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Tickling the Ivories

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Piano and Organ Keyboard: "Tickling the Ivories"

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The keys are the key. Bennett Piano Movers, metro Atlanta’s premier piano moving service, know that all the parts of piano, from player pianos to Concert Grands, and everything in between, must work in concert to produce the perfect sound.

It all begins, though, when the pianist strikes the keys. That’s why Bennett Piano Movers expertise is so important. They take care to protect each and every part during the piano move to ensure the sound stays pure.

As part of Bennett Piano Movers continuing effort to serve and inform the community in Atlanta and surrounding areas, we present a brief history of the key, that wonderful sound we love.

Piano enthusiasts are no doubt familiar with the phrase “tickling the ivories.” There was a time when this was an apt description of piano playing.

Beginning around 1700, ivory was one of the more popular materials used for key coverings. Other popular key coverings were made from bone, mother-of-pearl, porcelain, silver, ebony, and other rare woods. But from 1959 on, plastic acrylic has been the most common covering for both black and white keys.

Keyboard players were called organ beaters.This image shows a total of six men that were used to play the first organs. Organ Beaters

Organ Beaters

Before pianists were tickling the ivories, though, they were called “organ beaters,” due to the physical strength it took to push even one of the keys. To understand the journey from beating the organ to tickling the ivories, one must first learn the history of piano keys.

Klavier is the German word for any keyboard instrument, and it is derived from the Latin word “clavis,” meaning key. The earliest organs marked the keys with the pitch. These markings were translated into letters called “clavis.”

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First Instrument Keyboard

The organ was the first instrument with a keyboard, with the keys varying greatly in weight. The keys on the earliest Klaviers were all naturals, and touch was a concern from the earliest days. Contracts dating from the 14th century can be found which ask keyboard repairmen to make the keys lighter in touch.

Sharps

Sharps were added sometime around the beginning of the 15th century. Since the middle of that same century, keyboards, apart from the number of keys and octaves, as well as one other big difference, have been indistinguishable from their modern counterparts.

Natural and a Flat

Even piano novices, who may not know the difference between a natural and a flat know that pianos come with two different colored keys. Naturals are the white, fatter keys, and flats and sharps are the slimmer, black keys. But until the beginning of the 1800’s, the naturals were darker in color, due to the French, who wished to show off a player’s hands. The English and French used decorative woods to make their keys, while the Viennese began the practice of using ivory fronts. All this meant that pianos were very expensive. Near the end of the 18th century, glass and porcelain were used in an attempt to make the piano more marketable to the masses.

Image of John Hyatt John Hyatt

John and Isaiah Hyatt

In 1870 John and Isaiah Hyatt were granted a patent on celluloid made from camphor and pryoxlin. Since that time, cellulose has been the most common material for cheap key coverings.

Of course, during this period of innovation, ivory was still the material of choice for high-end piano makers. Beginning in the 1950’s, though, international outcry against ivory poaching slowed the use of ivory for keys coverings. Since 1990, there has been an outright ban on ivory trading.

As piano makers became more skilled, the number of keys and octaves increased. Today’s standard keyboard, consisting of 88 keys spanning seven and a quarter octaves, has been the norm since the 1870’s.

 


If you require piano moving services in Metro Atlanta, call us today at 404-367-8555 or use our convenient online contact estimate form. Bennett Piano Movers will quickly prepare an estimate for your piano relocation.