Layout of the Piano Keys

Hey, welcome back! In the intro lesson we talked about how the piano is basically a giant music calculator, and that it can therefore give us a major boost in learning music theory. So, our first step is to understand the way the piano keys are set up. (We’ll get to the names of the notes next lesson, promise, but first things first – we need to learn our way around the keyboard.)

When you look at a piano keyboard, it’s normal to feel a lil’ overwhelmed, at first. There are 88 keys, and that can make it seem really confusing. The good news is (no #fakenews here, only the real kind) it’s actually super easy, once you know how.

The Piano Keyboard Layout

So let’s jump right in, here. First, take a look at the keys on a full, 88-key piano:

diagram of a piano keyboard with all 88 keys

Okay, so you’ve probably seen the piano keys before. Nothing special, right? White keys, black keys, we get it. :)

But at the same time, there are way too many keys to keep track of, and the special white and black key pattern can be kinda confusing.

Well, it’s time to clear things up!

The very first thing you need to know about the piano keyboard is that there are only 12 different keys. Yep, you read that right. And if you can believe it, pretty much all the music you hear nowadays (pop, rock, jazz, classical, etc.) comes from just 12 different notes!! It’s amazing, I know.

(Quick sidebar: While we’re learning about the piano keys, keep in mind that’s it’s about much more than just piano. The piano keys are a representation of how music is organized. As a result, the better we get at understanding the keyboard, the better we also get at understanding music in general. Which is kinda niiice.)

The first thing you need to know about the piano keyboard is that there are only 12 different keys.

So how do we get 88 keys on a piano if there’s only 12 different notes?

Well, it’s actually pretty simple. The same 12-note pattern of piano keys just keeps repeating itself over and over across the length of the keyboard.

In order to master the piano layout, all you gotta do is learn to spot this 12-note pattern. That’s it! Once you can see the pattern, the rest is just the same thing again and again.

The 12-Note Pattern

Now that we understand the basic idea, let’s check out some piano keyboard diagrams to see it more clearly. After that, you’ll learn how to see the pattern for yourself.

First, let’s see a close-up of just one 12-key section of a piano:

diagram of a single octave, or 12-note pattern, on a keyboard

This is the special 12-note pattern of piano keys that we need to become really familiar with.

Next, let’s look at a keyboard with more than just 12 keys. The diagram below shows a 12-note pattern repeated across a 3-octave keyboard. (We’ll get much more into “octaves” in another lesson. Basically, a keyboard with 3 “octaves” is just a keyboard that has 3 of these 12-note patterns we’ve been learning about.)

diagram of a 3-octave piano keyboard, with one octave highlighted

And finally, here’s what the 12-note pattern looks like across the entire 88-key piano:

(You might have noticed that there are a few bits left over on the left and right side – one key on the right side, and three on the left. These keys are really continuing the same exact pattern, but there’s just no more space for keys on the piano to complete the pattern. That’s why these keys ended up so lonely-looking on the far ends of the piano. They’re not anti-social, or anything. :)

diagram of a full 88-key piano keyboard, with each octave (12-note pattern) color-coded

“Colors” of the Piano

So, I’m sure you’ve realized it’s a whole lot easier to spot each 12-note pattern across the piano keyboard layout when the keys are color-coded!

Obviously, our goal is to learn to see the pattern on a real piano keyboard, without it being color-coded. (And trying to color-code your piano yourself using finger-paint is a bad idea, and it will probably end up like these little guys :)

On the other hand, in a way the piano keys really are already sort of color-coded for us! (Okay, technically white and black are not colors. But for our purposes, they do just as good as job.)

It’s all about the special pattern of white and black keys on a piano. This pattern was created specifically to make it easier to find our way around.

At this point, don’t worry about memorizing the entire pattern perfectly. All you need to do is focus in on the black keys.

Notice the groups of black keys going across the keyboard in a pattern. Two black keys, three black keys. Then, again – two black keys, three black keys:

groups of 2 and 3 black keys color-coded on a piano diagram

Black Keys to the Rescue

These groups of black keys are visual landmarks that help us find our all-important 12-note patterns. Using the black keys, we can keep track of where we are on the keyboard at all times.

Notice that beside being a different color, the black keys are also smaller, farther back, and elevated as compared to the white keys. This makes it possible not only to see the difference between white and black keys, but also to feel the difference. Just try to imagine how easy it would be to get lost if all the keys were the same shape, size, and color!

Okay, so here it is: the quick way to see the 12-note patterns all across the keyboard.

First, find any group of two-black-keys. Notice how the 2 black keys are surrounded by 3 white keys. The white key farthest to the left is the first note of the 12-note pattern. Pretty easy, right?

a single group of 2-black-keys color-coded with its surrounding 3 white notes

Next, look at the group of 3-black-keys just to the right. This time, there are 4 white keys that surround the group of black keys. The white key farthest to the right is the last key of the 12-note pattern.

a single group of 3-black-keys color-coded with its surrounding 4 white notes

And here’s what we’ve got, all together:

one complete 12-note pattern of piano keys, showing the group of 2 black keys and 3 black keys, with surrounding white notes

So let’s see – we have the 2-black-keys + its 3 surrounding white notes (that’s 5 notes all together, if you’re counting at home). Then we’ve got the 3-black keys + its 4 surrounding white notes (that’s 7 notes). Put them all together, 5 + 7, and we have our 12-note pattern.

And hopefully you can see that now, it’s simply a matter of repeating the same pattern. Here it is across a 3-octave keyboard:

detailed 12-note pattern color-coded and shown across a 3-octave piano keyboard

Wrap It Up

And that’s how we can easily learn to see all of our 12-note pattern of piano keys across the keyboard!

Quick sum-up:

  • There are only 12 unique keys on the piano (and in basically all of the music we listen to).
  • These 12 keys form a unique visual pattern
  • This pattern of 12 keys repeats itself over and over across the keyboard
  • Each 12-note pattern along the piano is made up of a group of 2-black-keys, a group of 3-black keys, plus all the white notes surrounding them. 

That’s all there is to it. Admit it, it’s pretty easy. I told you it wasn’t rocket science!

Okay, so practice, practice, practice! And when you’re ready, meet me in the next lesson where we’ll learn the names of the notes!