Robert Estrin - piano expert

Alternative Keyboards and Types of Notation

Discover different kinds of keyboards and musical notation

In this video, Robert talks about different types of keyboards and music notation, with interesting and often unknown insights taken from the historical evolution of the piano.

Released on July 26, 2017

Post a Comment   |   Video problems? Contact Us!
DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, this is Robert Robert Estrin with and Today, we're going to discuss alternative keyboards and alternative systems of notation. You probably never thought that there were alternatives. Are there? Well, there were. They still exist but are not very prevalent. Let's cover these one at a time. First of all, the piano keyboard is so ubiquitous that we've all grown up with it. It's been around, it seems like, what else could there be? Well, believe it or not, there was a different system, the Janko system, in the late 19th-century, that was purported to be better than the piano-keyboard as we know it. And indeed, if you take a look at the keyboard, it's oriented both vertically and horizontally. So, to get to higher octaves, you go up and down on the keyboard like, much like a typewriter has different rows. And the benefit to this, there is two-fold. First of all, you never have to leap so far like you do in list when you're going all over the place from top to bottom, because it's all right under your fingers.

Secondly, all your scales have the same fingering. So, you might wonder, "Why didn't this come to be?" Well, one theory is that the act of watching a performer like Franz Liszt or Anton Rubinstein, the great 19th-century pianist, was very exciting in no small part because of the physical feat they were doing, moving around and jumping from one end of the keyboard to the other. I hate to think that that's really the reason because if it's easier to play, why do we all break our necks trying to learn how to play this keyboard? But I think there probably are other reasons. For example, I can't imagine getting the same power out of the keyboard that you're just going up and down like that with your fingers because after all, you can use much more arm strength on the piano, especially leaping, you're bound to have a lot of strength when you're leaping back and forth.

So, I think the whole nature of how music evolved for the piano is in no small part because of the type of keyboard. Now, we have another aspect of an alternative system of notation. And there are a number, like lead sheet notation and the Nashville Number System and these are more or less shortcuts to notation when all the notes don't have to be written down in more of a jam situation. But there actually was a system of notation called Klavarskribo, I'm hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. And I've had people draw this to my attention on a couple of occasions. People new to reading music have found it very confusing that the notes are written up and down, vertically, on the staff and yet on the keyboard, they go horizontally...actually, quite the reverse.

So, that's the problem, the lines go this way on the staff and the keys go this way. Why don't you line them up? And that's exactly what this system of notation does. The lines go up and down that match with the keys on the piano. So, you think, "Boy, this would be a lot easier to learn." Well, the thing is you have to have a very deep respect for the system of notation we have. For example, with this system, if you have the lines going vertically instead of horizontally, how do you account for ledger lines? How do you cover all the notes? How many lines could you have?

So, there are some good reasons and not to mention the fact that you read from left to right. How would this work if the notes are going to left to right, and the reading is going to left to right. There'd be clusters that wouldn't be lined up with one another. So, the bottom line is this, we have certain systems in place, just like if you grew up learning one language your whole life and suddenly had to change, it would be difficult. But imagine a whole society. A good example, another analogy is the QWERTY keyboard we all type on on our computers which evolved from typewriters. Well, you know that there are certain letters that use all the time. They are all in the end like the "a" is way out there, and letters you don't use that much are right in the middle and...well, you know, they did design a much more ergonomic keyboard for typing that has the letters used most right in the middle and indeed people can type faster on it. But how do you change the world? We all grew up learning how to type on these keyboards. We've all learned how to play on these type of keyboards on the piano, and we all know how to read a certain type of notation.

So, even if one of these systems is better, how do you change? It's all but impossible to change the world. Well, the good news is that I can speak for the piano keyboard and musical notation. These are terrific systems that allow for almost anything a performer wants to write or play. So, if ain't broke, don't fix it. We all know how to use this anyway, I don't want have to learn a new notation system or a new system for playing the piano. So, I'm okay with tradition in this regard. Love to hear from any of you who have other experiences with either the Janko keyboard, the Klavarskribo system of notation or maybe others that I'm not aware of. Thanks so much, again, for joining me, Robert Estrin, here at and
Post a comment, question or special request:
You may: Login  or  
Otherwise, fill the form below to post your comment:
Add your name below:

Add your email below: (to receive replies, will not be displayed or shared)

For verification purposes, please enter the word MUSIC in the field below

Comments, Questions, Requests:

Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on July 27, 2017 @4:33 pm PST
The Janko system reminds me of the button for the left hand of the accordion. Very easy to use and even to play a simple melody. Great for small fingers! About the typewriter's keyboard, each Country has its own. I speak English, Italian, French and some German. I set up on my monitor all 4 keyboards, the little icon at the bottom right of the task bar, and I have no problem switching from one to the other according to the language I am typing. Initially I had to type and print out in big characters each one and keep it in front of me. Now I don't need that, my fingers know which key to type depending on which language I am using.
Ken Cory on July 26, 2017 @8:15 am PST
I "invented" an alternate keyboard, with adjacent notes forming a diminished seventh chord, and three banks of keys, each bank having a different diminished seventh chord. I then discovered that that's the exact keyboard layout for a button accordion! This keyboard also lets you play in any key without changing the fingering.
Chris L. * VSM MEMBER * on July 26, 2017 @6:34 am PST
great piece Robert, an aside years ago in Electronics school for the Navy I was told the QWERTY keyboard was designed to deliberately slow down the typing speed to minimize mechanical jamming of early keyboard devices. But as you mentioned not easy to change now. Thanks
Robert - host, on July 27, 2017 @1:05 pm PST
That is interesting information - thanks!
Questions? Problems? Contact Us.