The revolution of the new keyboard
A new evolution of the keyboard is still possible, or, the grand return of the symmetrical piano
The piano keyboard is generally considered to be in a final form that doesn’t need any further improvement. Yet, since the 17th century, various inventors have proposed a new morphology of the keyboard that would considerably reduce the work involved in practicing scales. This article analyses the reasons for their failure and explains why this project is on the agenda again today.
Did you ever ask yourself why the piano is such a difficult instrument to learn? Because you have to decipher notes in two different clefs while synchronising two hands? Well, not only that. For every mode (major, minor and many others), there are twelve specific series of piano keys to press, with twelve distinctive fingering patterns, one for each transposition. And this has been true since the invention of the present keyboard, that is to say since the middle of the 15th century. From that came the well-known practising of scales that has kept generations of beginners busy for hours. In his History of the piano, Belgian musicologist Ernest Closson noted: “The major, fundamental drawback of the keyboard still consists in its irregular and illogical layout, which results from the very conditions of its slow and groping development. If the system of twelve semitones had been established all at once, one wouldn’t have failed to adapt to it the keyboard as a whole, giving each key equal importance.”1
Still, there does exist a practical and simple way to reduce those twelve fingerings to only two: it is simply to render the keyboard symmetrical by transforming it into a regular alternation of black and white keys, like this:
The first row gives the whole-tone scale that begins with C; the second one, the whole-tone scale that begins with C#. Hence, this layout of keys does away with the asymmetry of the usual keyboard, and for that reason drastically simplifies the learning of scales and chords, which are reduced to two mutually symmetrical patterns for each key and mode; and so the harmonic structure of chords and scales becomes very visible, whether in one form or its mirror image.
Of course, it is still necessary to identify every chord and every scale in each mode. But the geography under the fingers is so similar that the burden of learning chords and scales is considerably lightened. For each chord or scale being considered, only two paths for the fingers are left to learn: one that begins on a white key and one that begins on a black key. Those two paths are impossible to mix up, being symmetrically opposite in their arrangement. Each row consists of a whole-tone scale, and each octave starts over again on the same key colour.
Figure 1. Was Joseph Haydn playing a symmetrical keyboard? No, the layout of the keys here is just a mistake by the painter, Johann Zitterer. However, the principle of this layout had been found long before 1795, the year of this portrait.
There’s just one drawback: the monotony of such an arrangement. How can we find our way on such a keyboard? Recently, the French musicologist Laurent Fichet remarked: “This system would certainly be much more rational than the keyboard of today, but one may wonder how players would locate the different notes with such a systematic and uniform layout.”2 However, the solution to this problem, as we will see, was found a long time ago.
Over the years, in fact, a solution emerged that simply consisted of maintaining the old colours on the new structure, which resulted in the following pattern:
This arrangement of colours also had the advantage of keeping the diatonic scale visible within the chromatic series, instead of dissolving it. Clever, isn’t it?
And all those fingerings that I’ve worked on for hours, will you tell me, what will become of them? And all those laboriously acquired skills? Oh, nothing is lost, none of them will have been useless, you’ll recycle them on the new keyboard. Or just keep them, if you wish, and keep your old piano, but allow new generations to grab hold of this discovery. The time has come. This keyboard has long been called a “chromatic keyboard,” but because the conventional keyboard is actually already chromatic, it’s preferable to call the new one symmetrical.3 Its principle is so logical, obvious and necessary that it was already imagined a long time ago and has never stopped being reinvented since
I. A long-forgotten story
The first time this new layout was theorised was in Prague, in 1654, by the Spanish prelate Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz, advisor to King Ferdinand III of Hapsburg. Father Caramuel, a correspondent of Descartes and Kircher, was an ecclesiastic of great erudition, an encyclopaedic mind who was engaged in all sorts of research in the arts and sciences. Only recently has someone laid hands again on the manuscript from Father Caramuel’s Prague period, in which he describes several ingenious inventions, among them a keyboard that replaces the usual layout of 7 white and 5 black keys with a continuous arrangement of 6 white keys and 6 black keys over three rows.
Figure 2. The plan of Father Caramuel’s three-row keyboard, recreated by musicologist Patrizio Barbieri4 following the indications of the 1654 manuscript. The third row replicates the first one and is mechanically dependent on it.
