• “How Many Keys Are There On The Keyboard?” Don’t Say Twelve, And Here’s Why

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    You arrived at this page because you really want to know how many keys there are on the keyboard.

    Although the number of keys on the keyboard is usually said to be twelve, it’s actually not so. Therefore, the goal of this lesson is to tell you why it’s NOT absolutely correct to say that there are twelve keys on the keyboard.

    Let’s get started with this lesson by giving you a detailed explanation of the concept of key.

    Attention: The importance of reading the next segment of this lesson cannot be over-emphasized. This is because it’s targeted at preparing your mind for what you’ll learn in later segments.

    The Concept Of Key – Explained

    Before we get into the concept of key, it is important for us to give a definition and explanation to the term note.

    An Answer To The Question “What Is A Note?”

    A note is a musical sound of a definite pitch

    Although there are several notes on the keyboard, all the notes:

    …are duplicates of these twelve notes:

    “Here Are The Duplicates…”

    All the Cs:

    All the Ds:

    All the F#s:

    All the A#s:

    Although a Grand keyboard may have as much as 88 pitches, its 88 pitches can be broken down into sets of twelves, thus:

    First set of twelve:

    Second set of twelve:

    Third set of twelve:

    Fourth set of twelve:

    …until its last octave.

    “In A Nutshell…”

    All the notes on the keyboard can be classified into twelve pitch classes. Seven of them are white:

    …and are classified as natural notes, while five of them are black:

    …and are classified as accidental notes.

    The Neutrality Of Notes

    Without the concept of modes and key (which we’ll discuss shortly), the twelve musical notes are neutral. The reason why a novice at keyboard playing cannot really play anything meaningful on the piano is because of a neutral perception of the twelve notes – no knowledge of keys and modes.

    Upon the introduction of the concept of key, the novice graduates into a beginner and starts learning the principles of playing music within a given key (aka – “tonal music principles”).

    The Concept Of Modes

    Before the existence of what we know today as musical keys, modes were in existence and their use dates back to the medieval ages (400 – 1400AD).

    The modal system is based on an arrangement of notes from a given white note to its octave. For example, the arrangement of white notes from C to C:

    …is known as the ionian mode.

    “Check Out The Rest Of The Modes…”

    D to D:

    …produces the dorian mode.

    E to E:

    …produces the phrygian mode.

    F to F:

    …produces the lydian mode.

    G to G:

    …produces the mixolydian mode.

    A to A:

    …produces the aeolian mode.

    B to B:

    …produces the locrian mode.

    Due to the fact that these modes were used extensively in church music, they are known to music scholars as ecclesiastical or church modes.

    Each of the modes stood out – in quality and character. A piece of music composed in the mixolydian mode:

    …had its own distinct quality and beauty that separates it from pieces composed in the dorian mode:

    Although a mode is not a key, it is important to note that the concept of key evolved from the concept of modes.

    The Concept Of Key

    The goal of the concept of key is to give character to a piece of music. A piece of music is either made to describe the distinctive features of happiness or sadness, the day or the night, the good or the bad, and so on.

    The character of a piece (aka – “tonality”) can either be major or minor and it takes a collection of eight notes to form a tonality.

    “Here’s The Technical Name For All The Eight Notes In A Key”

    The first note is the tonic

    The second note is the supertonic

    The third note is the mediant

    The fourth note is the subdominant

    The fifth note is the dominant

    The sixth note is the submediant

    The seventh note is the subtonic

    The eighth note is the octave

    The most important note in a tonality is the first note (aka – “the tonic”) and this is because it is the tonal center (key center or the key).

    Every key (tonality) has its scale (which is an outline of the notes in that key). There’s a major scale for the major key and a minor scale for the minor key.

    The major scale has features of the ionian mode:

    …while the minor scale has features of the aeolian mode:

    The 12 Known Major Keys

    #1 – C major

    Here’s the C natural major scale:

    …(an outline of the notes in the key of C major.)

    #2 – C#/Db major

    Although the key of C# major and Db major are enharmonic keys, they are two different keys. In the key of C# major, the tonic is C#:

    …while the tonic in the key of Db is Db:

    Here’s the Db natural major scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of Db major).

