“The major, fundamental drawback of the keyboard still consists in its irregular and illogical layout,” wrote one critic a few decades ago. If we could start from scratch, he continued, “it would doubtless be possible to design a more convenient keyboard than the one we now possess.” But, alas, “the art is too old for such an alteration. It is hardly likely that we shall accept a new system, however convenient it may be for the fingers.”
It’s not too difficult to find someone dissatisfied with the keyboard layout. More recently, a blogger summarized it well: “The traditional keyboard is exactly the sort of mess that you end up with when you extend an interface far past what is was originally meant to do.”
People have tried to redesign the keyboard for as long as keyboards existed. Dozens of ideas were thrown around as drawings and patents. Some inventors followed up by creating prototypes of those, and – perhaps naturally – got really good at using them.
And it’s such wonder to watch someone who mastered an unusual keyboard.
It’s funny how similar the two universes are. We know that pianists only started using ten fingers after Bach, the same way touch typing was invented decades after first typewriters. We also know the piano keyboard descended from harpsichords and organs, but if the origin story of 150-year-old QWERTY is half lost to time, imagine trying to figure out one that possibly witnessed the other millennium.
Clavichord, virginal, and clavicytherium – the predecessors of the piano
No one knows how exactly the piano keyboard came to be, but its problems are apparent: the keyboard is hard to understand, asymmetric, internally inconsistent, and the fingers stretches can be long enough to be inaccessible to some, and tiring to all the rest.
A redesign felt in order, and stakes high: piano keyboards are harder to master than typewriters, since they have to be chorded and played in “real time.” (No one ever imagined a thousand monkeys next to thousand pianos.) “Imagine all the new musicians and new music, waiting in the wings for centuries to emerge, once an optimal and practical uniform keyboard piano becomes widely available,” hoped one person. Another added dreamed of “entirely new music (…) containing chords, runs and arpeggios utterly impossible to execute on the ordinary keyboard.”
And so, throughout the centuries, there have been many attempts: The first recorded attempt dates to around 1650; the last one failed on Kickstarter just two years ago.
From top left: Tonal Plexus, Chromatone, Dodeka, Fokker Organ, and Bilinear Chromatic
They all failed, of course. The new musicians and new music never materialized. The reasons are as murky and complex as with QWERTY. Some people suggested it was a conspiracy of piano teachers; others that many projects were perhaps too ambitious – redesigning not just the piano, but the entire musical notation, or even the tuning (akin perhaps to a typewriter with a new keyboard that’d also propose a new alphabet).
Also, it’s always been hard to build prototypes and – in the pre-radio and pre-internet days – to travel with them. Many inventors, just like Dvorak, were also perhaps not the best marketers, believing that the abstract supremacy of their layout should be enough for the market to embrace it. And, in recent years, there have also simply been fewer piano players, just as there have been fewer professional typists.
Despite chances to reboot – many assumed synthesizers will undo the damage, just like we hoped to finally ditch QWERTY when an entire generation sat down to first computers – we still use the same piano keyboard. Mirroring typing, the only room for innovation is size, materials, and software. The layout might as well have been cast in stone.
The stylophone, harkening back to last newsletter’s Royal Digital, and a modern OP-1
I’m rewriting, shortening, and getting rid of the boring parts. So far, I’ve already removed the length of a small book, but I am still a bit away from my internal goal. Please keep your fingers crossed!
I occasionally play my piano keyboard, but today I decided to turn it into a typing one. It wasn’t hard at all – even your browser can speak MIDI – and the most fun was thinking how to distribute all the characters…
…and how to use properties typing keyboards don’t have. The piano understands velocity, so what if you could type in lowercase with a softer touch, and in bold by slamming on the keys?
It also lends itself to chording, so what if you could combine a and e to output æ – or add accents by using the other hand?
It wasn’t a professional endeavour and I didn’t master my invention at all. (Here’s the source code, if you want to.) But I spent enough time on it to know it was a bad idea: just typing in this paragraph has been a small nightmare.
Fortunately, people before me thought just as well. Fortunately, because many early typewriters and telegraphs were actually equipped with piano-like keyboards, and even named “literary piano” or “writing harpsichord.”
From top left: 1857 Francis Literary Piano, 1855 Cembalo Scrivano, 1840s transmitting keyboard, 1907 stock exchange printing telegraph
The last photo happens to be an early model of the typewriter that ended up being the typewriter. Its later incarnation, however, moved on to button-like keyboards not unlike… accordions.
The funny thing? Accordions themselves were inspired by the redesigned “balanced” keyboard that happened to go nowhere on the piano. So, after all that, it should be no surprise that:
A “manual” means a keyboard operated by hand. Many accordions have two manuals, one for each hand
There were keyboard add-ons to turn your computer into a piano, typewriters that played music (“all you have to know is how to type”), and at least one band that performs using regular typewriters:
Typatune, The Incredible Musical Keyboard, and a modern MacBook overlay (that one’s a joke)
There were also typewriters that could write music, beautiful in their own right:
Keaton Music Typewriter and Nototyp
And synthesizers that allowed you to write, and joint piano-typewriter keyboards, and of course at least one guy showing off doing both:
Above: Prodikeys and Kawai SX-240
Not to mention a duo of pianists-comedians who invented piano keyboard shortcuts in a hilarious performance:
There were also tiny pocket synthesizers that doubled as the only other thing that occupied your pocket then: calculators. But also Archifoon – an instrument with 333 typing-like keys, allowing to produce more sounds than any other piano, and put an end to “two-century hegemony of 12-tone equal temperament over Western music”:
But you can still find one corner of the world where none of this matters. It’s the Italian senate, whose stenotypists use a keyboard called Michela. They write via chording with all ten fingers. In that sense Michela is similar to other stenotyping keyboards, but at 156 years it predates not only all of them, but also… the QWERTY keyboard itself.
Antonio Michela Zucco and his creation
Just like QWERTY, Michela was originally inspired by a piano, but here’s the crucial difference: in 139 years of continuous use, it never changed. The roll of paper was replaced by a sliver of an LCD screen, and then by a computer, but the keyboard remained the same. So much so, that in recent years Michela keyboards became simply repurposed MIDI pianos with specialized software, and even… artificial intelligence.
Michela’s evolution in the 20th century
And so, somewhere in Palazzo Madama, there exists a room where one could pretend nobody ever invented an accordion or a typewriter, and where each keyboard key is a simple oblong slab, painted in black or white, unchanged from centuries ago.
And it’s such wonder to watch someone who mastered it.