What Are Piano Keys Made Of (Facts & History)

You enjoy playing the piano every day, but have you ever wondered why the keys are black and white and what material they are made of? All of this will be explained in our blog, allowing you to return to playing the game you were made to play.

The Layout of Piano Keys

Each piano’s body is made up of thousands of different functional parts. Most modern pianos have 88 black and white keys, made up of 52 longer white keys for the notes of the C major scale and 36 shorter black keys, which are raised above and set back from the white keys.

The Colour of Piano Keys

If a piano had keys of the exact same color (for instance, white), then sitting next to each other, they would all feel and look the same. And learning to play the piano would be very challenging in that situation!

The pianist gains an understanding of the location of the notes by shortening and skinning the black keys. 7 white keys and 5 black keys make up the pattern layout. Afterward, depending on the size of the piano, the same pattern is repeated a few times.

The black keys are referred to as sharps and flats, while the white keys are known as natural notes.

What Are White Piano Keys Made Of?

Piano keys

Originally, ivory was used to make the white piano keys, but this has changed since the ivory trade was outlawed to save elephants and rhinos from extinction, even though there may still be a small amount of it that is legal to possess.

The white piano keys are now often made of plastic (which doesn’t chip as easily as ivory) or ovirite, a plastic created by Yamaha that mimics the feel and look of ivory. Compared to ivory, which easily chips and cracks from repeated use, plastic keys are less expensive, easier to use, and less likely to sustain damage.

Keys on pianos constructed more than 300 years ago were entirely made of wood, but ivory later gained popularity due to its superior quality and toughness.

Elephants and rhinoceroses are the usual sources of ivory. Millions of these animals have been killed over the centuries as a result of the global ivory trade’s high demand. An international agreement banning the trade in any form of ivory from rhinos or elephants was signed in 1990.

Despite no longer being produced, there are still a lot of older pianos with ivory keys that are in use.

What Are Black Piano Keys Made Of

Because ivory is such a durable material, it was traditionally used to cover the longer keys because they were used more frequently than the shorter ones. The shorter keys didn’t get as much use. As a result, they were created from plain dark wood, also known as “black notes,” like sugar pine, spruce, or basswood.

They are still frequently referred to as “the ivoryies.” It wasn’t that long ago, though, was it, when the piano industry stopped using ivory to make keys in the 1970s?

There are a few telltale signs that show whether the keys on your piano are ivory if it was made before this time. It’s not always that simple as manufacturers try and replicate these characteristics, but generally speaking, here are the rules:

A Brief History of Piano Key Materials

Despite the fact that different instrument brands can now use various materials to make their piano keys, there wasn’t as much choice in the past.

The very first piano keys were constructed entirely of wood.

As time went on and the piano became more and more refined, people began creating various covering materials for the keys.

Let’s examine the changes that have occurred over time.

Keys on the First Pianos

Around 1700 AD, Bartolomeo Cristofori in Italy created the first piano, or pianoforte as it was originally known.

The harpsichord, another type of keyboard instrument from the renaissance music era that was almost entirely made of wood, including its keys, served as the model for the piano’s construction.

When the piano first hit the market, its only key material was wood, but it used different colored woods to emphasize the white and black keys.

The Introduction of Ivory

The use of different materials on the tops and fronts of piano keys was one of many advancements made by instrument makers over the ensuing years.

It was a material that didn’t wear as easily, so they started using ivory from elephant tusks on the keytops of the white keys.

Ivory gave the piano a more elegant appearance and a more comfortable playing experience than wood, in addition to being more durable.

Fortunately, no one makes piano keys in the US because there is no longer any demand for ivory, which led to an increase in poaching of elephants, which led to the species’ extinction.

You can still get pianos made with ivory keys but they are obtained legally.

The possession of a piano with ivory keys is not illegal even though this material is prohibited from international trade.

But it makes sense that some pianists avoid playing on pianos made of this material because of its grisly origin.


The black keys on a piano were frequently made from ebony, a dense dark hardwood, even though the white keys were made from ivory.

They were sometimes made of other kinds of darker woods, including spruce, sugar pine, and basswood.

Ebony is still used today because, unlike ivory, it is not prohibited and doesn’t directly harm any animals when it is harvested.


As the use of ivory was outlawed, piano manufacturers began producing their keys from plastic.

Both the white and the black keys are included in that.

Nowadays, plastic is frequently used to construct pianos, and ivory is no longer a common material for the keys on new pianos.

Some businesses use substitute materials, though, to make the keys feel and look like ivory.

Owning a piano with ivory keys and one with plastic keys has some differences.

Piano keys

How Do I Know If My Piano Keys Are Ivory Or Plastic?

  • Ivory keys are not usually one solid piece; they are made up of three parts, so you should be able to see fine lines where they’re joined
  • If you look closely, ivory has a pattern like a fingerprint
  • Ivory has a texture, whereas most plastic keys feel smooth
  • Ivory is porous, so gets dirty easier and can yellow too

Can You Get Replacement Ivory Keys?

It is definitely possible to replace the keys on your piano with a set of plastic keys if there are a sizable number of missing or chipped keys. You may have to pay $500 for an upright piano and about $600 for a grand piano for this procedure.

Do Ivory Piano Keys Turn Yellow?

Yes, ivory keys can turn yellow. Although they are magnificent works of art that transform living spaces, pianos are difficult to clean. Additionally, the instrument is less appealing and playing music is less exciting when the keys start to turn yellow. The keys can be made white again by taking certain actions, though.

You can quickly check to see if your keys are made of ivory or plastic if you’re unsure. Compared to plastic keys, ivory keys feel a little bit rough. It is not advisable to clean the piano with soap and water in either scenario as it causes more damage. The steps for restoring your worn-out ivory keys are listed below.

  • Remove stains from pure ivory keys with natural acids: Ivory is porous by nature. Claim the keys will take a few hours, depending on the severity of the stains. You can get rid of the yellow stains on your instrument by using milk and diluted lemon juice. The acid does an excellent job of making your instrument keys whiter, despite the odd sounding notion.
  • Cleaning ivory keys with toothpaste: To clean the keys on your instrument, use mild white toothpaste. Use a soft piece of cloth, such as a cheesecloth or flannel, to gently apply the toothpaste to the keys, and then leave them alone for a while. The keys should then be cleaned with whole milk, followed by some indirect sunlight to stop further yellowing.

Is It Unethical to Have a Piano With Ivory Keys?

Pre-1950 pianos are inextricably linked to the killing and hunting of elephants for ivory, both legally and illegally.

In the 1900s, when pianos gained popularity, there was an excessive demand for ivory. A global treaty was signed in 1990 that outlawed the trade in all forms of elephant ivory due to the approximately 17000 elephants that are poached annually.

Intimately, the choice is yours; some people find it unethical to use pianos with ivory keys, while others find it acceptable.

Is It Illegal to Sell a Piano With Ivory Keys?

Within national borders, it is not prohibited to sell a piano with ivory keys, but buying, selling, and importing ivory products into other countries is prohibited.

Summary: What Are Piano Keys Made Of

We hope that answers some of your inquiries regarding the components of piano keys.

The majority of people today who are buying new pianos will choose a digital model over an acoustic one.

Regardless, any modern versions of this instrument are highly likely to have plastic keys and if you have an old piano made some time before the 1970s, it might have ivory keys.

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