In 1728, the German theorist and music writer Johann Mattheson, a friend of Handel, who was chapel master and organist at the Hamburg opera, offered his thoughts on the new keyboard in Der musikalischer Patriot, the musical journal he had just founded: “I remember the book that the famous John Locke wrote on the subject of children’s education; regretfully, one can read in the chapter on music that he advised an honest man against this fine entertainment for the sole reason that one must devote so much time and money before acquiring a barely passable knowledge of it. The present invention remedies, for the most part, this not totally unfounded complaint. “5
Figure 3. Design of the keyboard that Johann Mattheson commented on in his musical periodical. The English inventor, a certain F. A. of Richmond, had the C major scale start on one of the keys in the back row (see the middle of the figure) so as to keep more keys in the same positions as on the standard keyboard. This strategy would be found later among various authors, but it has the drawback that it contradicts an elementary convention of the piano.
The idea of the new keyboard reappears in 1768 in Rousseau’s music dictionary, as an illustration of a music notation system conceived by his friend magistrate Roualle de Boisgelou.6 Also, the pattern of the keyboard appears well placed among the plates of the famous Encyclopédie, to which Rousseau regularly contributed.
Figure 4. Pattern of the “chromatic keyboard” of Roualle de Boisgelou with the solfège syllables invented by the author. Plate XII of the seventh volume of plates of the Encyclopédie de Diderot et d’Alembert, Paris, 1769.
In 1812, the German mathematician Werneburg published in Weimar a New and greatly simplified music method for the use of musicians and amateurs,7 giving in an appendix the description of a new keyboard, this time with four rows, with the last two rows replicating the first two. Werneburg relates that Goethe, who was in Weimar at that time, and who was himself a pianist and cellist, got interested in the instrument: “In October of 1808, on the instigation of councillor von Goethe, I had the privilege to give a lesson on this new keyboard every day to Miss Franziska Ambrosius, a twelve-year-old pianist and accomplished musician. 8 After two weeks, she was able, in front of the duchess and the princess, as well as other ladies gathered in the house of councillor Goethe, to execute with as much ease as preciseness five little pieces written in the twelve keys, followed by the overture of Die Entführung aus dem Serail. She went on practising on this keyboard and, on February the 14th of 1809, gave a concert in the big hall of the Town Hall. She performed alternately on a traditional piano and on Werneburg’s keyboard, on which she interpreted several Beethoven sonatas with much feeling and expression.”9
Figure 5. Plan of Werneburg’s four-row keyboard, with a cross-section view above. Rows I and III present one whole-tone scale, rows II and IV the other. After a plate by Otto Quantz.
All through the 19th century, diverse variations of the symmetrical keyboard were invented, and some models were even shown in great exhibitions, like the one in Paris in 1844. Liszt himself took a close interest in the new invention, as Roman cardinal Grassi-Landi relates in his booklet. “One of my friends, a young and renowned pianist, after only twenty days, succeeded in executing extremely complex pieces of music on the new keyboard, among them the Beethoven sonata in C sharp proposed by Liszt who, having observed the first experiments, wished to know if it was possible to pass from theory to practice.”10
Figure 6. Plan of the symmetrical piano of His Eminence Bartolomeo Grassi-Landi, 1880. As can be seen, the cardinal had thought of front keys large enough for fingers to slide between the narrower keys of the back row. For the visual orientation of the player, a little wooden lath marked ba indicates C, and the two other laths, F and G.
Several years later, Liszt would take interest, they say, in another invention of the same type, that of Hungarian engineer Paul von Jankó: a symmetrical keyboard with six rows of keys! This keyboard caused a sensation in Europe for some time, to the point that a special class was created at the Scharwenka Conservatory in Berlin. “On this keyboard, tenths and twelfths can easily be produced by reaching a finger to the keyboard above or below that on which the hand is travelling. Arpeggios through the whole compass of the keyboard can be executed with a sweep of the wrist, which on the ordinary keyboard would hardly cover two octaves.” That’s how Alfred Dolge summed up the advantages of this astonishing keyboard.11
Figure 7. In the middle, the detailed plan of the Janko keyboard: it’s a triple keyboard in which keys are interdependent, each one being replicated twice. White keys are the natural notes, and black striped keys, the chromatic alterations. This model (left), displayed in the Technical Museum of Vienna, is an adaptation on the harmonium. In the last century, some players could still be found who could perform public shows, such as Garland McNutt (right) in Florida, in 1960.
