Piano is undoubtedly the most emotive keyed musical instrument created by musicians. Every piano or synthesizer comes with a set of keys in different sizes and key ranges. Depending upon the make, model, utility and pricing – the digital pianos and synthesizers have different key ranges.
The number of keys on a piano or synth really matters and it influences a musician’s playing style, technique and genre of music played on the instrument. The smallest piano / synth could have as less as 25 keys and the largest pianos could range upto 88 keys with 7 octave playing ranges.
Precisely, in this article, our readers will get an overview of the role of keys in a piano or synth and various key ranges for different sized pianos. Also, we shall discuss about the importance of Piano key ranges and how to play a full song using a small key range piano with lower octaves.
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Role of Keys in a Piano or Synth
Keys are the main component of any piano or synthesizer keyboard. Using the keys tuned at different pitches, a pianist plays the desired tune or notation of the song. Therefore, having a piano with proper octaves and key ranges to play a full-fledged song is very essential.
- Middle Octave (Usually the mid part of the keyboard) is used to play the melody or main part of the song
- Lower Octaves are used to accompany the song melody with backing chords, arpeggios or bass fillers
- Higher Octaves are a part of the runs, trills or even used to play high pitched arpeggios and chord progressions for various songs, depending on the nature of the playback required.
A minimum of 3 octaves are required at a bare minimum for a standard synthesizer, piano or MIDI keyboard to make full justice to the song.
Live performers would need a 5-Octave keyboard to play complex chord progressions, arpeggios along with the main tune of the song using both the hands.
SH-Various key ranges in Pianos and synths
Broadly, the current day pianos, Synthesizers and MIDI keyboards can be classified into 5 different key ranges based on the number of keys / Octaves built-in on the keyboards:
88 Keys / 7 Octaves :
The highest key range on a piano or synth keyboard. Usually, the keys are weighted or have a hammer action touch response, which gives a grand piano feel while playing these keyboards
76 Keys / 6 Octaves :
These keyboards with 6 octave ranges are mid-sized keyboards with semi-weighted touch response. Most of the professional workstations and digital pianos have 76 keys for a complete playing experience.
61 Keys / 5 Octaves:
This is the most standard and widely available key range for most of the keyboards and synthesizers. With a perfect range of keys and decent size, these keyboards and widely used by musicians world-wide.
44 Keys / 4 Octaves:
A little smaller than the 5 Octave variant is the 4-octave member mostly available as a MIDI keyboard, which comes without any sounds. MIDI Keyboards are mainly used to control PC based DAW software and play virtual instruments on the computer.
25 Keys / 2 Octaves:
The smallest of all the keyboards with just 2 octaves in key range is also available as a MIDI keyboard. There are some analog synthesizers from the brands – Moog, Korg and Akai which are available in 2 octave ranges as well. The most portable among all of them in this variant, being used for playing instruments on PC/MAC using the DAW Softwares.
Does It matter how many keys a piano has?
As discussed in the above sections, the number of keys for a piano distinctively matters to the musician owning the keyboard. With specific goals in mind and playing styles, keyboardists purchase their pianos or synths with a varying range of keys.
Broadly the number of keys and the type of work that needs to be done using the piano are closely related to each other. Here are the major categories of the requirements of musicians based on the keyboard size of the instruments:
Smaller Key Range Pianos with 2/3 Octaves:
Specifically used for MIDI keyboard sequencing, recording and composing music on-the-go.
Medium Key Range Pianos with 4/5 Octaves:
The most commonly used synths are with 5 octaves of keys built inside. Used for playing live and recording songs in a studio, these keyboards are widely purchased by musicians world-wide.
Larger Key Range Pianos with 6/7 Octaves:
Usually pianists who play and understand piano very well invest in these larger level key ranges. These instruments are velocity and touch controlled usually and help to play multiple chords, runs and arpeggios and long interval notes due to size of the key ranges.
How to play a full range song using a small range piano?
Small range pianos with 2-3 octaves have special dedicated buttons which help a keyboardist to change octaves and pitches. Here are the methods by which a pianist can choose to change pitch and octave of a keyboard with a smaller number of octaves / limited key ranges:
Using OCTAVE +/- Buttons:
Using OCTAVE Buttons a musician can increment (+) or decrement (-) the current octave at which the keys are placed. It raises the pitch to 12 semitones (same as 12 chromatic notes).
For example: Using OCTAVE + Button pressed once, C2 Key pitch changes to the Pitch of a C3 Key and OCTAVE – Button pressed once, C2 Key pitch changes to the Pitch of C1 Key.
Using TRANSPOSE +/- Buttons:
The Transpose (+/-) buttons are used to increment or decrement the pitch of an existing key by 1 semitone / scale. This is used when there is a need to go to a lower pitch or higher pitch note without going down a full octave or 12 semitones.
For example: Using TRANPOSE + Button pressed once, C2 Key pitch changes to the Pitch of a C#2 Key and TRANPOSE – Button pressed once, C2 Key pitch changes to the Pitch of B1 Key.
Therefore, by using OCTAVE AND TRANSPOSE Buttons, musicians can play multiple octaves and notes beyond the regular key ranges of a smaller keyboard or digital piano
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some of the most sort over queries asked by beginner and amateur keyboardists who need more clarity on the number of keys for their piano or synthesizer keyboards:
1. What is the best preferred range of keys / octave for a piano or synthesizer to start making music and performing live on stage?
We recommend to use a 5-octave synthesizer or piano for all your needs. With 61 keys on the instrument, you would be able to play runs, arpeggios and cover 3-4 scales easily without hassles. Also, left and right hand parts can be played with variation and ease as well.
2. How Are The Smaller Keyboards With 2 octave (24 keys or more) used to play and record music?
Smaller keyboards with 2-3 octaves are provided with 2 OCTAVE Buttons (OCTAVE+ and OCTAVE-), which can be used to increment or decrement octaves while playing. However, such keyboards can be used for recording and sequencing of music only. For live performances, they are usually not used, rather larger keyboards are used.
3. Are the lower and higher octave keys really used while playing songs or music pieces?
Pianists with a formal western, classical or jazz method training, make the best use of lower and higher octave keys while playing the piano or synth. If you are seasoned player, you already know how arpeggios, full octave runs and chord inversions are extensively used for playing various music elements of the song.
4. Is there a piano or music keyboard which has more than 88 keys or 7 octaves? Where can I find such a piano/keyboard?
Usually, pianos have a maximum range of 88 keys with 7 octave key ranges. However, there are certain organ instruments used in cathedral, churches which have 100 keys or more with 8-9 octaves of key ranges.
From the above artifacts, it is clear that the number of keys on a piano really matters for a pianist or keyboardist. To get the real piano feel, pianists prefer to choose a minimum 5 octave (61 keys) piano or synth for their performances. Travelling and touring musicians who want to record, mix and make music on-the-go usually prefer smaller size MIDI keyboards with 24-48 key ranges for their work purpose. Precisely, based on individual needs of a musician, the piano key ranges are selected. However, we recommend a minimum 5-octave piano keyboard to all our musician friends out there to start with.
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