From 1998 to 2005 Steinbuhler & Company extended an invitation to pianists to come to Titusville, Pennsylvania and discover what size piano keyboard was most comfortable for them. Looking back at the activity that took place in our showroom, we now realize that it constituted vital research. As far as we know there has been no other comparable research in the 300 year history of the piano.
The hands we observed were ones that had reached maturity, both male and female. The pianists who came were motivated by the desire to find the keyboard size that best suited them. The environment we provided was one of relaxed comfort. There were rooms where they could spend the night. In an uninterrupted afternoon or an entire weekend they worked with keyboards of every size.
In addition to a Steinway B that was fitted with a complete range of keyboard sizes, we provided other pianos with conventional as well as smaller keyboards, which gave the pianists the freedom to experiment by moving from one to another. Also, as they desired, we would change the keyboard in the Steinway B to one that was slightly smaller or slightly larger. Our primary objective was to determine how many additional standards we should recommend and what sizes they should be.
For the purposes of this discussion, we will refer to the size of the keyboard by its overall width and assume that it has 88 keys. The average modern conventional keyboard measures just over 48”. The first keyboards we built were 42” in width. By 1998 we also had keyboards that measured 39” and 45”.
With these three additional keyboard sizes to work with, we immediately learned that there was strong interest in more than just one additional size. The great relief experienced by the 42” keyboard was accompanied by a desire to go smaller. There were also those pianists who desired relief from the pain and strain they experienced playing the conventional piano, but found the 42” keyboard too small. It quickly became very clear that we needed at least two more keyboard sizes in addition to the conventional keyboard.
To determine the size of two additional standards, our next step was to do a thorough study at the small end of the range. For this we built 5 keyboards that measured from 38” to 42” in one-inch increments. After establishing a practical small size, we would then add the appropriate in-between size.
When does the keyboard become too small? One pianist told me she wanted to “walk 10ths like Oscar Peterson” and to do this had calculated she would need a 38” keyboard. She flew all the way across the country to try our smallest keyboards only to discover that they were too cramped for her.
There was always the secondary consideration of the width of the sharps and the tradeoff that exists between the landing area on the sharp’s top and the space between them. After some experimentation, we found it prudent to keep close to the natural/sharp ratio found on conventional keyboards.
Measuring dozens of hands, comparing them to the full range of hand sizes found in mature pianists, listening to feedback, and seeing what size keyboards were purchased soon led us to an appropriate small size. For pianists whose hand spans are in the 7” to 8” range there was a desire to go smaller than the 42” keyboard as everyone wants to play 10ths comfortably. But once they went below a 40” keyboard the space between the sharps was becoming too confined for all but the smallest hands with thin fingers. It became clear that the 41” keyboard was the best overall choice even though 10ths were still out of reach for the smallest hands.
We were now ready to establish standards for a complete range of piano keyboard sizes. Because pianos and electronic keyboards will use differing numbers of keys, we decided to use the size of the octave to specify the size and nomenclature for the standards. Measuring an Octave as the distance from the center of one C key to the center of the next C key, we find that piano keyboards in use today will hover around 6.5 inches. We therefore chose to set the standard for the conventional keyboard octave at exactly 6.5 inches.
To find the appropriate size for the middle keyboard it was clear that the ratio between the conventional keyboard and the middle keyboard needed to be the same as the ratio between the middle keyboard and the keyboard at the small end of the range. The use of the ratio 48/52 gave us attractive properties. Most importantly, it gave us a keyboard whose overall width was close to the desired 41 inches, and we made it the DS Standard Keyboard Ratio. In addition to the three keyboards for adult pianists, we also added another keyboard the next size down for small children, all of which comprise The Donison-Steinbuhler Standard.