One of the characteristics of the Jankó keyboard was that the four upper rows exactly replicated the same notes as the two lowest rows. To press down a key somewhere resulted in activating two others in the neighbouring rows, thanks to a three-contact lever. This layout allowed a great virtuosity, as the pianist could freely move from one row to another and choose the finger positions that seemed the most comfortable to him or her. However, “the mechanical problem was that the touch of the keyboard was extraordinarily stiff. Putting down one key, you were actually putting down three, and the farther you moved on the six rows, the less advantageous became the leverage, because the finger came ever closer to the key’s fulcrum. So hard a touch was especially difficult to control in soft passages.”12 (Edwin Good)
Figure 8. Rare example of an accordion equipped for the right hand with a three-row symmetrical keyboard. It’s an interesting turn of events, because the creation of the chromatic accordion, as Pierre Monichon has shown, was originally inspired by the layout of the symmetrical piano. The C key can be found in the middle row.13
Some years ago, French musicologist Pierre Monichon, a specialist of the accordion and himself an inventor, established that the chromatic accordion was directly inspired by the symmetrical keyboard and its incarnations with three, four or six rows of keys. Indeed, the 19th century had seen the development of a trend of innovation (particularly in Germany) that aimed to reform music notation and rethink the structure of the piano keyboard in order to simplify and popularise the practice of music. In examining the inventions of Valentino Arno (1860), Joseph Heinrich Vincent (1862), Ivon (1877), and Jankó (1882), one can see that they have several characteristics in common with the forthcoming chromatic accordion, whose patent was registered in 1897:
a) the geographical area of experimentation: Austria and Hungary (Vienna in particular), Germany, Italy and France.
b) the perfect regularity of keys, arranged by whole tones in height and by semitones in length on the symmetrical keyboard, but by semitones in height and minor thirds in length on the accordion keyboard for the right hand (melodic keyboard). The accordion keyboard for the left hand (chords) is itself structured by regular fifths, which once again allows easy transposition. After all, the inventors’ primary concern is transposition: how to switch the key without changing the fingering? Those innovative keyboards give a concrete answer to this question by their regular arrangement of notes and intervals.
c) the names of the instruments themselves; because at end of the 19th century, people had spoken for a while of the “chromatic” keyboard as they would later speak of the “chromatic” accordion (as opposed to the “diatonic” accordion).
d) the repetition of several redundant rows, which allows one to play the same notes in several different places. This results in a new variety of fingerings.
e) and finally, the layout of colours. Today, on numerous chromatic accordions, one can see an alternation of black and white keys on the right-hand keyboard that simply replicates the piano colours, and which repeats the same principle found on the symmetrical keyboard.
Figure 9. On this Fisart, as on half of today’s accordions, one can observe that the keys devoted to the right hand present an alternation of black and white that corresponds simply to the colours of the same notes on the standard piano.
Hence, the chromatic accordion succeeded where the symmetrical keyboard failed. It must be said, however, that it started more or less from scratch, whereas the symmetrical keyboard had always had a competitor of considerable stature: His Majesty the piano, king of the instruments.
The 20th century
The Belgian gentleman Edgar Willems was a reputed pedagogue who left important marks in the world of childhood musical education. In one of his books, he mentions a didactic experiment in which he used a symmetrical keyboard and a simplified notation so as to have his pupils see, hear and feel the sonic distances between notes. “An interval, for example a minor third, always had the same visual size on the paper, different from the major third, and corresponding to a comparable spacing on the keyboard. It was wonderful, and it appeared to us that it realised the dream which so many had sought.”14
Figure 10. Plan of the “atonal” keyboard of Edgar Willems.15 This keyboard was installed on a harmonium for pedagogical purposes.
But the experiment was stopped there, and Willems threw out the baby of the “atonal” keyboard with the bathwater of experimental notations, in which he anyway saw only a kind of pedagogical artefact, barely able to serve as an introduction to music.
