What Are The Black Keys On A Piano?

image what are the black keys on piano banner

Are you new to piano and ever wondered about how it’s set up?

I’m asked this question by people all the time, and I’d bet most other music teachers are too. 

People are always asking: 

What are the black keys on a piano? 

The black keys on a modern are the accidentals or chromatic pitches. All the white keys are the standard letters but the black keys are the altered ones. Black keys include: 

  • C#/Db
  • D#/Eb
  • F#/Gb
  • G#/Ab
  • A#/Bb

Read the rest of the article for more information. 

Why Are There Black Keys On A Piano?

In traditional Western music, there are 12 fundamental pitches. Traditionally, there are given letter names (also called ABC notation). 

The main letters are: A, B, C, D, E, F, G

In between several of these letters or pitches are smaller steps called half steps. They exist between A and B, C and D, D and E, F and G, G and A. 

The white keys are given the original letters without alteration. The black keys exist to show the altered notes. 

They’re different colors and on a different level to show the notes are different. 

You may not know this, but back in the day, the natural notes were black and the altered notes were white or ivory colored. 

This is actually opposite of what most keyboards and pianos today show. 

What Are The Black Keys On The Piano? 

The black keys on piano as we mentioned before are: 

  • C#/Db
  • D#/Eb
  • F#/Gb
  • G#/Ab
  • A#/Bb

They fit in between and above the white keys.  Use this graphic to help you know which notes they are. 

image piano key names
Please include attribution to DynamicMusicRoom.com when sharing this graphic.

You may be wondering why the black notes get two different names. 

Well, this depends on how the notes are marked. Remember, the black keys are altered notes. 

They don’t have their own name. They get their name based on the original pitch and how it’s altered. 

For example, if you take a C note and want to raise it a half step higher. This is called a sharp (shown by #). 

Thus, the black key name of a raised C would be C#. 

However, if the original note was the pitch D and you lowered the D by a half step, then you would call it flat (indicated by a lowercase “b”). 

Thus, the black key would now be called Db. 

On a more advanced note, you may wonder what you call the altered notes where there aren’t black keys (such as between B-C and E-F).

Altering these notes is doable, but since there doesn’t exist a note between them (as they’re already a half-step apart) the altered note is just the same as its original. 

This is complicated, I know. This chart may help you. 

  • B# = C
  • Cb = B
  • E# = F
  • Fb = E

This is rarely seen in music and only at high levels. Beginners should just remember this is a thing, but don’t press on it too much. 

How Do You Use Black Keys On Piano?

You use the black keys on the piano much like the white keys. When you see the note written on the sheet music, press the key when it’s time.

The main difference in using the black keys comes with finger position. 

While the white keys are often played towards the middle of the key, the black keys are played more towards the front of their key. 

This makes no alteration to the sound whatsoever, but placing your hands this way makes it a little easier for your hand to reach all of its notes. 

Of course, the more complex the music, the more your hands will need to adjust to play. But this rule will hold true for most beginners. 

What Are Black Keys On A Piano Made Of?

I’m often asked this question which surprises me. This isn’t something I wasn’t curious about, but a lot of others are.

Nowadays, there isn’t typically any difference in the black and white key material. 

On keyboards, the black keys are made of a plastic or synthetic material. This is true for average-priced pianos as well. 

Higher end pianos usually have keys made from spruce or basswood with a protective layer to prevent damage. 

In the past, piano keys were made of different material. The longer white keys were made from ivory (thus the expression “tickling the ivory”). 

Black keys are shorter and therefore less important. These were usually made from a dark wood such as sugar pine, spruce, or bass wood. 

In order to differentiate the new piano instrument from its predecessor the harpsichord, they inverted the colors from black to white.

Due to the over-hunting and poaching of ivory-related animals (elephants, specifically) all modern pianos have completely moved away from ivory. 

Conclusion

I hope you found the answer to what the black keys are on piano understandable to you. Black keys are the altered versions of the white keys they sit in between. 

When you play black keys, keep your fingers a little more towards the front of the key. 

It’s a complicated topic, I know. Outside of private lessons, it’s tough to learn all these musical ideas. 

This is why I recommend Flowkey to those who can’t take lessons or want to supplement their lessons. As a music teacher, I know there aren’t many piano-specific online programs out there of this quality. 

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher with Bay City Public Schools in Michigan. He's a Past-President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and Executive Secretary of the Midwest Kodaly Music Educators Association.

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