Piano Finders

Piano Finders

Where's Middle C, and Why Do I Need to Know? or Finding Your Way Around the Keyboard: by Kendall Ross Bean

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Ever wonder why piano manufacturers don’t just print the names of the notes on the keys? To those unfamiliar with the layout of the piano, an 88-key keyboard can, at times, seem quite mystifying. So much so, in fact, that when it comes to learning the names of the notes, many people never seem to get past Middle C. First, there are so many keys, and second, aside from the fact that some are white and others black, they all look bewilderingly identical. How do you tell which is which? 

We do need some way of identifying the keys on the piano, though, so we can find our way around, at least, and communicate with each other about where we are. And, believe it or not, there is a simple way, without having to recite “All cows eat grass,” or “Every good boy deserves fudge,” (although you’re welcome to do that if you want).  All you need to know, really, is the first eight letters of the alphabet, and the numbers 1 to 88.

So, where do you start? Well, actually, most beginners start in the middle. (No, really, we are being serious; it’s really a good place to begin.) To locate the middle of the keyboard, look for the manufacturer’s name (piano brand) right above the keys. If you are sitting correctly in front of the piano you should be right there. If there is no label (if they forgot to put it back on after refinishing the piano), don’t despair. There’s still another way. In either case, read on.

Black Key Groups

Twos and threes

You will notice, if you stare at them long enough, that the black keys on the piano are organized in certain patterns: alternating groups of twos and threes. The black keys are actually our reference points; we use them to find the white keys. Most people recognize that the white keys have somewhat different shapes; few people consider, however, that the white keys are shaped that way because of the way the black keys are placed. The point is, if there were no black keys on the piano, or if the black keys alternated evenly with the white keys, all the white keys would look exactly the same, and pianists would be hopelessly lost, with or without the brand name. 

If you put an adjacent “two group” and “three group” of black keys together (make sure the “two group” is on the left) you will have a “five group”.  (See illustration.) By the way, there are a total of 7 of these groups of five black keys on a standard 88-note keyboard. Try to practice seeing them that way, as patterns of five, rather than just a hodge-podge. In time it will just come naturally. (Note, also, that there is an additional black key at the bottom of the keyboard, just to confuse you. Ignore it.) What we’re trying to do is break up a complex subject, the keyboard, into understandable, bite size chunks. Each group of five black keys, and the seven white keys next to them, defines an octave, which is the basic 12-note cell, or building block of the keyboard. Understand one cell and you understand them all.

The particular “five-group” of black keys we want is in the middle of the keyboard, right under the brand label (assuming it’s there). If the label is absent, just make sure the group you’re looking at is the one in the middle of the keyboard: It will be the fourth group down from the top (top = far right end of the keyboard) or the fourth group up from the bottom (bottom = far left end). (Again, we’re assuming your keyboard has 88 keys.)

The letter names of the keys

If you have located the group of five black keys in the middle of the piano, congratulations. You’re halfway there. Refer to the next illustration. Now, to the left of the two black key group in that group of five is “Middle” C.  To the right of the two black keys is “E.” Between them is “D”. Just for fun, try to find the notes just by feel, without looking. Did you do it? Great. In the same way, feeling around the group of three black keys, you can find F, G, A, and B. Now this will be true for any of these five black key groups anywhere on the keyboard. Wherever you go you should be able to find the “C’s” and the “G’s” and the “B’s”. There. You should be feeling pretty empowered right now.

Middle C and Other Letters

(Incidentally, this is how blind people learn to get around on the keyboard, by feeling for the two and three black key groups. So if you ever have to find middle C, at night, during a power failure, you will know what to do.)

The black keys can be called sharps or flats, but for now, to keep it simple, we’ll just call them sharps. C# is the black key above (or to the right of) “C”, D# is the sharp directly above (to the right of “D”, and so on. Notice that there is no black key between E and F, or between B and C.

North and South and East and West

We will take a moment here to explain something that pianists usually take for granted. In the preceding paragraphs, you may have noticed us using directions like up, down, above, below, and top and bottom. This may seem a bit strange, seeing as all the keys are at the same level. The point is, when you actually play the piano, there are high notes (like canaries and sopranos sing) and low notes (like bulls and basses sing). Naturally, it was only a matter of time before pianists began referring to the notes on the keyboard as high and low rather than left or right. To learn all the synonyms, refer to the diagram, below.

You may be also wondering, since the piano alphabet is the letters A thru G, why we don’t start with “A” rather than “C”. The long answer is pretty complex, but here’s the short answer: The piano is a great compromise of several different musical systems. One of the major challenges piano teachers perennially face is which system to teach first, and then, how to explain all the apparent inconsistencies (i.e. how come it doesn’t fit with the first system) each time a new system is taught. This is important; you will be running into this paradox a lot.  Just remember that the piano evolved in an effort to accommodate a number of different ways of looking at music, none of which really mesh well together. It’s sort of like when Westerners try to understand Buddhism, or attempt to do business with the Middle East. The piano is a square peg, music is a round hole, and something has to give.