More recently, a French pianist, Henri Carcelle, reinvented the new keyboard under the name of the “proportional chromatic” keyboard. Carcelle relates that he was received by the virtuoso pianist George Cziffra and that after five minutes of explanations, the latter was striding around in his living room crying out: “Incredible! Sensational! Fantastic!”16 And in a letter dated October 31st, 1983, Cziffra renewed his support for the building of “the quite revolutionary keyboard.”17
II. The likely reasons for a failure
In existence for 300 years now, yet still not emerged from obscurity? You’re going to tell me there must be a hidden flaw somewhere. Don’t be fooled, it’s just that the transition from the old to the new challenges too many habits. And so, the transition remains to be considered. We also have to analyze all the things that, in the past, may have contributed to the commercial failure of the new keyboard.
The first reason, and probably the most fundamental, is that piano teachers might have felt their expertise threatened. We’ll see that their fears are largely unfounded. Observing this reluctance, piano makers were not inclined to take risks, because they needed the teachers’ recommendations in order to sell the new instrument to the general public. And thus was established the vicious circle from which we still haven’t escaped. However, other reasons cropped up from which it’s now easy to free ourselves. Let’s look at this in detail.
The now-settled battle over equal temperament
Equal temperament is a tuning system for the piano that consists in slightly whittling down fifths to get perfect equality of the semitones and so allow modulation to every key. This way of tuning, universally accepted today, raised vivid controversies in the past. “Musicians, craftsmen, church officials, heads of state, and philosophers fought heatedly against the introduction of this equal temperament tuning as something both unnatural and ugly”, relates musicologist Stuart Isacoff. 18And amongst them must be mentioned the formidable Newton, Descartes and Rousseau.
Now, among promoters of the symmetrical keyboard (Caramuel, Hänfling, Mattheson) were found supporters of equal temperament, and the reputation of the new keyboard, which seemed to embody this equality of the semitones, could only suffer from this association. “At a time when defenders of equal temperament had to argue and convince, wrote blogger Alexandre Oberlin, having to impose a new keyboard would have made their task harder.”19 However, the new keyboard, like the old one, can actually support any temperament and is not inherently linked to a particular one.
Two revolutions in one
Promoters of the new keyboard were often also inventors of a new music notation. They disagreed rather strongly on which system of music writing should be coupled with their keyboard innovation. To make things worse, they often established a visual correspondence between the keys of the new keyboard and the symbols of their notation, the latter becoming a sort of tablature of the new keyboard. In their enthusiasm and their hurry, inventors didn’t realise they were really trying to sell two revolutions in one, and so they failed to sell any.
In France, the invention of Henri Carcelle, although duly rewarded (Rolex Awards for Enterprise 1990, Concours Lépine 1992…) never took off, maybe for that precise reason (among others): the keyboard was physically marked with the lines of the new notation – a vertical one, by the way! – designed by the inventor, which could lead one to believe that the new notation was necessary to play the new keyboard and vice versa, which of course was wrong. And all that could only heighten the general public’s fear of getting dangerously distant from the ordinary world of music.
In Japan, the Chromatone, a modern replica of the six-row Janko keyboard, still remains a commercial failure, despite the prowess of its creator, visible on YouTube. Now, the Japanese have combined the instrument with a new notation, which doesn’t make things better, and as keys are played, the notes are shown on the control screen of the keyboard! The notation, similar to the one Schoenberg himself had invented,20 shows the twelve half-tones as a regular pattern in the staff.
Figure 11. This specific music notation is visible on the screen of the Chromatone CT-312, a six-row symmetrical Japanese keyboard on sale since 2004.
The new keyboard, though, is not bound to any particular notation, and can be played with the traditional one.
Different alternations of black and white
Since the beginning, confusion has prevailed about key colouring. Even recently, designers of the symmetrical keyboard have proposed diverging distributions of notes and colours, and various numbers of additional rows (from three to six), which may have thrown people into confusion. Nowadays, with its 71 white keys, the Japanese Chromatone (fig. 12) resembles a computer keyboard (or a giant accordion) more than a piano. Octaves are denoted only by little dots on the border of the keyboard. The first impression is disturbing, as though the musical system is being dissolved in a white continuum of undifferentiated keys.
Figure 12. With its sea of white keys over six rows, the Japanese Chromatone does nothing to resemble a piano. And sales have stagnated.
Certain inventors have chosen to have the C major scale start on a narrow key in the upper row, 21 in contradiction with the public’s most elementary expectation. Carcelle noted it well: “When they see the new keyboard for the first time, almost everyone asks the same questions: But where is C on this piano? Can you show me the C major scale?”22 Even if this strategy may have found a justification among those who already know the piano (as it keeps two more notes in the same place), its advantage is weak compared to the more important one of resemblance between the new keyboard and the old one.
