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The Evolution of Piano Keys: From Ivory to Plastic and Beyond

The Piano is an iconic instrument that has been around for over 300 years. It is recognized by its keyboard of 88 keys that has evolved over the years with advances in technology and materials.

Before delving into the differences between ivory and plastic keys, let’s explore the different materials used in the history of piano keys.

History of Piano Key Materials

Wooden Keys

Wooden keys were the first keys used in pianos. They were made from softwoods like pine or fir and had a simple design.

In the 1700s, harpsichords were the most popular keyboard instruments, and the wooden key design carried over to the first pianos. However, the simple design of the wooden keys made them difficult to play with speed and accuracy.of Ivory

Ivory was the first significant material to replace wooden keys.

In the early 19th century, musicians began to demand a more responsive and sensitive key action than what the wooden keys could provide. The introduction of ivory keys in the 1820s was a significant advancement.

Ivory is a hard, white substance that comes from elephant tusks. It is polished to a high sheen and has a smooth texture that allows for a better grip and precision in playing.

Use of Ebony and Other Woods

While ivory is often associated with the white keys on a piano, it is also used in combination with different types of wood for the black keys. The most common type of wood used for piano keys is ebony, a dark hardwood with a high density.

Other woods, such as rosewood, were also used in the past. The combination of ivory and ebony provided a striking contrast between the white and black keys and is still used today in traditional pianos.

Plastic Keys

In modern times, there has been a shift towards using more affordable materials in the production of pianos. Plastic has become a popular option in the construction of piano keys.

While there are a variety of materials, such as acrylic, polycarbonate, and ABS, used in the production of plastic keys, they all have one thing in common – they are non-porous, making them resistant to moisture and staining. Manufacturers have worked hard to replicate the feel of ivory and ebony keys on plastic keys, so they feel similar to what musicians are used to.

Ivory vs.

Plastic Keys

Difference in Feel

The most noticeable difference between ivory and plastic keys is the way they feel. Ivory keys have a smooth and slightly porous texture that allows for better grip and more precise play.

The slight texture of ivory also helps absorb finger moisture, making it easier to play for longer periods without feeling slippery. Plastic keys, on the other hand, are smooth and non-porous.

While plastic keys have a similar feel to ivory, they can become slippery when fingers are moist, making playing more difficult.

Identifying Ivory Keys

It’s essential to know how to identify ivory keys, as many older pianos still have them. One way to tell if a key is made of ivory is to examine the stem and key top join.

Ivory keys have a visible line running along the perimeter of the key, where the ivory is glued to the wood stem. Plastic keys, on the other hand, have a molded top that forms an unbroken edge.

Another way to identify ivory keys is their porous nature – if you run your finger across the surface, you will feel a slight drag. If you’re unsure, consult an expert before trying to make any changes to your piano.

Pros and Cons of Ivory and

Plastic Keys

There are pros and cons to both ivory and plastic keys. Ivory keys have been the gold standard for centuries, and many musicians still prefer them over plastic keys.

One advantage of ivory keys is their durability – they last for decades and can withstand the constant pressure of playing. They’re also more responsive and sensitive, allowing for faster play with less fatigue.

The downside of ivory keys is the ethical concerns associated with using elephant tusks. As ivory is sensitive to moisture and temperature changes, it can become damaged over time and yellow as it ages.

It is also more delicate than plastic and can crack or chip if dropped. Plastic keys, on the other hand, are cheaper to produce, making them more affordable for pianos at all price points.

They’re resistant to moisture and staining and are more durable than ivory. Plastic keys don’t require the same care and maintenance as ivory keys.

They also eliminate the ethical concerns associated with ivory keys. The downside of plastic keys is that they lack the same feel as ivory keys.

They can be slippery to play on, and the response is not as sensitive, which can make it difficult to play with speed and accuracy. Plastic keys may also wear down over time, negatively impacting the way they feel and play.


