Piano Question

What are the Piano Keys Made of?

When buying a piano, what is the first thing that you consider? Its shape and design? or its material? Have you thought about the keys and wondered “ What are the piano keys made of?”.

In fact, the keys play an important role in your self-teaching piano. The material of the keys not only create the good voice but also support your hand when you practice.

For people who have not had the basic knowledge on the piano keys, this article will show you the what are they made of, the pros and cons of each material.

What are the keys of the piano?

Grand Piano Key

Generally, in a piano, there are 88 keys, including 52 white keys and 36 black keys which divide the piano into seven octaves and a minor third. So What are the differences between white keys and black keys? The black keys are designed by set farther back and be raised than the white ones.

Every key will create a specific musical note. You can name the white keys A, B, C, D, E, F, G as seven basic musical note. For black keys, they are used to identify flat or sharp notes.

What are the keys made of ?

There are three kinds of materials that people use to make the keys: ivory, plastic and wood. However, nowadays, ivory and plastic are two favorite materials in the market.

Wood, especially ebony wood, is just used to make black keys, and now, it is also replaced by other materials such as plastic and almost disappear from the market. Now , let’s discover the advantages and drawbacks of these materials!

  1. Ivory keys

+ Pros:

Ivory is not only an expensive but also rare material. Ivory keys come with economic, aesthetical and quality of voice for the piano.

Nowadays, it is difficult for you to find ivory keys of the piano in the market, because this material is related to the elephant hunting ban 1930. Therefore, this material is just popular for the pianos which were produced before 1930.

 The value of ivory keys received lots of love from the players and even professional pianists. Compared to two other material, ivory keys have excellent features. For example, the keys which made of ivory are better to the touch.

You won’t feel “stickiness” in your fingers when practicing. The reason is this material has an ability to absorb sweat and other liquid. Therefore, if your hand are prone to perspiration, ivory keys are the best selection.

Besides avoiding “stickiness”, ivory keys also prevent “slip”. It means that you do not need to be worried about the situation that you hands slip out of the keys because ivory keys provide a stick-slip form of friction.

According to tribologist, an object can slips along for a moment and then sticks and then slip again. That is called “stick-slip form of friction”.

+ Cons:

Although ivory keys come with many pros, they also have some drawbacks. When using a time, you will realize that the keys are prone to cracking and chipping. When the accident happens, you can not find any other ivory keys to replace the cracking one because this material is not available in the market.

Compared to the plastic or wood keys, this is a big minus of this kind of keys.

Besides, a piano with ivory keys required more time to take care of it. When you forget it and do not expose them sunlight, the beauty of white keys will be replaced by yellow color. This makes your piano become older. (A piece of advice: you can place them near windows).

However, remember, excessive heat can cause the glue melt. The glue function of holding the key top can be ruin and your piano can be cracking and warping.

Grand Piano

  1. Plastic keys

+ Pros

When the world protects the environment, the government has policies to ban elephant hunting, contraction of the piano also changed. Plastic becomes the first material chosen by most of the producers. As the result, the producers accepted plastic as the main material in producing keys of the pianos.

The first pros of this material is the price. The production process is not complex, so the price of the piano with plastic keys is also more friendly with customers. Therefore, you can find for yourself a piano using plastic keys with reasonable price in the market.

Moreover, thanking advanced features, it is less damage than other material. Using for a long time and exposing heat can not damage plastic keys, so you do not need to worry about the reliability of this material.

Moreover, this material is also easy to clean and maintain. Until now, plastic is still considered as the king material of keys.

+ Cons

Although plastic keys come with their advantage, they are also prone to “crescent moon” chipping. This damage usually appears at the end of the flange.

Moreover, cheap plastic keys tend to be susceptible to yellowing. Unlike ivory keys, if you move your near windows, the keys are even yellow faster. Unfortunately, there is no solution for this disadvantage.

Today, on high-end pianos, plastic keys are also replaced by resin keys. This advanced material is more resistant to chipping or cracking. This also avoid the discoloration – one of the drawbacks of ivory and plastic keys.

It is more surprise that this kind of material can imitate the features of ivory. The glossiness can make you feel as if you are performing with ivory keys.  However, resin keys also comes with higher price than plastic keys.

  1. Wood keys

Before 1960, both of white and back keys of the piano are made of wood and they are covered with veneer.

In some old pianos, you can realize that the keys are made of softwood, usually sugar pin wood or sometimes, spruce or basswood. White keys can also be used with thin ivory tops and when the ivory using ban was placed, they was also replaced by glass or porcelain. And black keys are usually made of ebony wood.

By the time, this scare and an expensive material is replaced by hard wood such as maple or rosewood. They are polished and coated with plastic resin. However, wood is flammable. If the keys combine with the cigarette, that can be a disaster.

How to determine the ivory keys and plastic keys

Playing Grand Piano

Today, wood keys also disappear in the market, you can find only ivory or plastic keys. That is the reason why this article just shows you the way to identify ivory and plastic keys.

There is a big gap of the value between two materials, but their appearance looks similar. So how to determine them?

If your piano was produced in the 1930s, 75% its keys are made of ivory. If not, you can:

  1. Using needle

  • Using a tiny needle.
  • Moving it over the small fire until it turns red.
  • Then, gently point the needle on the piano keys. If there is an small hole one the surface of piano keys, they are made of plastic. If the keys are not damage, there is nothing change in the surface of keys, they made of ivory.
  1. Using magnifying glass

There is a significant difference between ivory and plastic that you can realize by using magnifying glass. Ivory keys have three pieces including key, front and stem. However, plastic keys consist just two parts which are the front and the top.

Second, if your keys has a fine line between the stem and the key top, they are made of ivory.

  1. Using ultraviolet light

Lighting your piano keys with ultraviolet light, if your piano keys are made of ivory, they will have violet-blue color.

Ethics and Preferences

The choice between ivory and plastic always confused customers. Ivory keys brings lots of aesthetical and spiritual value, plastic keys also come with budget benefits.

However, have you though that ivory is not just a kind of materials. It is also the life. Do you know every year there are 17,000 elephant killed for their tusks? Sadly, some of them become the material for piano producing industry.

Even professional pianist refused ivory keys, so how about you? The choice is in your hand. Despite the elephant hunting ban, some producers still use ivory as the precious material. It means hundred elephants are skilled  in this moment.

Therefore, your choice right now can decide if they can be live or not.


The choice between plastic and ivory depends on you. If you like to discover the authenticity and the classical feeling, you can start with ivory keys.

Although you must spend more money for having a piano with ivory keys, I make sure you do not regret that decision.

In the other hand, if you are satisfied with the product from plastics and conscious about animal cruelty, plastic keys are not a bad choice for you.


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