Figure 13. Certain individuals have had their piano modified at their expense, with different alternations of black and white on the keys: such is the case with the piano of the German Johannes Beyreuther (left) and that of the Russian Nicolai Dolmatov, whose son Boris is at his piano here (right).23
On the new keyboard, it is essential that the C major scale should start on a white key on the lower row, in conformity with the oldest tradition and in accordance with the public’s expectation. And the public will always prefer the sober and contrasted line of the traditional black and white keys, itself a symbol of the instrument, to a keyboard full of letters, ciphers and gaudy colours (more likely intended for children). There’s no question of changing this admirable checkerboard look. So what now?
Figure 14. Pierre Therrien has modified this seven-octave Kurzweil into a symmetrical keyboard. The trick here is to obtain D keys from the builder, these being the only white keys to be really symmetrical. The choice of colours is here visibly constrained by the original keys, and hardly corrected by coloured stripes. Therrien can be seen online interpreting Thelonious Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear”.24
We have already seen that the most rational solution consists in transferring the original colours of the notes to their new locations. By preserving the usual coloring, seven white notes (the notes of the C scale) and five black notes (the chromatic alterations), we get what we were looking for, a design, an irregular pattern that repeats from octave to octave and that provides the visual markings allowing us to immediately distinguish the alterations from the natural notes: C D E F G A B… So it’s simple, someone just had to think of it. Bernard Schumann was one of the first, in 1859, to propose a symmetrical keyboard with a rational alternation of black and white faithful to the colouring on the standard piano keyboard.
Figure 15. The German Karl Bernard Schumann was one of the first, in 1859, to determine the colours of the new keyboard in a logical and rational manner, with c in the lower row at the start of the scale c d e f g a h (i.e., B). Various arrangements of black and white have been proposed, but in the end none of them seems as convincing as this one, because it answers two questions at once: 1) how to find one’s place and 2) how to preserve the visibility of the diatonic notes among the chromatic.
Today, several authors (Borman, Théron) propose using three colours. This option is defensible providing that we stick to the framework we’ve just determined. This third colour wouldn’t affect white keys but would simply serve to differentiate the chromatic alterations of the upper row from those of the lower row. Concretely, this solution consists in assigning another colour to the lower black keys.
In doing so, one immediately makes out the two groups of alterations and then visualises the beginning and the end of the octave much better. This solution hence offers the advantage of a better visual orientation, particularly for elderly beginners, without fundamentally changing anything in the principle of the transfer of the original colours to their new locations. However, this third colour should keep in harmony with the aesthetics of traditional instrument-making: it will then be a varnished wood, with a honey, amber or mahogany colour.
The diatonic still visible in the chromatic
The symmetrical piano, with four fundamental notes (F G A B) located as narrow keys in the upper row, seems to turn upside-down the diatonic order at the foundation of tonal music, and to favour the whole-tone scale. Here is a psychological, not to say philosophical, obstacle: the very layout of the keys seems to threaten the basis of our musical system. Edgar Willems himself had named it the “atonal” keyboard. As I was describing this keyboard one day to a young seller, his spontaneous reaction was: “But with that, you’re destroying the basis of the system!”
It is very important that the symmetrical keyboard continue to display the diatonic scale. This material presentation in black and white keeps the connections with the scale, the classical piano and music notation. But overall, and more concretely, it creates the design that we absolutely need to make the keyboard “readable.” Thus, there are two different problems:
a) A practical issue: how to find one’s way among keys that are so similar that they seem to deprive the pianist of any landmark…
b) A philosophical issue: the neutral and undifferentiated look of the keyboard seems to dissolve the very foundations of the musical system, because for a long time the piano, a reference instrument, has assumed the role of a concrete and visible embodiment of music.
However, the new keyboard, like the old, allows one to play all genres of music, whether they are modal, tonal, modern or avant-garde. And thanks to the strategy of transferring the original colours to new locations, the diatonic scale, at the basis of our cherished tonal system, stays visually apparent. By this trick, the old still is visible within the new, the diatonic inside the chromatic. This is an essential point for the reception of the new keyboard among pupils’ parents and the general public.
