Are pianos made of elephants? Well, the myth does have some truth to it. Elephants are massively beautiful creatures who have unfortunately been exploited horrifically over the years. The main reasons they have been exploited is for their incredible tusks, the source of ivory, which has been used to make everything from jewelry to chess pieces to piano keys.
Pianos: A Short History
Pianos have been around for approximately 300 years and were the instruments that succeeded the previously popular harpsichord. The sudden popularity of early pianos came from a pianist’s ability to control the volume of the keys, something that was impossible with the harpsichord. In their early days, the piano keys were made of wood, a plentiful and easily accessible material. Before long, styles changed and ivory became the favored material for keys because of its neat appearance, ability to withstand years of playing, and its rougher texture, which pianists preferred.
The piano was first made in 1700 by an Italian named Bartolomeo Christofori. Due to its ability to play sounds at various levels, its name comes from the Italian words for soft (piano) and loud (forte). Many of the innovations of the piano in the 18th century hold true today. In fact, it was during this era, and on those pianos, that the great virtuosos Beethoven and Haydn played.
During the 19th century, Steinway founded Steinway & Sons in New York City, which remained an American backbone for piano manufacturing, along with newcomers Baldwin and Yamaha.
It was in 1975 that international trade of Asian elephant tusks was banned, and in 1990, there was a global treaty enacted that banned all trading of ivory. However, piano manufacturers stopped using ivory for keyboards in the 1970s, which is when they began using plastic as a replacement.
What Are Piano Keys Made Of: Ivory vs. Plastic
If you are looking for an old style, acoustic piano, chances are you’ll come across some with keys made of ivory. Many pianists prefer ivory because it is a porous material that offers fingers more stability. On the other hand, it’s porousness makes it difficult to clean, leading to the reason the keyboards on older pianos tend to look yellow. Although some piano players complained that plastic keys were slippery, in general the material is cheaper, easy to handle and manufacture, and more durable. On the other hand, ivory was more fragile, leading to breaking and chipping more easily.
One very well-known singer and modern-day piano player, Billy Joel, says:
“I am a piano player. And I realize that ivory keys are preferred by some pianists…But a preference for ivory keys does not justify the slaughter of 96 elephants every day.”
How To Identify Ivory Keys
Sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between ivory and plastic keys, but there are some tell-tale signs, including the following:
- Each key is made up of 3 separate parts, and if you look closely, you can see faint lines where they come together.
- Each key has a unique pattern that distinguishes it from other keys.
- When you run a finger over ivory keys, you’ll notice that they do not feel smooth, like plastic keys.
- Ivory gets dirty (yellow) because it has very small holes that absorb dirt.
Where on the Elephant Does Ivory Come From?
Ivory comes from the large tusks that protrude from both sides of the elephant’s mouth. They are cream-colored and made from very thick bone material that encases the enamel of what was once the animal’s incisor teeth. As the animal ages, so does the length of its tusks.
Tusks are quite functional and enable the elephant to dig for food, take bark from trees, fight for dominance among the herd, and protect themselves against predators.
Unfortunately, it is the perceived value of ivory that continues to attract poachers to this day and if the elephant is still alive when the tusks are removed, it experiences agonizing pain.
Evolution of Modern Pianos
Today, acoustic pianos remain a viable and often desired instrument option for many piano players, but the digital piano has become a popular option because they can be easily transported. Traditional pianos are made to produce a sound when a finger presses a key, which then triggers a hammer to hit strings which are different lengths depending on the note. Digital pianos, on the other hand, do not have strings, and the sound is instead created with an electronic tone generator.
Interestingly, Yamaha digital pianos do employ hammers that are engineered to replicate the way a key feels on an acoustic piano, for a better experience for the piano player.
Getting Smaller and Smaller
Quality, cost, and size became key determining factors for consumers in their quest for home pianos starting after WWII. Manufacturers were forced to design smaller instruments in order to compete against newcomers and foreign manufacturers like Yamaha and Kawai. In fact, these brands were so competitive that many North American companies could not keep up.
Pianos fall into 7 categories depending on their various sizes and functions. These include the following:
- Baby grand piano: Once a mainstay in large, grand homes, there are not many of these in today’s smaller homes.
- Concert grand piano: The concert grand piano is the instrument in the concert hall and in other venues where this classical acoustic piano can fit. Its sound is magnified by longer strings and it is the instrument used for symphony orchestras, particularly when there is an accompanying singer or soloist.
- Upright piano: An upright piano stands tall, so instead of the soundboard lying flat as in the grand piano, it is designed to stand up. The upright pianos fit into smaller spaces, which made them a popular option for many homes. You will also still find upright pianos in many schools or small theater venues.
- Spinet piano: Continuing to get smaller and smaller, the spinets have the same design as an upright, but considerably reduced in size.
- Console piano: Size wise, the console piano lies between the upright and the spinet, but it is made to be more affordable.
- Player piano: A source of party fun and frivolity, the player piano produces songs from a role of punched notes that are played when the operator presses the pedals below. Not too many are around today, but you can still find some in assorted basements.
- Digital, or electric piano: This is where the market is today, and the sounds these instruments produce can emulate a traditional acoustic piano as well as a host of other sounds produced by a synthesizer. Many electric pianos have a full-size keyboard and are easily transported, making them valuable options for many musicians.
Are pianos made out of elephants? The use of ivory from elephant tusks for piano keyboards has been ended since the 1970s here in the United States, as well as other countries, including France, the UK, China, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Singapore and a few others. However, other countries, as well as individual poachers, continue to take in illegal activities concerning the killing of elephants and sale of ivory.