Piano keys labeled

Susan Fernandez November 11 2021

Piano keys

Each octave on a piano has a range of thirteen notes that are mathematically related by being evenly spaced around the circle of fifths, seven white, and six black. The black keys are each a "half step" (or semitone) lower than its adjacent white keys. The ratio of two pitches is determined by dividing their frequencies, and so the twelfth root of 2, is the common logarithmic measure of this interval as well as any other intervals derived from it such as chords.

An octave can also be broken into thirteen notes with ratios that approximate to those walks around the circle of fifths. In this case, one might say an octave has fourteen instead of thirteen notes because especially in equal temperaments there is often a high degree of approximation between these ratios and those corresponding to harmonic overtones. This is at least partly due to the desire for twelve notes to an octave, over similar ideals of seven or ten. Harmonic intervals are also more compatible with human perception than melodic intervals, particularly in the latter case.

What does 'labeling piano keys' mean?

The term 'labeling piano keys' refers to using a musical instrument and color-coding the musical notes that it produces to show their relationships with each other. The five lines on a musical staff are used to label the two notes of each octave.

All keyboards have piano keys labeled identically, it is because of the same mathematical relationships.


What is the history behind labeling piano keys?

According to legend, in 1560 when Maria di Padoa Marietta wrote a dissertation on how to tune an organ, she proposed that white keys should be labeled with the letters of the alphabet E F G, etc., while black keys are given corresponding enharmonic "accidentals" Bb Db Eb, etc., but this would not exactly match up with modern piano key labeling because once one gets past C these accidentals begin repeating in patterns.

Sometime later in 1614 when Sébastien de Brossard published his famous musical dictionary, he proposed using circles to show the relationship between pitches rather than specific note names, possibly influenced by Latin solmization where each syllable is sung starting at the tonic and moving around in much the same way, except that the half-tone step is notated as a half rest.

In the 17th century, the French flutist Jean-Denis made a similar proposal, but he used six lines rather than five. In 1827 John Hawkins proposed using seven lines to show seven different colors.

Then, in 1840 Auguste Arthur de Boscobel proposed using red and black for sharps and flats respectively, which was widely adopted by Apollon Schulz in his 1876 musical dictionary. This system gained popularity when it was used by Julius Weissenborn in the 1888 pianoforte method "Lehrbuch der Klavier-Technik und Pianoforte-Schulung" published by Rudolph Wagner & Leopold Hadeberg who advocated that every student learn how to play on a keyboard with this color-coding system. However, Boscobel's idea was not widely adopted until it appeared in the "New Harvard Dictionary of Music" in 1986.

Labeling nowadays

Today many modern piano keyboards are labeled with octave numbers starting from C1, which is the one closest to the floor/lower sounding board and ascending upwards toward C8, where there are eight white keys between each black key, but this has only been popular since the 1960s. Before that time pianos were mostly labeled alphabetically rather than by note names or octaves.

There have also been attempts to numerically label the 88 keys without using accidentals such as those proposed by Jean Bataille (1901) (which he later abandons), Lucien-François Jean-Mairet (1924), and Hermann von Helmholtz (1867). In 1956 a "Piano Nomenclature" committee was formed in order to create a universal standard for naming notes on the keyboard, but it was later abandoned when they realized that enharmonic might be too confusing.

In contrast to modern piano keyboards, some other keyboards such as spinets have been labeled from one rather than C1, while others such as the clavichord usually only have a single wire for each key, so they cannot show enharmonic equivalents, and instead, double letters are used to indicate that you should play the two notes an octave apart. There is also evidence that another widespread keyboard instrument known as the virginal (or small English harpsichord) was sometimes labeled alphabetically.


Is it only for keyboards?

Finally, it should be noted that pianos are not the only musical instruments that use accidentals. For instance, the violin, viola, and cello all have different types of accidentals; pieces of wood are glued on to change the timbre or tone color of a stringed instrument while playing. The double bass also has its own unique type of accidentals, which is why some people refer to them as "slurs." Some Indian fretted instruments such as the sitar also use sharps and flats.

Even some wind instruments such as transverse flutes do not label their keys by note names but instead by the number of keys that are pressed down. Surprisingly, although they can sound different, some pitches on a piano keyboard have very similar frequencies to the next highest pitch, but there is no way for them to be enharmonic equivalents.

What are the most common types of labeling used for pianos?

The most common type of piano key labeling is by using white keys for whole notes, and black keys in-between them to indicate half steps or semitones. When each successive line or space is labeled by one more letter name, beginning with A, then B, C, D, etc., it gives the musical alphabet, omitting J and V in order to avoid confusion between I and U when seen head-on.

Another popular variant skips either Q or Z in order to avoid confusing the visually similar O with a zero. The system shown here follows neither convention in order to be able to label all notes which have two words names, namely those from two to seven letters, with a single word name.

Different methods of getting your piano keys labeled

The most common type of labeling used for pianos is to label each note with a letter name (A, B, C, etc.), and the black keys with the rest of the notes in between them. Another popular system skips either Q or Z in order to avoid confusing the visually similar O with zero.

Next, we have a method that labels every key with one word, resulting in words such as "one", "two", and so on.

This article discusses yet another alternative that combines both methods by using two-word names for all pitches from two to seven letters. The reason why this method was chosen is that it allows us to reduce clutter caused by accidentals, gives all white keys only one label (rather than having multiple labels like the first method), and also gives us two words for each note (which can be useful if you see a pitch's name written down quickly, where the first word represents the octave that it is in, and the second word represents its position within that octave).


  1. Although it should be mentioned that these "accidentals" used in Western music only apply to notes written on the top of the staff and not those written below a line.
  2. C major is part of the common practice period key scheme which also includes G Major (major scales) and F minor (minor scales). However, modern practices often include non-key tonalities such as A harmonic minor and E harmonic minor as well as C chromatic.
  3. The letter "B" below G is called a flat sign. So this is actually enharmonic with Bb which is technically not accidental since you could also play that higher-pitched Bb without any accidentals.
  4. It should be noted that the C major scale contains all white keys (C, D, E, F, G, A, B) which means that there are only 7 unique pitches in this key; one of which is repeated. For instance, both C and D contain two sharps but sound different because of their higher octaves.

What are the benefits of labeling piano keys?

Labeling pianos this way makes it easier to understand music theory and make sense of what you are playing. It will also help you learn your notes faster and better because each letter corresponds to a different key on the keyboard. Labeling pianos is also an advantage for children learning how to play because they know that every key has its own sound and relationship with other keys. Furthermore, if there were no labels then students would have trouble recognizing where their hands should be placed when they're looking at sheet music. So getting beginner's piano keys labeled is worth it.

How to label keyboard keys (video tutorial):

Bottom line

The benefits of labeling pianos with two words per note are that it reduces clutter caused by accidentals, gives all white keys only one label (rather than having multiple labels like the first method), and also gives us two words for each note (which can be useful if you see a pitch's name written down quickly, where the first word represents the octave that it is in, and the second word represents its position within that octave).