The false problem of fingerings
And finally, authors in past centuries wondered about the new fingerings that the new arrangement of keys would imply. Now, the approach of the standard keyboard has evolved considerably since its beginnings, and various techniques of the thumb, unthinkable in other periods but seeming elementary to us today, have made those debates obsolete for the most part. The answer has long since been found, and it is simple: all fingerings are useful. Liszt, it appears, would run through all the scales using the fingering of C major as an exercise. On the other hand, Chopin was interested in tonalities rich in black keys, like those of B major or E major…
The most practical uses of the thumb on the new keyboard happen to be those classically recommended for certain tonalities on the old keyboard, fingerings which any budding pianist already has to learn. For example, in the right hand, the fingering 234, 1231(2), usually recommended for the ascending F-sharp major scale, works very well on the symmetrical keyboard for major scales beginning on a narrow key; for the scales that start on a key in the lower row, it’s the fingering of F major, 1234, 123 that fits for the right hand; and for the left hand, the classical 54321, 321.
And it’s the same for arpeggios. For instance, in the left hand, the arpeggio 5321 recommended for several major tonalities is suitable for all the major tonalities on the symmetrical keyboard; likewise the arpeggio 5421 for minor tonalities.
The new keyboard seems to suppose a specific piano method. Now, the good news is that the fingerings of the current methods are also suitable for the new keyboard, as I’ve been able to verify for myself using a famous piano method for beginners. The spacing of the keys being very close to a standard piano, there’s no perceptible difference for the fingers, which is not true of symmetrical keyboards with four, five or six rows of keys (Werneburg, Janko, Chromatone) which imply specific fingerings and learning methods.
And three other little reasons
1) In the past, a pianist who would have liked to tour across the world to publicise the new keyboard would have been forced to transport it at great expense and to have it tuned frequently. Today, the problem is ridiculously simple: he or she would just have to travel with a digital keyboard. Some models are very light, and one can take them on a trip like ordinary luggage.
2) A lot of past inventors applied a patent to their invention, thus requiring royalties, which may have put a brake on its commercialisation. Nowadays, however, it’s an invention whose principle is so old that it has long since fallen into the public domain. One can patent a detail of a model or a particular technology but not the idea itself.
3) Formerly, a new symmetrical piano cost at least as much as a standard piano, a fact that gave potential buyers pause, as they couldn’t afford to make a purchasing error. Today, however, a digital model would be as affordable as the cheap electronic models on the market.
III. Some old advantages of the new keyboard
a) Due to the regular structure of the new keyboard, the distance from one key to another on the horizontal axis is always proportional to the width of the musical interval between them, as is almost the case on a guitar string. But whereas the frets of the guitar get progressively closer as one goes up the fretboard, the keys of the new keyboard stay unchanged from octave to octave, thus offering a perfect musical proportionality.
b) Theoretically, the learning of this keyboard is six times easier. But as there are a certain number of invariants and technical requirements independent of the keyboard morphology, it is more reasonable to say the work is divided by three. In 1877, that was the common opinion already. According the investigation of Otto Quantz, “all agree in asserting that one must, with that instrument, save about two-thirds of the learning time.”25
Some people claim one can start the piano at any age. It’s true, but with time, our procedural memory (the memory of gestures) becomes less sure and needs to be reinforced by more repetition. People who always wanted to play the piano but put off learning it, whether from lack of time or musical background or because they were waiting for their children to grow up, will then be happy to learn that one can cut this effort by two-thirds through a mere change in the layout of the keys.
c) Furthermore, the new keyboard offers another advantage: that of narrowing the hand span of the octave which, being reduced from seven to six keys, becomes easier to play. And this is true also of ninths, tenths and elevenths. And note that this narrowing, because it results from the new structure, is done without narrowing the keys themselves. A direct consequence: the keyboard music of Bach and Mozart, which at their time was easier to play because the octave was narrower, becomes as playable as it was back when they lived! Indeed, it was only in the 19th century that piano keys were enlarged, to offer more space to the fingers.
Here is why the time has come
Very few teenagers nowadays want to take up the sort of religious dedication that is required to learn an instrument as rich in resources as the piano. There are so many subjects to learn and so many diversions available today, like never before in the history of mankind! And so many styles to master. If the teenager of today wants to be exhaustive and versatile, he or she will have to know the blues scale, jazz asymmetrical modes, the whole-tone scale, the Bartok mode, and so on, not to mention some Indian, Arab or gypsy modes. The goal is not only to transpose the traditional four modes into all keys, but also to play with ease in all kinds of modes and to be able to pass from one to another in every key. Hence, a drastic simplification of the keyboard would be more welcome than ever.
