There are 88 keys on the piano – 52 white keys and 36 black keys. It’s curious, but one of the most recurring questions people ask about the piano is, what is the difference between the black and white keys?
Many people know, by common sense, that the musical notes are DO-RE-MI-FA-SOL-LA-SI (C-D-E-F-G-A-B in the English system). How is it possible, that there are only seven notes if a piano has up to 88 keys?
For pure usability, our 7-note tonal system was defined. This was a simple convention. The 7 notes form a block that is called an octave. From DO on the left to DO on the right there is a distance of one octave: DO-RE-MI-FA-SOL-LA-SI-DO. An octave repeats itself along the keyboard 7 times. On the left-hand side of the piano, the octaves sound lower, and on the right-hand side, the octaves sound higher.
Now, how does the lower C differ from the higher one? The sound of every note relates to a specific frequency measured in hertz. The lower the note on the keyboard, the less hertz its sound has. So the lower DO will have a lower frequency as the higher DO. Each note, although both called DO, has a different sound.
The Nordic and Anglo-Saxon countries name notes using the German notation system (although it is also called American notation). In the following image, you can see the equivalent of the German notation to the Italian system of Solmization.
What is the difference between black and white keys?
The 7 natural notes DO-RE-MI-FA-SOL-LA-SI are the white keys. In between the white keys, there are black keys. We measure the distance between any two keys in whole tones and semitones, and not all keys have the same distance between them.
The distance of any white key to its immediate black key is always one semitone. For example, the black key between FA and SOL is called F sharp (F#). The distance between FA and F# is a semitone. The same holds true for the distance between F# and SOL. It too is a semitone, because there is no key in between F# and SOL.
The distance between two white keys, if there is a black key in the middle, is a whole tone (or 2 semitones). C# – a black key – separates DO and RE. Therefore, DO and RE form a whole tone. The same is true for FA and SOL. Having F# in the middle, their distance is one whole tone.
How to make sense of two white keys with no intermediate black key, like DO and SI or FA and MI? As these keys are immediately next to each other, we call the distance between them one semitone.
Why is knowing semitones and whole tones useful? It helps us define the names of black keys. If you move FA one semitone up, it is called F# (F sharp). SOL moved a semitone down is called G♭ (G flat). Notice that F# (F sharp) and G♭ (G flat) are the same black key.
Have a look at the following image to see the names of all the black keys:
If you are still left with doubts, watch this video which will surely clarify everything perfectly.
Piano, Piano Keyboard or Virtual Keys?
Now that you can navigate yourself between the keys, you might want to know how do they sound. If you don’t own a piano, try a piano keyboard. It imitates an acoustic piano very closely. It has a minimum of 61 keys, but they are less touch-sensitive than the piano keys. That is why it is better to look for a piano keyboard with weighted keys (Hammer Action) to get closer to the touch of a real piano. Only with weighted keys can you play the piano with expressiveness, exploring the nuances of the sound.
If you don’t have a piano keyboard you can use a piano keyboard simulator to do the first experiments. The most comfortable thing to use is a tablet because its touch screen is wide enough for your fingers. An app Garage Band with a fairly intuitive and simple piano extension is free and has many more instruments. For Android, you can download Perfect Piano that is quite good in its free version as well.
I recommend to use a piano simulator for the first approach, but they are rather limited to learn the piano. However, they are good for testing chords and seeing how they sound.
Jellynote decided to interview Jaime Echagüe, a musician and a musical instrument enthusiast. He curates his blog to give general information about musical instruments in an easy, direct and honest way.