In conclusion, there is a long history of materials used in piano keys. While ivory has been the go-to material for nearly two centuries, plastic keys have become increasingly popular due to their affordability and durability.

As a musician, you can choose the material that suits your style and budget. It’s important to consider the pros and cons of each material type to make an informed decision.

Regardless of the material, the piano remains an iconic instrument that musicians will continue to play for years to come.

3) Replacement Ivory Keys

Ivory keys have a unique texture and feel that is difficult to imitate with different materials. While modern pianos typically have plastic keys, older pianos may have ivory keys that can crack, break or become discolored over time.

If you need to replace a damaged ivory key, there are a few considerations to keep in mind.

Difficulty in Obtaining

One of the most challenging aspects of replacing ivory keys is obtaining the material. As ivory is derived from elephant tusks, it is a restricted substance that is illegal to trade in many countries.

This means that even if you find an ivory key that matches your piano, it may be difficult to obtain legally. In some cases, local piano tuners may have access to ivory or know where to obtain it, but their resources are limited.

It’s important to do your research before attempting to replace an ivory key to ensure that you are not engaging in illegal activities.

Matching Existing Keys

When replacing an ivory key, it’s crucial to ensure that the new ivory key matches the existing keys in color and pattern. No two ivory keys are the same, and as ivory ages, it can develop a yellow or greyish tint.

This means that if you replace one key, the contrast between the new and old keys may be noticeable, and it may detract from the overall appearance of the piano. To ensure a proper match, consult a professional piano technician who can help you obtain a replacement key that matches the existing keys.

Alternative Solutions

If obtaining a replacement ivory key is not possible, there are alternative solutions to consider. One solution is to replace the entire keyboard with a more modern alternative or one with plastic keys.

This option ensures that all keys match, and you won’t have to worry about the ethical concerns of ivory trading. However, it may be costly, and the feel of plastic keys may be different from what you’re used to.

Another solution is to replace the damaged ivory key with a different-looking ivory key. This solution won’t necessarily match the existing keys in color and pattern, but it can still be functional while staying true to the piano’s aesthetic.

Again, consult a professional piano technician to guide you through this process. 4) Preference for Plastic vs.


When it comes to piano keys, there is still a great debate on whether plastic or ivory keys offer the best feel and sound. While many traditionalists prefer ivory keys for their tactile response and natural materials, modern technology has allowed plastic keys to replicate the same feel and sound as ivory.

Plastic keys can also be more durable, resistant to moisture, and can be produced at a lower cost than ivory keys. In recent years, the production of digital pianos has grown in popularity, and with that comes a new set of key materials.

Digital piano keys are typically made of plastic or synthetic ivory, which offers a similar feel to natural ivory but without ethical concerns. Digital piano keys allow for greater flexibility in sound, allowing players to customize the sound and effects on their instrument.

While some may argue that digital pianos lack the character and history of traditional pianos, they offer a lot of versatility and convenience.

Overview of Piano Key Materials

In conclusion, there are many materials used in creating piano keys. Wooden keys were the original material, but ivory and ebony soon became the preferred materials in higher-end pianos.

While ivory remains the traditional choice, plastic has become a popular alternative due to its affordability and durability. As technology has advanced, digital pianos have emerged, offering even more options for key materials.

Ultimately, the choice of material will depend on the musician’s preferences and budget. In summary, the evolution of piano key materials has been a significant aspect of the music industry for centuries.

Initially, pianos had wooden keys, but over time, ivory, ebony, and plastic became more popular. While ivory keys remain a traditional choice due to their unique texture and feel, obtaining replacement keys can be difficult.

Hence, alternative solutions such as replacing the entire keyboard or using a different-looking ivory key are worth considering. Ultimately, the choice between plastic and ivory keys comes down to the musician’s preferences and budget.

Whether traditional or modern, the piano’s enduring popularity and versatility make it a crucial element in the music world.

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