The Piano Keyboard Layout:
Guide to the Perplexed

Trying to understand the layout of the piano keyboard can be a little bit overwhelming at first. There are 88 keys in all, and it just looks like a whole mess of white and black notes! Well, stick with me here and in no time at all you’ll have a much better handle on the piano layout.

In the overview, we learned that the piano isn’t just a regular instrument; it’s an essential musical tool, whether for songwriting, composing, arranging, music theory, and more.

If you’re interested in taking your music to the next level, learning to understand the piano layout is definitely worth your while. So let’s look at some super-easy ways to understand and visualize the notes on a piano keyboard, and you’ll wonder how it ever could have seemed difficult in the first place.

The key to it all is understanding a couple of basic things about the layout of the keyboard.

The Piano Keyboard Layout

The first step in conquering the piano layout is to know that there really are only 12 different notes on the piano. Yup, you heard me right. There may be 88 keys in all, but it’s really nothing but the same 12 notes repeating over and over across the keyboard! Let’s take a look at a diagram of a keyboard to help see what I’m talking about. In the picture below, a single 12-note section of the keyboard is highlighted (7 white notes + 5 black notes = 12 notes):

Here’s a close-up of one of these 12-note sections all by itself:

The rest of the keyboard is nothing but a repetition of this exact 12-note pattern. In order to get 88 notes on a piano, this pattern has to be repeated more than 7 times. This makes our job a whole lot easier – all we have to learn are these 12 notes, that’s it. Here’s a keyboard diagram showing each 12-note section in a different color:

When we look at a piano, our goal is to try to picture in our minds each of these 12-note patterns as a separate section, just like we’re doing right now. Easy, right? Well, it’s a bit tougher when the piano is not color-coded (and unless you happen to be the sole owner of a piano, I don’t suggest trying to color-code one yourself!) But the truth is, the piano really is sort of color-coded —

Black Notes to the Rescue

A piano might not have bright, neon colors on it (not a normal one, anyway), but the keys do come in two different colors, black and white. Ever wonder why they made it that way?

The black and white piano keys are arranged in a very specific pattern, to help us learn the piano keyboard layout as easily as possible. The trick is to notice the pattern of the black keys across the piano keyboard:

And here it is shown on an actual piano:

See how the black keys are grouped into twos and threes? 2 black keys, then 3 black keys, then 2, then 3, in a consistent alternating pattern across the keyboard. These groups of black keys act as landmarks, to help us spot the 12-note patterns we’ve been discussing. The easiest way to picture it is like this: moving from left to right, each 12-note pattern begins with the white key that is just to the left of the 2 black keys, and ends with the white note just to the right of the following group of 3 black keys. From there, the next white key starts the whole 12-note pattern over again, and so on, across the entire keyboard:

Practice Tips & Exercises

Piano Keyboard Layout – Exercise Tips

1) Download and print this free piano keyboard layout worksheet, and follow the simple directions. 2) You can also use the above worksheet as a daily practice routine (if you’ve already colored yours in, no problem, just print out another one, or as many as you like). Once (or twice) a day, simply look at the diagram (start with the easiest one and work your way up to “the big daddy”), and try to visualize each 12-note pattern by itself.

It probably will take less than a minute, and once you get the hang of it, even less time.  Do this every day until you really feel comfortable with it.

3) If you have access to a piano or keyboard instrument, try this exercise:

Starting at either end of the keyboard, find the very first 12-note pattern you see, and press down on all 12 notes, with both hands. You don’t need to actually push down every key; the point is that your hands are covering a single 12-note pattern.

Then move over to the next 12-note pattern.

This is a fun and easy exercise, and can be done once or twice a day as well.  It won’t take long before you master this.

Well, that’s all for now. Hope this lesson helps you feel more familiar with the layout of the piano. Great work!

Image Attribution: old dusty piano by Steve Johnson ©2011 CC by 2.0 practice makes perfect. by Jukie Bot ©2013 CC by 2.0