How Key Diagrams Work

This page shows how the key diagrams are visually linked to the keys of the keyboard - the basis for this simplified notation. 

Diagram of a piano keyboard with octave groups colored the colors of the rainbow.

The full piano keyboard of 88 keys is illustrated above. We have added the colors and numbers, which will be explained as we go along. Smaller keyboards are arranged the same way but don't have as many keys at either end of the keyboard. On most smaller keyboards, you will find the GREEN octave group at the middle of the keyboard.

We begin piano lessons by examining KEYBOARDS before we discuss notes for a very good reason. The notes are designed to show you where to put your fingers on the keyboard by means of the visual patterns and colors of the keyboard. So you need to know about how the keyboard is arranged before the notes will make any sense to you. The notes show you where to put your fingers on the keyboard by means of these colors and patterns. 

As you see (and feel) these patterns and colors on the keyboard, you will also be able to see them in the sheet music keyboard diagrams that you play from. To play from these diagrams, you simply match the patterns that you see in the music with the patterns of the keys on your keyboard. So, what are these patterns?

1 - The Alternating Patterns of 2 and 3 Black Keys

Colored keyboard diagram showing the alternating patterns.

Within each group of 2 black keys or each group of 3 black keys there is always a single white key separating the black keys.  But between each group of 2 or 3 black keys you will always find two white keys. Except for the single black key at the far left of the keyboard, this alternating pattern runs across the entire keyboard. The look and feel of these black keys is at the heart of your ability to identify each of the 88 keys on the keyboard. In fact, each vertical line on the musical staff of a keyboard diagram stands for one of these black keys. The musical staff of a key map for any song or other piece of music is made up of vertical lines, with each line standing for a black key. This is illustrated on the key maps below, which are played in the Green Octave Group 4 in the middle of the keyboard. The notes for the white keys are in the spaces between the lines, and the notes for the black keys are placed on the lines. (Click diagrams to enlarge. Use back arrow to return.) 

Key maps with vertical lines corresponding
 to the black keys of the keyboard.
Note: The key maps shown above, which you will learn more about in Series 2, show patterns similar to those in the key diagrams that we are discussing.

2 - The Octave Group Patterns
The octave group patterns provide you with your primary orientation to the keyboard. There are 7 identical 12-key octave groups on the piano. The groups are numbered from 1 thru 7 for reference. Each "octave group" is colored a different color of the rainbow on our keyboard diagrams: violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. The illustration above shows the green octave group key map for the beginning of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. The photo below shows a piano keyboard with labels clearly showing the separate identical octave groups with their colors that match the colors on the keyboard diagrams.
Photo of a piano keyboard with colored labels identifying the 7 octave groups.

3 - Visual Patterns in the Octave Group Labels
You will be placing Octave Group labels on your keyboard to help yourself connect the patterns of notes on the sheet music with the patterns of keys on the keyboard. The great thing about the octave group patterns on the keyboard is the fact that each is a complete little piano in itself. On the keyboard, these patterns are identical to look at and play. The cards placed between the octave groups in the video below give visual emphasis to the concept that this grand piano is made up of seven identical little pianos packed next to each other in a single case. (By the way, the cards are just for illustration and come off before you play. The group labels remain on the keyboard for as long as you want them there. They're not in the way when you are playing.)

Octave Groups With Cards.mp4

In a limited, but very real sense, you have to learn how to play only one of these little pianos, because all of them are identical and work in exactly the same way. So, take heart, the piano keyboard really isn't the big 88 key monster that it appears to be. And, remember, the musical notes that you play from key maps are the same for all 7 little pianos. There are only 12 notes to learn - one for each key in the octave group. Only the background colors differ so that you know which octave group to play in. (You may be aware that in traditional notation, there is a different note to learn for every one of the 88 keys on the keyboard - and there are 2 or more notes for each of these 88 keys!)

4 - Sound Patterns of the Octave Groups
Although all of the octave groups look the same, there must be some difference. And indeed there is. The sounds of a keyboard go from low sounds at the left end to the highest sounds at the right end of the keyboard. Try to remember that the lowest sound is at the left end of the keyboard and the highest sound is at the right end. Every one of the 87 keys to the right of the lowest one is just a little bit higher than the one next to it on the left. The sound space between any two keys next to each other is called a half-step, or semitone.

Knowing that the sounds gradually move up across the keyboard tells us that each octave group going from left to right must have a higher sound than the one to the left. So, though all octave groups look the same, no two of them have the same sounds. Each octave group is one octave in sound higher than the one on its left. The octave groups are named for this octave distance between them. Keys that match each other in two octave groups that are next to each other are one octave apart in musical distance. We can't define "octave" here in words mainly because you'd get bored with the explanation. (Google it if you like.) But you can know what an octave is just by playing octaves on the keyboard and listening. You can hear the difference between octaves in the following video. The beginning of Mary Had a Little Lamb is played in different octave groups in this video.

Mary in Different Octaves.mp4

Each octave group sounds an octave higher (or lower) than the one next to it. Putting them all together on the piano gives us the full range of the sounds of a symphony orchestra! The notes within each of these groups on our key diagrams are identical to the notes in each of the other octave groups, in the same way that the keys in different octave groups on the keyboard are identical. On the key diagrams you tell the groups apart by their colors. On the keyboard you tell the groups apart (at first) by noticing their colored labels.

