Interface design considerations in musical keyboards

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Introduction Ergonomics in Keyboard Instruments

"Technology has always been inseparable from the development of music. But in the 20th century a rapid acceleration took place: a new "machine music" came into existence, electronic musical instruments developed and composers often turned into sound researchers" (Braun, Ed. Braun, 2002, p.9). Technology, or specifically electricity has a great impact on evolution of music; and this led to fevered debates in literature. "Textbooks on twentieth century music delineate Futurism as the "first clear manifestation" of "a major and enduring concern" for the relationship between new music and modern technology" (Bijsterveld, Ed. Braun, 2002, p.123). With the leadership of Theodore Adorno, Walter Benjamin, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and others there is a serious amount of theories and critiques on this subject. Also researchers and academics including Hans-Joachim Braun, Trevor Pinch, Frank Trocco, Thom Holmes, Aden Evens and many others write on music and technology. However, there is almost no reference to interface of instruments and music machines, although it is of great importance in terms of capability and productivity of an electronic instrument.

Many of the features will be familiar to the Hammond Keyboard Player, "real" drawbars, "Waterfall" keys, on board twin rotor digital "Leslie" plus a host of other features essential to any self respecting Hammond owner.

"Music and technology have gone together for the last 20.000 years. Building a drum is an act of technology" (Schmidth, 2000, Ed. Shapino, p.36). Similarly it can be argued that when Bartolomeo Cristofori designed the first piano, that instrument represented the level of technology of 18th century. Also the first known organ, Hydraulis, (Hindley, Ed. Braun, 2002, p.36) in which the air that produces the sound is pushed by water from a natural source, is a proof of the technology standard of 3rd century BC.

Parallel to the technological developments in the 20th century, music instruments have had swift improvements and influential overnight design decisions since the invention of the electricity. Through decades important improvements have occurred in instrument production technology. Especially improvements in electronic keyboard interfaces in 20th century gave powerful tools to the musician. Capability of mimicking other instruments enabled the keyboard player to sound like other instruments from violin to guitar. Automated accompaniment enabled even a novice musician sound like a professional.

However, musicians generally think very traditionally about their instruments; they are accustomed to see some influence on their instruments from the history as the evidence of quality. In addition, mastering on an instrument requires a lot of work and exercise. These can be advocated to be the main reason why the evolution does not happen on the main playing principles. Instead evolution happens as added value to the instrument in a very novel way. A good example can be the evolution of electric guitar. Acoustic guitar sound was attempted to be amplified because it was too low at times, if played in a jazz band. By means of electricity guitar sound was amplified but electric guitar (especially ones) was imposed a lot from its acoustic predecessor in terns of shape and general playing principles. Likewise, electric keyboards take a lot from piano and organ, evolution happens in the interface which is used to shape the sound.

Basics of Interface Design

One may argue that almost all musical instruments do not represent any sign that they are "designed" for people. For instance the violin; its playing posture is really challenging and the performer cannot see the whole keyboard. Also it does not permit the bow to touch three strings simultaneously which limits harmonic capabilities of this instrument. However, the reason for that is acoustic requirements and nature of the materials which results in a brighter and louder sound.

Electric organs and pianos are deeply influenced by the universal layout of mechanical keyboard instruments. To an extent, it is quite logical that they resemble the characteristics of their acoustic ancestors. However it might be claimed that they should not mimic their predecessors any more. Electric instruments can be shaped and designed without many constrains of materials and timbre requirements; they should be designed for people in mind. There is a lot to do when the interaction between the instrument and performer is considered. Almost all electronic keyboards in the market are poorly designed; their interface does not have much intention to make the performance smoother and easier. Firstly they don't have any order for buttons' placement. There is only a tendency to place some specific buttons and knobs like pitch bend and modulation which are often placed on the left hand side.

Ergonomics Evolution in the Form

When Bartolomeo Cristofori designed the first piano, he had ideas highly influenced by the Clavichord and Harpsichord. Instead of plucking the strings he came up with the idea of beating the string with hammers. "The present form and the function of the piano is a result of a very long and complicated evolution. Taking into consideration the actual acoustical characteristics of the instrument, it seems that the greater number of the components that have to do with the generation, amplification, and radiation of the sound are seen in the light of dynamics and quality" (Poucke, Ed. Palmieri, 2003, p.10).

Keyboard instruments are results of a very long evolutionary period and they have influences from string instruments such as Dulcimer. Ergonomics of Clavichord and Harpsichord has some common points; their keyboard ergonomics are more or less the same. This is mainly because of the traditional data accumulation and level of technology of their time. The production is excessively dictated and directed by the nature of the material and strings. Emanuel Winternitz in his book, Musical Instruments of the Western World (1966) argues that one cannot change any measure or angle in any instrument without affecting the balance of the whole. Also he refers the thickness of the walls and curvature of the body as parts that give the characteristics of an instrument. If we consider that the harpsichord has very complicated pluck mechanisms, with the level of technology available in its time, its designer had to work in a very confined level of imagination. However, as the technology improves, new alternatives have always been proposed in order to have more sophisticated ergonomics or a better timbre. "Progress, that is actually improvement, exists only in the realm of technology, where better solutions for certain mechanical problems are found through the inventions of practical devices, that solve mechanical problems better than had been done before" (Winternitz, 1966, p.21).

In the history of keyboard instruments the straight keyboard is not the only keyboard, there are alternative keyboard systems, but very few. They are products of the demand to a more ergonomic keyboard layout. They are Concave Keyboard and Jankó Keyboard (designer Paul von Jankó).