    #3 – D major

    Here’s the D natural major scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of D major).

    #4 – D#/Eb major

    Although the key of D# major and Eb major are enharmonic keys, they are two different keys. In the key of D# major, the tonic is D#:

    …while the tonic in the key of Eb is Eb:

    Here’s the Eb natural major scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of Eb major).

    #5 – E major

    Here’s the E natural major scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of E major).

    #6 – F major

    Here’s the F natural major scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of F major).

    #7 – F#/Gb major

    Although the key of F# major and Gb major are enharmonic keys, they are two different keys. In the key of F# major, the tonic is F#:

    …while the tonic in the key of Gb is Gb:

    Here’s the Gb natural major scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of Gb major).

    #8 – G major

    Here’s the G natural major scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of G major.)

    #9 – G#/Ab major

    Although the key of G# major and Ab major are enharmonic keys, they are two different keys. In the key of G# major, the tonic is G#:

    …while the tonic in the key of Ab is Ab:

    Here’s the Ab natural major scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of Ab major).

    #10 – A major

    Here’s the A natural major scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of A major).

    #11 – A#/Bb major

    Although the key of A# major and Bb major are enharmonic keys, they are two different keys. In the key of A# major, the tonic is A#:

    …while the tonic in the key of Bb is Bb:

    Here’s the Bb natural major scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of Bb major).

    #12 – B major

    Here’s the B natural major scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of B major).

    The 12 Known Minor Keys

    #1 – C minor

    Here’s the C natural minor scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of C minor).

    #2 – C#/Db minor

    Although the key of C# minor and Db minor are enharmonic keys, they are two different keys. In the key of C# minor, the tonic is C#:

    …while the tonic in the key of Db minor is Db:

    Here’s the C# natural minor scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of C# minor).

    #3 – D minor

    Here’s the D natural minor scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of D minor).

    #4 – D#/Eb minor

    Although the key of D# minor and Eb minor are enharmonic keys, they are two different keys. In the key of D# minor, the tonic is D#:

    …while the tonic in the key of Eb minor is Eb:

    Here’s the Eb natural minor scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of Eb minor.)

    #5 – E minor

    Here’s the E natural minor scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of E minor).

    #6 – F minor

    Here’s the F natural minor scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of F minor).

    #7 – F#/Gb minor

    Although the key of F# minor and Gb minor are enharmonic keys, they are two different keys. In the key of F# minor, the tonic is F#:

    …while the tonic in the key of Gb minor is Gb:

    Here’s the F# natural minor scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of F# minor).

    #8 – G minor

    Here’s the G natural minor scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of G minor).

    #9 – G#/Ab minor

    Although the key of G# minor and Ab minor are enharmonic keys, they are two different keys. In the key of G# minor, the tonic is G#:

    …while the tonic in the key of Ab is Ab:

    Here’s the G# natural minor scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of G# minor).

    #10 – A minor

    Here’s the A natural minor scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of A minor.)

    #11 – A#/Bb minor

    Although the key of A# minor and Bb minor are enharmonic keys, they are two different keys. In the key of A# minor, the tonic is A#:

    …while the tonic in the key of Bb is Bb:

    Here’s the Bb natural minor scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of Bb minor).

    #12 – B minor

    Here’s the B natural minor scale:
    …(an outline of the notes in the key of B minor).

    Final Words

    Excluding enharmonic keys, there are twelve major keys and twelve minor keys on the piano. If you do the math (12 + 12), there are twenty-four keys on the piano.

    Although there are twelve notes on the piano, there are twenty-four keys altogether and this is because every note can be conceptualized either as a major key or a minor key.

    We’ll further our discussion in another lesson by learning about the difference between a note and a key.

    See you then!

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    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as the head of education, music consultant, and chief content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with hundreds of thousands of musicians across the world.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.




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    { 2 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Linda F Glover

    There are 88 keys on a regular piano.

    Reply

    2 Carolyn

    Thanks Dr. Pokey. That I didn’t know.
    God bless you.

    Reply

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