i just had a student tell me that a kid on his theory class stumped the teacher by asking why and/or how it is that the keys on a piano/organ are black and white.  i congratulated him on stumping me as well:)

anyone have any info on this?  we can guess that ivory was used for the white keys, but why do the black keys even have to be a different color at all?  hmmm...
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a quick answer to the question which needs more research is:
early keyboard before the piano as we know it had simply abcdefg keys.
then the seven keys were extended to octaves.  (not sure how many or the timeline between changes)
realizing that f to b was a discord the first accidental was added bb.

then they began to add other accidentals.  they designed these to be shorter than the natural keys.  at the time they made keys of boxwood.
actually the accidentals were a lighter color boxwood than the naturals.

later the accidentals were made of ebony and naturals as ivory.
thus the black and white.  so it appears that the black was to indicate the keys were accidentals.  

i couldn't find any other reason.  i assume the fact that they used ivory and ebony did it.  and it probably could have been in reverse.
i was once told by a university professor that it was because 'black music' uses mainly pentatonic harmony, and white music uses more 'simple harmony' is how he put it.  i did laugh!!! ;)
i actually have thought about this before, i believe that it was simply a matter of convienence.  

if the 88 keys were laid out from left to right the piano would be far too long to be useful(as you wouldnt be able to play as many notes at once).

i know this wasnt the initial question, but isn't it obvoius that the color was to make it easier to tell accidentals from the naturals and they were stacked in a manner so as to be conveient to play so that even people with smaller hands, would be able to maneuver them??
i guess it had something to do with the pre-well-tempered scale...and the ebony/ivory theory is quite plausible, but still since they are different in size, shape and length from the fall board, why would they also have to be different colors?  hmmmm

thanks for the very interesting comments so far...please keep em coming
i remember from my piano tech course days that the first altered note was probably an f#, soon followed by the rest of the keys.  the smaller key size was due to the fact that accidentals weren't a real part of music yet, just accidentals.

the current white key black key format i think happened in france or england for the purpose of fashion.  probably france then :)
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if you are looking for a rather unserious but quite funny answer then look for the danish comedian victor borge and his history of the piano (it's in english)

nobody ever tokld me, nor have i read this anywhere, but it was obviously done for practical visual purposes, not for fashion or anything else. black on white offers the greatest visual contrast. the strong contrast  aids the player's peripheral vision, you can more easily notice the groups of two blacks and three blacks using your peripheral vision while looking at the middle register or reading a score. it's easier to see the geography across the keyboard at a glance when the cntrast is high.
the shorter keys were carefully designed to creat a hand friendly geography, it's an ingenious design.
i favor the wood selection reply stated above.  in olden times, available materials had a huge impact on construction of instruments.
the harpsichord and clavichord pre-dated the piano forte so the clues may lie there as well.
lol, yeah they ran out of wood...forget the idea of having visual contrast among the keys...lets make them all white.
the pictures i've seen of the early harpsichords were reversed of the modern design. the main keys were black and the "accidentals" were white. i think the environmentalists started to protest the cutting of so many trees for ebony wood so the piano makers said "fine, we'll use elephants".
i'd like to know why the width of the keys are as they are. keyboard width and lenght seems to be standardized today. i personally wish the black keys were wider to help with white to black stretches like 10ths.
i played a steinway grand that was built in the early 60's that had wider black keys. it didn't adversely affect my playing at all, instead it helped a lot in playing 10ths.  
i wonder if modern constructed keyboards are no longer hand-crafted. i'm assuming that the steinway i played was a hand-crafted custom job.
i believe that the answer has a sort of evolutionary explanation.

as the keyboard develops, you have choices that may seem random or due to fashion(such as black on white) or the choice of the size of the keys, but overall the effect becomes one that seems like careful design.  i believe that having white keys on bottom is better than black keys on bottom because the shadows between the keys make more contrast with the white keys, making it easier to distinguish the keys.
the following link doesn't provide any useful info in response to dr. whack's question (except to say that that the current black-sharp, white-natural arrangement is somewhat arbitrary, and was reversed on earlier harpsicords, etc, as was already noted), but does address mojazz's question about key width

some additional interesting info on keyboard history (with some info that's already been mentioned above) https://www.uk-piano.org/history/compass.html
interseting links, cflat. the math explaining key widths was a bit confusing, but the second link regarding the history of keys and keyboards compass was very informative.
than they already are which would most likely suck ...

so it must be a trade off between the ability to stick your fingers all the way to the backboard vs. a comfortable octave span.
that's right.


the link shows a picture of the casio pt-20.  i believe that the average hand can get up to a 14th.

i hope this solves your problem.

in allah....  oh i won't bother this time, ill just let you enjoy the link.  (i am suprised you did not see this at namm 2008?)

7, good explanation.
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