So here is what we know today with certainty: the new keyboard can support any temperament, equal temperament and all the others; one can find his or her way easily thanks to the preservation of the traditional notes’ colouring in their new positions, and the diatonic scale stays just as visible; all styles can be played on the new keyboard, and it is not especially designed for atonal music; it doesn’t imply new fingerings, so music can still be learned with traditional notation and piano methods; its principle is patent-free, and it divides the work of learning by three – so what is still holding us back?
The obstacle of the profession
There remains an obstacle that has been well identified since the beginning: the professionals. They are the principal obstacle. One must admit that they have reasons to be frightened: isn’t the new keyboard going to destroy a life of work and dedication? I’ve got good news for them: the more a person is trained on the traditional piano, the more skilled he or she will be on the new keyboard. If a pianist wishes to retrain, he or she already has a lot of assets to help get there rapidly: the ability to read and understand sheet music, manual suppleness and dexterity, the knowledge of techniques and fingerings.
It’s not a matter of signing the death warrant of the old-school piano, nor of putting teachers out of work; it’s only a matter of creating a trend of opinion in favour of the new keyboard and of encouraging vocations among young amateurs and the most adventurous professionals. There’s no radical all-or-nothing: the two systems can co-exist during the time needed for new generations to get progressively more involved in the new system.
Trained pianists are the most capable
Contrary to what might be legitimately supposed, the most advanced pianists learn the new keyboard the most rapidly. Being trained on the old one, since childhood preferably, far from being a handicap, is on the contrary a considerable asset for the transition to the new one. I have personally archived from the MNP (Music Notation Project) forum the testimonies of several pianists who crossed over: their retraining took them only a few months, or even only a few weeks. This extraordinary speed of adaptation can be explained by the fact that those pianists had long since developed all the habits that would facilitate adopting the new instrument. Henri Carcelle has said: “It’s as though you would take pieces of music that you already know and relearn them transposed to some new keys.” 26
On YouTube, one can watch Stevie Wonder, at the beginning of 2012, having a try on the harpejji, a stringed instrument laid out exactly like a multiple-row symmetrical keyboard. On another video, one can see him in the autumn of the same year singing in concert while playing the instrument himself, proof that it took him only six months to get used to it. Already in 1792, the pastor Johann Rohleder had exclaimed: “How can it be explained that I’m able to play so perfectly on my keyboard, which I’ve only owned since Easter 1790, everything that I play on the ordinary keyboard which I’ve been playing for more than thirty years?”.27
So what should be done now? The answer is simple. Let instruments builders, if they wish to innovate, offer digital pianos equipped with the new keyboard, but with two rows and with an alternation of colours respecting the diatonic scale, as on the classical piano. This keyboard wouldn’t bear the marks of any particular notation system and so could be played while reading ordinary sheet music. With this configuration, we would get a keyboard resembling a piano and not some unlikely futuristic machine, which is crucial.
Only in this way, rooted in historical continuity, can this marvellous innovation find a vast audience.
In his time, Johann Mattheson concluded his article with these words: “In conclusion, I hope that the reasons and evidence put forth in favour of the new keyboard will be welcomed by organ and instrument makers, and most particularly by people who wish to learn, so that they, in the future, may gauge their talent on that invention. Shouldn’t we think also of the young beginners, so as to transmit to them some means to accompany their evenings in an easier, more pleasant and nicer way than before, so that the time devoted to study could therefore be employed for improving the practice of the art?” That was back in 1728, when Johann Sebastian in Leipzig was starting the second book of his Well-Tempered Clavier! Let’s wake up! So much time lost! Engineers and technicians of the digital keyboard can take the initiative: there’s no patent problem, because the idea passed into the public domain centuries ago.
Ladies and gentlemen, digital keyboard builders and piano makers, or designers in the research & development department, please, millions of future users are waiting for you. The ball is in your court!
© Dominique Waller, contact us
1 Closson, Ernest, Histoire du piano, Bruxelles, Éditions Universitaires, 1944, p. 58.
2Fichet, Laurent, Les théories scientifiques de la musique, Paris, Vrin, 1996, p. 24.
