Piano keyboards have not always been the size they are today; between 1784 and 1876, they were smaller than today. Sakai (2008) has documented the variations in keyboard span of various keyboard instruments dating back to 1559. These range from 180 mm for the clavichord to 188 mm (measured across eight keys) for the modern piano keyboard. Much of the best known piano repertoire was written between 1750 and 1850 at a time when the keyboard was smaller (including narrower keys) and repertoire rarely contained intervals than an octave.
In the nineteenth century, European composers such as Liszt had strong links with the major manufacturers who organised tours for these composers/virtuosos in order to market their products. They even built and managed concert halls. For example, Anton Rubinstein and Paderewski both toured the US for Steinway in the late 1800s.
Piano playing was seen as highly desirable accomplishment for middle and upper class women (like cooking and sewing). For them, the piano was an integral part of domestic activity, including the courting ritual. There was a clear distinction between amateurs (mostly women) who performed in the home and public performers (mostly men). In the 1800s, separate competitions were held for men and women in the Paris Conservatoire – women were expected to be dignified, feminine and graceful, and were warned by Karl Czerny and others not to play certain types of repertoire. Direct comparisons with men were not welcomed. A Czech company did market a smaller keyboard for ‘ladies’.
The current keyboard size dates back to about 1880, not long after the time when Liszt and others were actively involved with manufacturers. Notable exceptions since then include a smaller keyboard (with narrower keys) specially made by Steinway & Sons for Josef Hofmann early last century. Written evidence provided by Steinway Hamburg to Prof Dr Christoph Wagner (founder and director of the Hanover Institute of Music Physiology, 1974-1993) in 1986 states that the Hofmann keyboard was 3.5 cm narrower than normal. This means an octave width of 16 cm (6.3 inches), 0.5 cm less than normal. Copies of this original letter (in German) and and English translation are available here: http://smallpianokeyboards.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Steinway-letter-to-ChWagner_Hofmann-keyboard_1986_original.pdf and: http://smallpianokeyboards.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Steinway_Wagner_Hofmann-keyboard_1986_engl2017.pdf. For further comments about these keyboards in relation to Hofmann’s hand span, go to: http://paskpiano.org/keyboard-history/
Other changes during the 19th and 20th centuries include the use of cast iron frames which led to an increase in string tension resulting in heavier and deeper action, the lengths of keys, the height of blacks over whites, and the vertical dip of the black and white keys. As the piano evolved, the need for standardisation increased as pianists (professional and amateur) started to travel outside their own communities, hence the ‘one size fits all’ approach that has prevailed over the last century.
‘The size of the piano also affected boys and girls differently. In the eighteenth century the piano had been no bigger than a harpsichord and often smaller. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, though – with pedals appearing at floor level, the keyboard expanding in both directions, and passages in octaves appearing regularly in the newest repertory – the piano suddenly became, for children who learned it, a daunting daily reminder of how far they had to go to measure up in the adult world. Children grow at different rates, and some grow into the piano earlier than others, but many more girls than boys have felt they would never have the instrument – or the part of the repertory created by big-handed men – within their reach. Since the instrument itself has been unyielding in size, the pianist’s seat has been the principal means of helping children, or players of different sizes generally, adapt to it.’ ….Parakilas et al., 1999, Piano Roles, p.151.
Dr Ralph Manchester has summarised the problem of the ‘one size fits all’ approach:
‘Musical instrument design has evolved over time, and that is part of the problem we now face. In most cases, the designers of those instruments were men (rather than women) who lived and worked a few decades to a few centuries ago, mainly in Europe. They were likely to design instruments that they could use and that would be favored by the majority of musicians back then, who were mostly male. Today, musicians comprise a more diverse group with far more women, relatively few persons of European descent, and more persons with various physical disabilities. Nonetheless, we still play instruments that were designed for a fairly homogenous group of performers.’ (Editorial, MPPA, Dec 2006.)
Since 1880, there has been an enormous increase in women undertaking tertiary level training with the aim of pursuing performing careers, as well as a dramatic growth in the number of piano students of Asian ethnicity. Women have hands approximately 15% smaller than men, and Asians have smaller hands than Caucasians. In addition, 20th century piano repertoire often requires larger hand spans than repertoire composed during the 17th to 19th century. (n American