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Are Piano Keys Made of Ivory? – Lyric Say

Have you ever ever questioned the place the phrase “tickling the ivories” comes from? Is it only a colloquialism, or is it meant actually? Is making piano keys out of ivory authorized? And is ivory the popular materials for piano-builders at present? If not, why not?

At this time, we’re answering questions on ivory piano keys that each piano participant ought to know.

What’s ivory?

Ivory tusks

Ivory tusks

First issues first: what precisely is ivory?

Ivory is an animal product that comes from mammals’ enamel or tusks, most frequently elephant tusks.

Ivory is made up of a bony tissue referred to as dentine and lined with enamel that makes the tusks extraordinarily onerous.

Elephants depend on tusks to work together with the world round them. Tusks assist them to govern objects, battle different animals, and defend their trunks. They’re essential to an elephant’s potential to outlive within the wild.

Elephant tusks are embedded of their skulls. The one practicable strategy to harvest ivory from an elephant tusk is to kill the animal and take away it.

How did ivory come into vogue in piano constructing?

When the piano was first invented, its keys had been made completely of wooden.

Ultimately, because the instrument developed and have become extra fashionable, and as repertoire turned extra demanding, pianists started pondering the suitability of different supplies.

Across the identical time, in 1799, a Connecticut silversmith and inventor named Phineas Pratt patented a machine that automated the method of reducing enamel into ivory combs.

This expertise superior rapidly, enabling factories to make every kind of issues out of ivory, together with piano keys. Ivory-topped piano keys seemed higher than utterly picket ones and had been way more sturdy.

Ships would arrive in Connecticut with the tusks of elephants that had been slaughtered in Africa. American corporations then carve them into skinny wafers and bleach them within the solar earlier than sending them to piano producers.

An organization named Comstock, Cheney & Co. constructed a whole firm city in Connecticut for its employees! Not surprisingly, they named it Ivoryton.

Aren’t there ethical objections to the ivory commerce?

Ivory tusks

In fact, the obvious tragedy of the ivory commerce is that it requires the slaughter of elephants.

Elephants will not be solely magnificent creatures; they’re additionally vitally necessary to the biodiversity of the areas wherein they reside.

They use their tusks to dig for water throughout dry seasons, which makes water obtainable to different smaller and bodily weaker species. In addition they distribute seeds of their dung, guaranteeing the well being of ecosystems. Killing elephants imbalances these important pure processes.

Nevertheless, elephants aren’t the one victims; the ivory commerce additionally had an unimaginable human price, as nicely.

Forces employed by rich slavers would usually seize the folks of an African village, enslave them, and produce them to ports for transport to different elements of the world.

Throughout their tough, harmful journeys to the ports, many individuals had been compelled to hold extraordinarily heavy tusks. Many individuals died through the journey.

Ivory’s Historic Connection to the Slave Commerce | Nationwide Geographic

So why was ivory used for piano keys?

Regardless of its grisly origins, ivory was nonetheless extraordinarily interesting to piano-builders and gamers. It was aesthetically pleasing, as talked about above, and extra sturdy than wooden alone.

As well as, many pianists appreciated the keys’ distinctive texture. In case your fingers are sweating, ivory keys will help maintain your fingers from slipping.

That stated, the fabric has its downsides, too. Ivory is porous, which ends up in discoloration and signifies that ivory keys will want extra frequent cleanings.

Ivory keys are additionally vulnerable to cracking and different injury.

Do piano makers nonetheless use ivory at present?

No. Recognizing ivory’s downsides, piano producers started experimenting with plastic keytops within the Fifties.

Later, in 1975, Asian elephants had been positioned on an endangered species checklist, resulting in the ban of the worldwide commerce of their ivory. In 1989 the commerce of ivory originating with African elephants was additionally banned.

After the primary ivory ban within the Nineteen Seventies, all piano producers started utilizing plastic for keytops as an alternative of ivory.

It wasn’t an incredible loss. Plastic keys have noteworthy benefits over ivory ones: they’re very sturdy, they received’t yellow, they arrive in precisely uniform sizes, they usually’re simpler to scrub.

Are any piano producers making an attempt to mimic ivory?

ivory keys

Ivory keys

Sure! The Yamaha piano firm has experimented with a form of plastic that mimics ivory by together with some mineral parts. Yamaha calls this materials “ivorite.”

(Kawaii has additionally experimented with utilizing comparable substances.)

The jury’s nonetheless out as as to whether these are objectively higher than different keys. In the long run, it actually comes down to private choice.

How can I inform if my piano’s keys are ivory or plastic?

Step one can be to guage the 12 months of the piano. If you already know, as an example, that it’s 100 years outdated, and that the keys haven’t been changed, then they’re possible ivory.

For those who don’t have the faintest thought concerning the piano’s date of creation, take an in depth have a look at the keys. Molded plastic keys are available in one half. Ivory keys, nevertheless, usually have a tiny however noticeable seam. You will discover the seam by stroking a finger down a black key towards you till you hit the white key. Now look to the facet of your finger; that’s the place an ivory key seam may be. (Sadly, this take a look at isn’t foolproof, as a result of some high-end ivory keys had been additionally manufactured in a single half, however it’s at the least a begin.)

It’s also possible to search for a fingerprint-like texture on the keys and assess their yellowness. Ivory, being a pure materials, shall be extra vulnerable to these traits.

After taking all of this stuff into consideration, hopefully you’ll be capable to inform what you’ve got. Right here’s extra info:

Are ivory keys value something?

Quick reply: they’re value nothing as a result of ivory can’t be offered.

Longer reply from an knowledgeable:


Regardless of the omnipotence of ivory keys in nineteenth-century piano constructing, humanity has determined that no new piano wants ivory keys. At this time we’re fortunate to have stable options.

That stated, many individuals are additionally involved about using plastics in piano constructing from a sustainability perspective…however that’s a dialogue matter for an additional day!

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