I’m not sure exactly which department this topic should go in, but I’ve added ‘Software/MIDI’ as the advent of these two things has made the possibility of using alternative keyboard layouts very much a practical proposition. I’ve been experimenting with these and come up with some relatively low-cost ways of trying them out.
The purpose of this post is to explain what ‘alternative keyboard layouts’ are – as opposed to ‘alternative methods of controlling synths’ or ‘alternative methods of generating musical notes’, which I deal with elsewhere in the blog. Although there’s undoubtedly an overlap between these things, I’d like to talk here about some specific proposals that have been made over the years to improve the traditional piano/organ keyboard – certainly appealing to those who are non-players of the instruments, but also with a specific appeal to trained keyboard players and those with a keen interest in music theory.
I’ll get into the music theory aspect, insofar as I understand it myself, later; and follow-up posts here will describe the different ways I’ve tried putting alternative keyboard layout ideas into practice.
To begin at the beginning, the conventional piano keyboard, with its line of large white keys interrupted by thin black keys, although a familiar and iconic design, isn’t necessarily the easiest way to play or learn to play music: you have to hold your arms at an odd, straight-on angle to the keyboard; it’s a long stretch from one note to the next octave up or down; you have to move your hands to different positions to play chords in different keys, and so on. Ultimately we might also consider how difficult it makes things if you want to play music using divisions of the musical scale which are different from the 12-note one we in the West are used to.
It was a long time ago, certainly as early as the 19th century, when people began to think of replacing the one-dimensional line of keys found on pianos and organs with a two-dimensional bank of keys, like the bank of keys on a typewriter (or this computer keyboard I’m using now).
It was quickly realised that there would be more than one advantage to this arrangement: notes could be repeated in several places on different rows, allowing the player to find the easiest way to play a particular passage (players of stringed instruments are used to this and wouldn’t want to be without it!); notes which are far apart on the conventional keyboard could be placed closer together, enabling even those with small hands to play chords or melodic passages with large intervals; and, most importantly of all, the keys could be distributed in such a way that the pattern of a particular chord would be exactly the same, no matter which key it was played in, and the pattern of a melodic passage would be the same, no matter which note it started on.
It is this latter feature which leads to the name often given as a description of this type of keyboard – ‘isomorphic’. Well-known isomorphic keyboard layouts were invented by Paul von Jankó and Kaspar Wicki in the 19th Century, and in the 20th Century, Brian Hayden independently developed a system similar to Wicki’s, which one often sees described as the Wicki-Hayden system.
This is a picture of a piano with a Janko keyboard layout. As you can see, there are still white notes and black notes, but not in the same pattern as on a conventional piano, and there are 6 rows of keys:
[Photograph of piano with Janko keyboard at the Musikinstrumenten-Museum, Berlin by Morn the Gorn (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons’ http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMIM_Janko_Piano.jpg]
This diagram of the Wicki-Hayden layout shows how the notes are placed in relation to one another. The keys themselves may be buttons, as they are on a concertina or accordion (Brian Hayden was a concertina player), but the hexagonal pattern used here emphasizes the importance of diagonal relationships between the notes, and relates to the method often used in modern electronic instruments of using hexagonal keys set out in exactly this way.
[Diagram of the Wicki-Hayden note layout used on some button accordions and some isomorphic button-field MIDI instruments by Waltztime (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWicki-Hayden-Musical-Note-Layout.png‘]
You can read about the Janko, the Wicki-Hayden, and a number of other isomorphic keyboard systems in the Wikipedia at:
Each of these pages contains numerous links to external sites, if you’d like to know more. I’ll be dealing with some of the issues that follow on from this, such as microtonality (as mentioned above, these two-dimensional layouts also lend themselves more readily to musical scales of more or less than 12 notes) and dynamic tonality in future posts.
You should also check out this site: www.altkeyboards.com/ which is also the home of the program MIDI Integrator, which I have used, and an interesting modern-day electronic instrument using an isometric keyboard (two, in fact) called the Jammer.
The Jammer, in turn, is a development along similar lines of an instrument called the Thummer – which almost reached the point of commercial production – and uses a keyboard called the AxiS-49, which is commercially available (from C-Thru Music at www.c-thru-music.com/cgi/?page=home). A larger version of this keyboard, the AxiS-64 is also produced:
All of these instruments these days are MIDI controllers, and YouTube is probably the best place to see them in action. This lengthy introduction to the AxiS-64 also serves as an illustration of many of the reasons why isomorphic keyboards were invented: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7OeRkXWTtQ. You can also see the Thummer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GtzA2UHOr-A and the Jammer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLN4CAl6p7A.
There are hundreds more videos of these instruments and others, including a nice-looking Japanese synth called the Chromatone, which appears to be completely self-contained: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=in9_ojEnfO0.
The next post in this department will be on methods of creating simple isomorphic keyboards, and the hardware and software I’ve used to create mine.