5 - About the Octave Group Labels

These labels are a very important part of your learning to play the piano or other keyboard. You need to put them on your keyboard as soon as you can. As you can see from the above information, they help you relate the notes on your sheet music to the keys that you are to play on the keyboard. You connect to the keyboard through these labels. Eventually, you won't need the labels, and you can discard them. But you will probably find them useful for a very long time. Below is a picture of the label for the Indigo octave.

Photo of an unfolded indigo octave group label.

This label is shown in its original open position. The picture shows the label before its top is folded back and the label placed behind the black keys on the keyboard. The labels are cutouts from Unit PKD-10 of our Prep Keyboard Series. As you can see from the picture, there is a little flap at the bottom of the label that is folded upward. This flap keeps the label from moving sideways out of place. The blank top half of the label is folded back to double the thickness of the label before it is placed on the keyboard.

The label provides useful information in addition to its main purpose of identifying the octave groups. Each white key on the keyboard has the name of a musical sound, which is one of the first seven letters of the alphabet. When the label is in place on the keyboard, the letters on the label are located right above each key that is being named. To get these labels for your keyboard, you can download them as Unit PKD-10 from the link at the bottom of this page. They should printed in color on fairly heavy white paper. After printing, they should be carefully cut out, folded, and placed on the keyboard just behind the black keys. The labels are numbered from 1 through 7 and should be placed in that order beginning at the left end of the keyboard. Instructions are included on Page 2 of the PKD-10 unit.

Photo of the middle 3 octave groups with labels.

If you have a keyboard shorter than the 7 octave piano, you will not use all of the labels. If you have a 5 octave keyboard, you will omit labels 1 and 7. If you have any other configuration, just keep in mind that the green octave group will always be at or near the center of the keyboard.

6 - Octave Group Chart With Details
This chart of the octave group (from Unit PKD-15) provides more information about the patterns in an octave group and the names and addresses of the keys, which are essential for you to know as you begin to learn to play the keyboard.

Chart of an octave group with the parts labeled.

This chart summarizes and concludes what you mainly need to know about the octave groups on the keyboard. You need this information to be able to interpret easily and correctly the sheet music that you will be playing from - the key diagrams and maps.

The Names of the White Keys - The basic white key names are simply the first letters of the standard alphabet. They are sometimes referred to as the "musical alphabet." -- A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. (Most white keys actually have three names, but you won't be bothered with learning the other two names until you are advanced in your studies.) These same letter names are used in all of the 7 octave groups. You will want to learn to identify all 7 keys by name as soon as you can.

The Names of the Black Keys - The black key names are taken from the white keys next to them. There are two names for each black key. You won't need to learn these names until later. They are rarely used on key diagrams and maps.

The Addresses of the Black Keys - The keyboard diagrams use addresses instead of names to refer to the black keys. (This is much less confusing to beginners than the two derived names for each black key used in traditional notation.) 

The addresses refer to the locations of the keys, just as your own address refers to the location of your home. The 5 black keys of each octave are identified by their address locations beginning with the first black key at the left end of the octave group: 1. 2. 3. 4. and 5. The first black key at the left end of the octave group is 1. The rest of the addresses are applied to the other keys in order of their locations: 2, 3, 4, and 5 - as you can see on the chart. 

Keep in mind that the musical staff of the key diagrams is made up of vertical lines standing for these 5 black keys. The black keys are the anchors that define where all of the notes and keys are located! In fact, specific white keys can only be found by referring to the black keys next to them. Otherwise, all white keys look the same. (If you cover up the black keys on your keyboard, you won't be able to identify the white keys.)

The labeled octave group chart.

More Important Patterns - The Subgroups - As you can see on the chart, an octave group is made up of a low group and a high group. These patterns are very important when it comes to reading key diagrams. This subdivision of the octave groups focuses on a group of 5 keys centered on two black keys (the low sounding group) and a group of 7 keys centered on three black keys (the high sounding group). Recognizing these two subgroups is very helpful when reading key diagrams and maps because they help you immediately identify the keys on the keyboard that match the notes on the diagrams. This is how you know what keys to play when reading your sheet music!

Another Pattern to be Aware Of - The Goalposts - If you look closely at Key 4 on the diagram, you will see that it is labeled "Goalpost." This key can be a significant aid for beginning to find your way around on the keyboard. First, it is very easy to find because it is the only key of its kind in an octave group - it is the middle black key in a group of 3 black keys. Second, the goalposts define the locations of the musical alphabets on the keyboard. The goalposts are between keys G and A. Therefore there is an entire musical alphabet located between every pair of goalposts: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G.

PK-54 p8 - Mary Had a Little Lamb--Julia-1403.mp4

PC-80 p4 was PK-80 - Silent Night--Ben-1403.mp4

LSH-4 p11 Heavenly Sunshine and Frozen--Vika-1406.mp4

PG Sherman-Trust in Me--Valerie-1306.mp4

PK-65 p9 - Yankee Doodle--Alina-1402.mp4

LSC p7 - Bach-Gt Mus Themes-My Heart... Jason-1312.mp4

John Honeycutt,
Jun 25, 2015, 2:01 PM
John Honeycutt,
Jun 25, 2015, 2:01 PM