3 It could also have been called regular, even, continuous, rational or ergonomic. But the term symmetrical is particularly appropriate, as the keys themselves are each perfectly symmetrical. A close inspection of today’s piano keyboard will reveal that D is the only white key that is symmetrical from left to right.
4 Barbieri, Patrizio, “Juan Caramuel Lobkowitz (1606-1682): über die musikalischen Logarithmen und das Problem der musikalischen Temperatur”, 1987, an article available on the author’s website (http://www.patriziobarbieri.it/articlespdf.htm).5 Mattheson, Johann, Der Musikalischer Patriot, Hamburg, 1728, p. 247-248. Reprint Leipzig, Zentralantiquariat der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, Bärenreiter, 1975.
6 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Dictionnaire de musique, Paris, Duchêne, 1768. Reprint Paris, Actes Sud, 2007, p. 473. See also fig. 2, p. 573.
7 Werneburg, Johann Friedrich Christian, Allgemeine Musik-Schule, Gotha, Carl Steudel, 1812.
8 She was the daughter of a chamber musician working for the duke of Weimar.
9 Werneburg, op. cit., p. 96
10 Grassi-Landi, Bartolemeo, Descrizione della nuova tasteria cromatica ed espozione del nuovo sistema di scritura musicale, Rome, Tipografia di Roma, 1880. p. 13-14.
11 Dolge, Alfred, Pianos and their makers, p. 78-79.
12 Good, Edwin M., Giraffes, black dragons and other pianos: a technological history from Cristofori to the modern concert grand, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1982 & 2001, p. 261.
13 Photos by Thomas Mayers & William Pavone, Tonawanda, NY. Cf.
14 WILLEMS, Edgar, Le rythme musical: rythme, rythmique, métrique, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1954, p. 209-210. Reprint 1976 & 1984 Pro Musica, Fribourg (Switzerland).
15 Willems, Edgar, L'oreille musicale, tome I, Fribourg (Switzerland), Pro Musica, 1977, plate XVI.
16 Carcelle, Henri, op. cit., p. X.
17 Carcelle, Henri, op. cit., p. XVIII.
18 Isacoff, Stuart, Temperament: how music became a battleground for the great minds of Western civilization, Vintage Books, New York, 2003, p. 4.
20 Schoenberg, Arnold, Style and Idea: Selected Writings, 2010.
21 See F. A.’s pattern commented on by Matheson, above (fig. 3).
22 Interview with Georges Bourdais in L’invention, a periodical of the Association des Inventeurs et Fabricants Français, Sept.-Oct. 1992, p. 8.
23 Photo of Beyreuther’s piano on http://www.beyreuther-musikprinzip.de/. Photo of Boris Dolmatov playing on his father’s piano taken in July 1994, in Moscow. Music Notation News, vol. 5, Nr. 1, 1995.
24 http://www.youtube.com/user/31416erre#p/a/u/0/dGUD58gp6Fk or just enter “symmetrical keyboard”.
25 Quantz, Otto, Zur Geschichte der neuen chromatischen Klaviatur und Notenschrift, Berlin, Georg Stilke, 1877, p. 7.
26 Op. cit. p. XVI.
27 Otto Quantz, p. 4.
Barbieri, Patrizio, Enharmonic instruments and music, 1470-1900, Latina (Italy), Il Levante Libreria, 2011, p. 290 to 292.
Carcelle, Henri, Le clavier de piano et la notation musicale chromatiques proportionnels, Éditions chromatiques, 1987 (at the author’s, 1 rue de Bruxelles, 62520 Le Touquet, France).
D’Agvilo, Sydney, Manual de teoria intervalica, Intervalic Music Press, 2000, p. 80-87.
Dolge, Alfred, Pianos and their makers: a comprehensive history, vol. I & II, Covina, CA 1911 ; Dover, New York, 1972.
Good, Edwin M., Giraffes, black dragons and other pianos: a technological history, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1982 & 2001.
Quantz, Otto, Zur Geschichte der neuen chromatischen Klaviatur und Notenschrift, Berlin, Georg Stilke, 1877, p. 1 to 9. Reprint Nabu, 2010.
Willems, Edgar, Le rythme musical: rythme, rythmique, métrique, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 1954, p. 209-210.