The Idea

There might be a better way to design the piano.

To master an instrument you must learn to play it in every key. The first key a new pianist will learn is the key of C major because it is simple: play the white notes. But a simple C major comes at the cost of increased difficulty and complexity for the other eleven keys.

But why is the piano designed this way? At first it may appear that the keyboard was made for beginners and we never took the training wheels off. But that is not the case.

In 1361, Nicholas Faber designed an organ for a church in Haberstaldt, Germany. This organ is the first application of the traditional keyboard layout we know and use today. It would be another 350 years before the invention of the piano, and in that time there were a couple significant musical advances.

Equal temperament was discovered in 1584, which allowed instruments to be tuned to play in every key. Before this invention, instruments could only play in one key without sounding out of tune.1

Throughout the 17th century, Western music transitioned from modality to tonality. To put it simply, one of the effects of this switch to tonality was that musicians wanted to play in more than one key.2

The traditional keyboard layout was not designed for beginners, but for a different musical era.

So how can we improve the keyboard? Could we remove the C major bias and make all keys equally difficult to play? 

We can do better. Make all keys equal, and in the process, make all keys the same.

Lik picture

This is the Linear Isomorphic Keyboard.

The term isomorphism, when applied to musical instruments, means that any distinct musical phrase can be played the same way regardless of the note that it starts on.3

What does this mean? On the Linear Isomorphic Keyboard (LIK) there is one way to play all the major scales. You don’t learn to play a major scale, you learn how to play the major scale. There is only one way to play a perfect fifth, instead of four.4 If you can play “Für Elise” in one key, you can play it in every key.

This is not a new idea. There are plenty of isomorphic keyboards. Most of them feature a grid of square or hexagonal tiles that maintain a interval in each direction. with the relation between adjacent tiles determined by particular intervals. But I think that similarities the LIK shares with the traditional keyboard gives it an edge over other isomorphic keyboards.

Even the LIK isn’t a new concept. The keyboard was patented in 1953, and Dodeka is creating a three octave midi-controller with the same layout.

But the most important question still demands an answer: Is it better than the traditional keyboard?

I’m not sure, but I’m trying to find out.

I’m performing an experiment to compare my improvement on the LIK and the traditional keyboard. I will practice the same content for the same amount of time on each keyboard, write reflections, and record everything. It is not a perfect study, but I think the findings will provide valuable insight about the viability of the LIK.

I have a couple goals. First, I want to begin to fill the dearth of studies comparing efficacy of isomorphic keyboards to the traditional keyboard. If I find the LIK to be superior to the traditional keyboard, my next goal would be to facilitate adoption and encourage further research. This could incentivize manufacturing companies to make LIKs so I don’t have to 3D print keys for the rest of my life.

If this is successful, the piano would be easier and more enjoyable to play, and pianists would be saved countless of hours of practice. Pianists could spend less time on technique and transposition and spend more time making music.

If you’re still interested, you can read other articles about:

Stay tuned.

  1. This is what it sounds like to play in the wrong key on a non equal temperament keyboard: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yqa2Hbb_eIs 

  2. Discussion of the differences between modality and tonality extends far beyond the scope of this article. This statement is not true, because pre-tonality music had modes, not keys, and they used harmonizations with notes that don't fit into keys. To learn a little more check this out: https://music.stackexchange.com/questions/6401/whats-the-difference-between-modal-music-and-tonal-music. This article dives deeper into the transition from modality to tonality: https://soundideas.pugetsound.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1079&context=summer_research 

  3. “Isomorphism applied to musical instruments means that every distinct musical performance is executed in the same way, regardless of key or location.” http://smcnetwork.org/system/files/smc2011_submission_169.pdf 

  4. The traditional keyboard has four different ways to play a perfect fifth: White key to white key (eg. C -> G), white key to black key (eg. B -> F#), black key to white key (eg. Bb -> F), and black key to black key (C# -> G#). For more on this, check out The Experiment