Concave Keyboard

In the history several attempts to change the straight layout of the keys can be found. They stem from the basic idea that "the arms and hands could move more naturally over a concave keyboard" (Good, Ed. Palmieri, 2003, p.204). Although these concave keyboards never found wide interest, they can be claimed to have been more ergonomic in comparison to straight keyboards as they fulfil the natural shape of human body. Besides, different producers through time came up with similar solutions. The first example, however being uncertain, is thought to be about 1824; in those years Johann Georg Staufer and Max Haidinger in Vienna applied the concave idea to their pianos. "Similar ideas can be found in the work of Wolfel in Paris in the middle of the nineteenth century, and in an 1881 German patent by Gustav Neuhaus" (Good, Ed. Palmieri, 2003, p.204). In 1907 Ferdinand Clutsam patented the same idea in Germany.

In the design research process, carried on as a supplementary part to this thesis, concave keyboards' ergonomics, possibilities and advantages-disadvantages were investigated, resulting in an arc-shape design proposal. In the process, natural movement of hands and arms were measured. According to the data acquired in this research, besides being independent of height of the person, the radius of our arms when s/he moves their arms tends to be closer to 70 cm as an average value. This can be seen in more detail in the figure.

In 14 cases, height and shoulder length of the person was recorded. Movement of the arms was captured from the top. Different positions were placed and then these compilations were scaled in CAD software. As a result it became possible to measure the length of the radius of arc. In the graph, details of these 14 cases are shown.

As can be seen in the graph, although there is a tendency to increase in the length of the radius with respect to height, there are some exceptions that keep us from generalisations.

Jankó Keyboard

"If I were to begin my career anew it would be on this keyboard."

Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982)

Paul von Jankó designed a different layout for piano in 1882. His main argument was that human hand can very hardly stretch more than 9th key on the piano (Good, Ed. Palmieri, 2003). He designed a keyboard which had two interlocking manuals and each key lever had three touch points. Jankó Keyboard was very advantageous in pieces whose melody is based on wide tones because he could manage to shorten an octave on the keyboard to a 6-key width.


From pipe church organ to commercial digital organs a great progress has been achieved; especially roll-up digital organs (for amateurs or children especially) are incomparable in terms of size. However, key dimensions haven't changed a lot. Traditionally keys for accidentals are about 5 cm shorter than naturals and in contrast colour. Almost all keyboards in the history have had white colour for naturals and dark for accidentals, "whereas German and Australian makers used the opposite, wood stained black naturals and white (usually ivory) for accidentals" until the beginning of the nineteenth century (Good, Ed. Palmieri, 2003, p.203). This is mostly because manufacturers prefer to build digital instruments which are similar to their acoustic predecessors in terms of dimensions. Only change in the key systems is the colour of naturals and accidentals.

However, manufacturers don't avoid dividing or combining manuals; different church organs may have multi-manual keyboards in varying numbers. Similarly some experimental pianos have existed that incorporates different keyboards which are located at different heights. "From 1922 to 1923 Emanuel Moor produced two-manual pianos of his own design, with one set of strings, the upper manual playing an octave above the lower" for instance (Good, Ed. Palmieri, 2003, p.205).

It is obvious that the player will be bound to play keyboards of different heights on a multi-manual instrument, which, in terms of ergonomics, may lead to difficulties in reach and accuracy. Martin Halender argues that reference points of our body may vary according to the type of anthropometric design. HARP (Hand Reference Point) can be advocated for jobs that are executed by hands. "For heavy manual jobs, the hands should preferably be about 20 below elbow height, but for precision tasks with supported underarms, the hands should be about 5 cm above elbow height" (Halender, 2006, p.156). Pianists try to position their arms parallel to the keyboard and this is possible if their elbow and hand height is the same as the height of the manual. Considering multi-manuals, this seems to be impossible as manuals have different heights. In other words multi-keyboard instruments may cause ergonomic problems for the performer.

Sitting Position

One of the basic rules of playing the piano is the performer has a seat so that his or her elbows come to the same height with the manual.

Unlike piano or organ, keyboards are played stood up generally.

Hand Movements


Flexibility is generally thought to be relevant to location of buttons and knobs and it is defined with respect to body ergonomics and movement. Also flexibility of the system and program of the keyboard should be examined.

Front mounted controls were tried by Korg 700. However, it was very naive; those buttons and knobs look impossible to use because the vertical surface is not in the view range of the player.


Besides being relevant to flexibility, Usability is rather related to cognetics. Interface understandability, grouping of buttons, readability of text and screen is key terms in understanding usability.

Visual Elements

Error and Fail in Interaction

Error and fail in interaction consists of fails caused by depressing buttons and fails caused by choosing wrong commends. Since instruments are used in live concerts, a fail's outcomes can be more than anticipated.




Evaluating visual aspects in keyboards is different from evaluating design products. Understanding of beauty in the shape and colour can depend on different factors.

Hammond XH-200 can be unappealing for most, but it is a legend in digital instruments. Famous musicians who use this instrument can contribute to its attractiveness.

Electric, electronic and digital instrument manufacturers deeply concerns with producing instruments which gives the same satisfaction with their acoustic counterparts. In order to achieve, they mimic physical characteristics of acoustic instruments to electronic instruments such as hammer sound in pianos.


Electric piano tries to imitate characteristics of acoustic piano such as sound of the hammer, because this sound of hammer gives pleasure to the player. In acoustic pianos when the hammer hits the string, beside the vibration of the string (which is called timbre) another sound is produced which is hardly audible: the hammer sound. Although it gives the impression that it is not a deserved sound, when electric piano was first introduced, musicians and the listener were willing to hear conventional characteristics of acoustic piano, including the sound of the hammer.