything you’ve ever known about the piano, and also just “music” in general and what sounds “good” to our ears.
To start things off, here is a nice little bit of history to read on the organization of the keyboard:
To answer a question that a student posed in a music lesson today, “why is C# a tricky key?”:
I frequently play music with other people from a wide range of backgrounds.
I'll be playing music amongst guitarists and, particularly if they don't read staff music, a song in the key of C# will come around at some point.
Upon realizing the key, I usually groan how C# is a tricky key to play in, and they'll more often than not just give me a funny look!
The mind of a pianist is a bit handicapped.
We think in terms of naturals, sharps, or flats!
Native guitarists don't think like that -- a sharp isn't different than any other note.
On their guitar they just see half steps, whole steps, and scale patterns.
When it comes to keys with 7 sharps or flats, unless they purposefully play in these keys all the time, a pianist's brain will have a harder time playing.
The keyboard is to blame!
Side note: Funnily enough, it is so much easier to play in Db major than it is to play in C# major - and the notes are exactly the same.
It's because Fb and Cb are just not a thing in scales, they have no place in a key signature.
But E# and B# are indeed incorporated into highly sharped key signatures (mostly just C# major, but F# major too... oh and G# and A# and... let's stop there.)
These keys are all easier to read as "flats" instead!
[Activity suggestion for well seasoned pianists, if you feel like losing your mind: Try playing a B major scale and read it as Cb major while playing. Remember, each note needs a distinct letter assigned to it, you can't have a Bb and a B in the same scale. Next try playing a Bb major scale and read it as A# major. Next, run out your front door screaming.]
Ok, ok. Back to the discussion of the piano keyboard and how the black keys mess up our transposing powers (changing into different keys while playing).
Transposing problems are related to the question, "why is C# a tricky key?":
The sharps on a piano are arranged so that the 2nd and 3rd fingers can easily use the black keys. Those middle fingers are farther out from the wrist than the fingertips of the pinky, thumb, or even 4th finger.
The black keys are ergonomically designed.
They make playing our 12 note chromatic scales easier and within a smaller length of space (being able to play octaves with one hand is such a wonderful thing).
But when we play a C# scale, with our thumb on the C#, all of this ergonomic design stuff goes out the window.
Also, I think people develop a mental/spatial crutch of using some notes like natural A’s, natural E’,s and natural B’s as “safe” notes that work in almost all keys - and the key of C# just brutally destroys those safety crutches.
To offer a semi-solution, you CAN find pianos with all white keys:
But it’s not really a solution. You can only play one key on them.
It's C major (or A minor) on these, nothing else … unless you somehow change the tuning of each string on this piano between songs (not a great idea).
Oh, and no accidentals allowed!
Ever wondered why there is no E# or B# in Western music scales?
You could also go on a tangent asking these similar questions:
Why even have the weird pattern of having 2 black keys and then 3 black keys - transposing would be so much easier if they just alternated black white black white black white black white, kind of like a guitar!
Why don’t the Western music notes go A A# B B# C C# D D# E E# F F# A A# B B# C C#, etc. ?
Why do we even have a G or G# note?! Do we need G notes?!!
Turns out we need E and F to be distinct notes, and same with B and C.
The ideals behind our beautiful major scale and having 8 notes in an octave depend on them.
We really like our octaves to be doubled in frequency.
Western music has found 12 equally spaced notes (Hz frequencies) between an octave.
Within those 12 notes are some harmonious pairings that work really well in the same melodies, which means they should all be distinct notes.
Turns out that some of those distinct notes were only half steps apart!
Between Mi and Fa .... and between Ti and Do!
And so we got 7 distinct notes in a major scale because European ears like it that way and it mathematically worked out.
This started with the ancient greeks but solidified culturally in the 1600s.
Before that humans used pentatonic scales mostly, all over the world, independently.
If you take out the awkward tiny intervals created by Fa and Ti (or take out the notes F and B from a C major scale) you get a pentatonic scale:
The solfège book I use to teach Ear Training doesn’t use Fa or Ti - the argument behind that is that mankind seems to naturally understand the pentatonic scale (more so than our major scale).
I’m curious what playing a pentatonic piano would be like.
I suppose it would look like the black keys of the piano with all the white keys extracted.
The stars are the chromatic notes that are left out in a pentatonic scale.
There is a beautiful symmetry to it, centered around G and A.
I think the interval pattern here makes a more predictable scale than the major scale we all know!
Going in the opposite direction… instead of decreasing the number of notes in a scale, how about increasing them?
Most of us only know A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# ... but there are a lot more than just 12 notes out there between an octave!
Classical Indian music has 22 notes in a scale.
Harry Partch made a 43 note scale and built his own instruments.
In that vein, now that we've talked about how there's so much more out there than just 12 notes... Let's talk about how these 12 notes we've been using are TOTALLY WRONG.
Ok, maybe not wrong, but certainly not pure, or aligned, in terms of sound waves when they all play together.
It think the 12 notes we have been playing in mainstream music today are harmonically buzzy and yield too much clashy background noise when played together.
Watch this incredibly informative video to learn about all the hidden LIES of piano notes, guitar frets, and xylophones: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VHwnSJTefNo
They even tell you how could go about making an instrument, in any temperament you want, with more than just 12 notes.
We use Equal Temperament (with our 12 notes) so we can transpose into different keys while playing at ease - no instrument switching, no quick tuning changes, nor any excessive additions of extra notes that our hands and brains can't even play.
Equal temperament is very helpful and this excellent, but simple, html link talks all about how it's done on a piano and a little bit of its history too.
It’s full of physics and math: http://www.precisionstrobe.com/apps/pianotemp/temper.html
Don't be afraid, just read it.
Or put it on "speechify" and listen to it, let the words wash over your brain — particularly if you are a pianist, because pianists really should have an idea how piano tuning is accomplished.
Here are some videos to demonstrate what the above link is talking about.
These show what the opposite of Equal Temperament ("Just Intonation") sounds like.
Warning: these videos might make pianists cry (once they realize what they're missing out on).
Classical string instrumentalists and trombone players, that is, those that play without frets, you'll be fiiiiiiine!
Y'all can play in Just Intonation any time you want!
Examples of Just Intonation tuned instruments...
A piano tuned to Just Intonation (you might want to start watching it at 4 minutes)***:
Fancy synth-like instrument video:
Cool cigar-box guitar video:
And then there's Jacob Collier, a genuine modern master of intonation and harmony:
And finally, how about this question:
"Who decided that a C should sound that way it does?"
How did this mainstream nonsense of assigning immovable frequencies to "notes" even happen?"
The frequency in Hertz of a note’s pitch has been variable all throughout human history!
It wasn’t until 1885 that people seriously tried to stick to universal pitch for A (that being 440 Hz).
Yes, it makes it easier to play music with other people, but it's goshdern tragic how limited our modern music is because of it!
Anyways, here's the history of A440Hz: https://www.wam.hr/sadrzaj/us/Cavanagh_440Hz.pdf
And finally, my favorite and final link to share with you on this blog post.
Here is this wildly entertaining read: https://globalnews.ca/news/4194106/440-hz-conspiracy-music/#:~:text=As%20early%20as%201885%2C%20the,432%20Hz%20used%20in%20France
Apparently there is quite a debate going on that A440 should be changed to A432… and there is a quiz in that last link that was fun. Let me know if you take it and which “A” you prefer!
*** In this video about tuning a piano to Just Intonation, did you notice that the Equal Tempered "Piano I" was tuned to A432 Hz?