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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

Mailbag: “Keyboard Size”

January 29, 2008

Dear Michael,

In the planning and design of a new instrument what dictates the size of the keyboards and most significantly the number of keys for each? Thank you.




The topic you address is a very complex one. I submitted your question to my organbuilder friend Charles Hendrickson, who offers this perspective:


Dear Jean,

Thanks for your question about keyboards. This is impossible to answer definitively because there is so much personal preference involved, as well as history. One man’s perfect keyboard is another’s impossible-to-play annoyance. But some comments:
Organ keyboards have ranged widely from an octave, or so, up to 7 octaves in compass. Since the 19th century, 61 notes has been popular, but mostly in England and America. In Europe and with many American tracker builders, 54, 56, and 58 notes are popular. There are no standards for any of this. A search of the organ literature indicates that 99.9% of all organ compositions can be played with 58 notes, but there are a very, VERY few that require more than that.
As to size and shape of keys, I wish you could see a chart of what is available! Long, short, narrow, wide, and everything in between. Personal perference is, seemingly, the guide here, especially with small, independent builders. But there are many keyboards built to “Piano scale” which uses wider naturals between the sharps so that the fingers can go easily between the sharps. Thus, the width of the keys varies depending on where they are in the compass. Some organs copy old harpsichord keys. Here again, there are many possibilities.
Sorry I can’t give you more specifics, but your question does open up the field for broad comments. Sincerely,
Charles Hendrickson


I hope that provides a bit of clarity. Totally clarity would require a book.





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