The Other White Keys

The piano keyboard’s distinctive pattern of white and black keys is, when you think about it, a little strange. The black keys nestle between the white keys in alternating groups of two and three. Why?

Of course the answer is familiar to most musicians: the black keys represent the accidentals, the sharp and flat notes between the notes – C, D, E, F, G, A, B – of the C-Major scale.

Yet this raises another question. Why C-Major? The white keys represent the notes represented by the unadorned letters A through G, but why are those the notes of C-Major and not, say, A-Major? Wouldn’t it be more convenient not to be starting with C all the time? (The “home” key on a piano is “middle C” – why not “middle A”?)

Ah, but C-Major is also A-minor, which does start with A. That’s a little clearer, but aren’t Major scales more important, more basic, than minor?

No, not really. Major keys have just been very popular for hundreds of years, that’s all. Minor’s a close second; the other traditional modes are largely ignored…except by good musicians.

So why are they called “Major” and “minor”? That sounds prescriptive (or even proscriptive), and probably confuses the issue unduly. Personally, I think it would have been better to keep calling them Ionian and Aeolian modes.

Of course, music notation had a long and varied evolution – still ongoing – and all this stuff is pretty much arbitrary. The people who invented the¬†Ionian scale weren’t the same people who decided, much later, that it should be emphasized over all the other modes. And those weren’t the same people who gave letter names to the notes – but not to all of them, just the notes of…not C-Major, presumably, but A-minor or whatever they were calling it at the time. (Hypodorian mode?)

After that choice was well established, putting all the simple note names like “A” on the white keys, with the “accidentals” on shorter keys between some of them, is a fairly straightforward choice. The piano (and the similar-looking harpsichord before it) could have been tuned so that any major or minor key falls on the white keys, or could have been built with a different arrangement of keys entirely. Indeed, chromatic keyboards and other types have been built, but – like the even stranger QWERTY keyboard for typewriters – the piano with C-Major/A-minor white keys is the style that caught on. (Though it was not uncommon at first for the colors to go the other way with the main keys black and the smaller ones white.)

In any case, the familiar layout is very convenient if you’re playing something in C Major or A minor. There’s no question where the relevant notes are. But to play in any other key, you need to memorize some other pattern of white and black keys. Awkward.

Of course, unlike a traditional piano, a good electronic synthesizer (or software synth) can be easily transposed up or down, so you can shift your favorite scale onto the white keys. Convenience restored, but everyone will look at you strangely. (It’s traditional to learn all the weird patterns.)

Which finally brings us to the odd thought I had one day. What if, instead of transposing the notes, you transposed the colors of the piano keys?

Imagine a fancy electronic keyboard with color-changing keys. When you’re playing a piece in A minor, the main keys are white as usual. But if you set it to display a different scale, the pattern of white and black shifts. Of course the keys don’t move or change shape – there are still small keys between the large ones – and the notes don’t move – middle C is still middle C. But whether C is white or black depends on the chosen display mode (pun intended). A minor key (say) is always the same pattern of black and white, but draped across a different group of large and small keys.

What would that look like? Would it be easier to play? Or hopelessly confusing? I was curious, so I created a diagram of the white-and-black patterns representing each spoke on the Circle of Fifths. I was not curious enough to repaint my synthesizer’s keys over and over to actually try it out. I don’t even want to risk putting stickers on the keys. But perhaps someone with a lot of spare keyboards will give this a try, and report back here on how it worked out.

In any case, I think the chart is interesting, and perhaps it will help some of us learn our scales. I’ve formatted it for printing, on two pages; it’s labelled for Major scales. Enjoy!