Symmetrical keyboard

Symmetrical keyboard

Being interested by interfaces – tools of communication and its understanding this interface did not let me sleep, and still does not.

A skeleton of the theoretical approach follows

Classic keyboard layout

But the keyboard structure is to many of us bit awkward. If you look at the keyboard layout you find it hard to grasp what is going on there and why? It has a “holes” and black keys “for some reason” in a smaller number then the white ones and the pattern of the key-row seems simply puzzling. More so while you start to transpose piece of music. You need to use different fingering for the chords in “every” scale differently and some chords are thanks to the inconsistent layout harder to play, you need to stretch more than in others making it unplayable for some. For example [example].

There are patterns that are harder to play again thanks to the keyboard ergonomics. Try to play D# to D and vise versa. The move from D# to D is way easier as the finger simply slips down and press the key in one move, unlike when you try to play in opposite way, where your finger need to first climb up and then press down again[picture]. This predisposition defines a lot of moves and ways how we perform music and what moves pianists do what we compose.

The most puzzling still remains the layout and the need to change you hand shapes for when you transpose or even when you want to play different scales, compare C scale with Eb [picture]. We all know that pretty well. The keyboard dimension also does not allow us to play over two octaves by one hand (this is actually addressed by the alternative Janko keyboard layout[link]).

The Janko Keyboard is interesting but bit overcomplicated. Another approach I came up with and sure many others before me (like in 1964 Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz in Prague) is the simple change of keys.
If you look closer and on the traditional keyboard you might find that there are repeatable patterns. You might also find that if you swap some keys you won’t change the A, B, C, D, E, F, G structure with its sharps (#) or flats (b) only the layout will all of the sudden be much easier to see, and understand. [picture]

Why don’t we use it like this? It will be much easier for children to learn and perform.

Lets do some comparison:
C chord and Eb on classic keyboard and the same on this new Symmetrical keyboard. [images].
While on classical keyboard you need to reshape your hand position which means you need to learn it and engrave it in your muscle memory on the Symmetrical keyboard you do not need to . You just move your hand the way it was and you are there.
In reality on the Symmetrical keyboard you need to know only two types of hand transposition and you can play any scale in an instant. Try to learn and perform the same on traditional keyboard. It takes you months to learn it and another years of practise before you become bit more comfortable with it and able to play other scale modes and see them straight in the keyboard like words in sentence without ever thinking about it.
The Symmetrical layout on the other hand seems super easy for such tasks.

Once more again why there are no pianos like that? Why do we keep the hard to learn layout for ages and do not evolve?


One of the answer to above question is tradition.
Piano teachers will have hard time to perform and teach. You’ll have hard time to switch in between the layouts.
There so many great pianos out there that has classical layout that you won’t be able to play if you get used to the Symmetrical layout. Imagine finding a beautifully sounding piano only the keyboard layout is different, or come to place where you want to play gig, but.. again, the piano has different layout than you are used to.

Sure, the solution to it is take it as another instrument, not a traditional piano substitution.


Another answer to the question why we still play the traditional keyboard is its playability. By that I mean dynamic of such keyboard. Although you can make your own keyboard on 3D printer (as I did) [image] which gives you the desired layout but the dynamics of real keyboard  is nowhere close. Piano, or keyboard of decent not speaking of superb quality is insanely hard to get (if not unreal) and expensive.

The classical piano keyboard has specific dynamics that let us do quick repetition, the action prepares the hammer for next quick blow, the mechanic is also source of the piano temperament. The keys gives us response while well weighted, it vibrates back to our hands which is feeling we can get only from real pianos. Sure the key-bed is replaceable and in theory the whole key action can be swapped if we want to. How many of you ever took the key-bed from the piano in your life? Anyway, it is possible and not even hard to do. But calibrate such instrument and do not break it while changing layouts is simply too dangerous for many of us. And in reality who will make a real piano with such keyboard for you .)

Human nature

The most important reason lies in the human nature.

The symmetry is problematic in many ways.
While you can transpose the chords easily you cannot find the right chord that easy as the haptical response is always the same.
There are too many similarly hapticaly feeling chords.
The radical symmetry proved to be a false way to go in many cases in our history, In Architecture while they tries to radicalize the approach to city structures and building shapes [images, links] during the early minimalism area. The cities are way easier to understand while they have diverse shapes. We do not live in city from the bird view. The simple grids are hard to read from human perspective. We need diverse experience for us to remember and be able to navigate thru.
Consider four letter or more long string 0000 or 00000 or 000000. When it gets over the 4 same letters most of us start to have a problem to find where there were while counting or navigation thru the string. The same applies to Symmetrical keyboard. Although from the theoretical view it makes lot of sense and sturdy structures easy to play, the more it the structure gets complicated the less the simple system helps us to navigate thru it.  Look at most of the western long stairs. They “never” run continuously stair by stair from bottom up. There are rests that let us rest and makes our life easier. We need these “illogical” breaks not only on stairs but everywhere.

We play the piano by our hands and they need also something interesting to do. The shape changes and all what the complex moves we lear and play makes us happy once we learn them. Each gesture has its mood its usage we learn to use, and makes us appropriately happy while we perform them right.
Moreover many people do not play crazy substitutions but play the music as it was originally written. They basically do not need consistent gestures in many keys. Most importantly they need spots where they can always go back to a hand gestures that fit to the right place on the keyboard and assures them they are on the desired octave and place on keyboard. It’s the feeling of home what makes us happy same like if we end up op the root key.

The symmetry is simply boring.

Use of Symmetrical(uniform/balanced) keyboard

While most of the songs are written as they are, many of them in one scale, never changing and in 12 tone western system, there are songs that are not and need a different interface. An Interface that lets us to have for example 24 tone or 16 tone “octave”. In such case the symmetrical layout starts to make sense, as the keyboard let us have “octave” long as we want and the keyboard layout will stay constant.
Try to imagine a 16 tone “octave” and move one such octave higher. The next octave does not have its tones on same positions which makes it super hard to perform or new ideas on traditional keyboard. Microtonal music is another example of a music that will benefit form Symmetrical keyboard layout.
Move towards the symmetry can be seen on the contemporary MIDI interfaces such as Ableton PUSH, Maschine, or any grid like interface where many digital musicians perform their melodies and harmonies (I must admit that the Push is in this matter the best I found nowadays). While the symmetry and ability to switch easily from scale to scale makes life easier for beginners makes the same thing useless for those who understand and those who need more freedom.


I made the Symmetrical keyboard as I felt I need the physical experience and not only theorize about it.
The more I play, the more I find the traditional keyboard well thought out and inspiring. All the peculiar moves and shapes and patters one can find there are endlessly interesting and inspiring.
Sure it is one layout and one system of how to think abut music but these limitations give me reason to overcome them and help me overcome my own limits. The feeling I get from my finger while they run over more and more familiar shape with it known spots where they can rest and on others where they stretch assures me I’m where I want to be and helps me to crawl forward with more certainty that I haven’t found on Symmetrical layout, maybe yet.

Finally I believe that the both of the layouts have their advantage but for different use cases.