Directions on the Keyboard

For example, you may have noticed that the note we call “Middle C” is not exactly in the middle of the piano. It’s close, but like with magnetic north and true north (and like so many other of life’s standards) the true middle actually falls in the crack between E and F, notes 44 and 45.  Also, if you’ve given it a little thought, you may be wondering things like why there are 7 white keys but only 5 black keys, or why there are only 8 letters in the piano alphabet, or why there are black keys at all. All in good time. We will start with an explanation of why we start with “Middle C”, rather than the first letter of the alphabet, “A”.

Aside: Playing on keys vs playing in keys: There are two definitions of the word key as it applies to music. One type of key is any one of the 88 buttons or levers on the piano that you press to make a sound. The other type of key refers to a set of notes that make up the tonality of any given piece of music. For example, if you play a piece in the key of C major, the main notes you will be using are the white keys C, D, E, F, G, A and B, because those notes constitute what is known as the C major scale. Many piano teaching methods start out by exposing the student to the key of C Major first, because many teachers feel it is easier to learn the white keys first and then be exposed to all the complications of the black keys. More on this later.

“Middle C” is the first note to the left of the identifiable pattern of five black keys, making it somewhat easier to find than “A”.  C is also the name of the key* you play in when you are playing only on the white keys, before you’ve learned those complicated black keys (variously called sharps and flats, depending on what key you’re playing in.) So we start there because it’s convenient; it’s a handy place to begin.  And maybe also because when you sit down at the piano that’s where you are. And, hopefully, if you know where “Middle C” is, you at least have a point of departure; you can figure out the rest of the universe from there. At any rate, that’s what we’re counting on.

(Philosophical thought for the day: Isn’t that just like so much of life? First things really don’t come first. First you have children, then you learn how to teach them. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? But you have to start somewhere. Maybe it does make sense. At least, by having the children first, then when you learn what you really should have done with them, you can then say  “Oh, so that’s the reason why…” and then you appreciate the answer a lot more, of course. Or should. Or so I’m told.)

Speaking of counting, they often say that musicians are usually good in math as well. Well, I’m not surprised. Exploring your way around the keyboard, you run into lots of numbers, and it can get confusing. Each note also has a number, besides a letter name. You can use just the letter name, or you can use just the number, but it’s a lot clearer which note we are referring to if we use both.

Numbering the keys

Numbering the keys

As you can see, a problem arises from the fact that on the piano there are several different C’s, D’s, A’s, etc. on the keyboard, and the resultant confusion over which one a person was talking about. Over the years people have devised many different ways of distinguishing which “C” or “G” on the piano they were referring to. Each method has its drawbacks. In one commonly used system, the first C at the far left of the keyboard was C-1, the next C was C-2, then C-3, etc. However, this system for some reason required the notes to the left of C-1 to be labeled A-0 (A-zero), A#-0, and B-0 (again, we run into that same problem, not starting with “A” in the first place). Although confusing, this system was used for many years.

The system we’re going to use, of numbering the notes from 1-88, works well for 88-key pianos. In the illustration you will note that each note on the keyboard has a number from 1 to 88, counting up from the left (or bottom end) of the keyboard, and including the black keys. It can get a little tricky if you have a short keyboard, i.e. one that has fewer than 88 keys. In that case, you start in the middle at Middle C (C-40) and count outwards. (If you have a short keyboard, be resigned to the fact that your keyboard may not begin with 1 or end with 88.) If you want to speed things up, just remember that every C is a multiple of 12, plus 4: C-4, C-16, C-28, C-40, etc.)

Middle C is “C-40.” The “A” above Middle C is “A-49” but is also sometimes called A-440 because it vibrates at a frequency of 440 cycles per second. This is also the note that the piano tuner usually compares to his tuning fork or pitch reference when he comes to tune your piano. More on that later. For now, though, all you really have to remember is the letter names of the notes and how to number them from 1 to 88.

How does all this apply?

When you start to read music you go through a process of double translation. For example, when you look at a piece of music written for the piano, you see a bunch of dots on lines. The dots, which represent the notes you should play, do not have letter names attached, except maybe in the most introductory books. Initially, as you learn to read these dots, you first convert the dot to its letter name, and then the letter name to the correct key on the piano. Later on, as you gain speed, the middle step becomes subconscious and you find yourself making the connection directly between the dot on the page and the key on the piano. (Concert pianists playing complicated pieces at high speed eliminate even more steps, including even using the written music at all: most perform from memory.) But everyone stills needs to know the letter names of the notes, for various reasons, including the need to communicate to other musicians where you are when working together on a piece of music.

Because many beginners are small children, it has become standard piano teaching practice to start beginners the middle of the keyboard and then work outward, because of their limited reach, and also because it is much more common, in most music, to use the keys in the middle of the keyboard rather than those at the ends. The practice of using numbers 1-88 to refer to specific keys on the piano is not usually taught to beginning pianists, being considered yet another numbering system which will tend to confuse them. However, the system is common among piano tuners and technicians, and provides a simple way to refer to specific notes, eliminating the confusion of which G are you referring to?

For a more in depth article on key numbering systems for the piano see What to Call the Keys