Home piano Are Piano Keys Ivory or Plastic: All You Need To Know

Are Piano Keys Ivory or Plastic: All You Need To Know

by Madonna

The choice of materials in crafting piano keys has been a topic of debate and discussion for centuries. Historically, piano keys were predominantly made from ivory, a natural material obtained from the tusks of elephants. However, with the advent of modern technology, plastic has become a popular alternative. In this article, we will explore the key differences between ivory and plastic piano keys, delving into the historical context, the characteristics of each material, and the ethical considerations surrounding their use.

The Historical Significance of Ivory Keys

For centuries, piano keys were almost exclusively made from ivory due to its unique properties. Ivory, derived from the tusks of elephants, was prized for its durability, resilience, and a distinctive feel that many musicians found unmatched. The use of ivory keys in piano manufacturing reached its zenith during the 19th and early 20th centuries, coinciding with the golden age of piano production.

However, as concerns about the ethics and conservation of elephant populations grew, the use of ivory in piano keys became increasingly controversial. International regulations and bans on the trade of ivory further restricted its availability, prompting the piano industry to seek alternative materials.

The Advent of Plastic Keys

In response to the challenges associated with ivory, manufacturers turned to plastic as a viable substitute for piano keys. The development of high-quality plastics, such as acrylic and celluloid, allowed piano makers to replicate the look and feel of ivory without relying on the controversial natural material.

Plastic keys offer several advantages, including cost-effectiveness, consistency in production, and the ability to manipulate the material to achieve specific characteristics. Furthermore, the use of plastic eliminates the ethical concerns associated with the ivory trade, contributing to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly option.

Characteristics of Ivory Keys

Ivory keys are celebrated for their unique tactile qualities and warm, resonant sound. The porous nature of ivory allows for better moisture absorption, preventing slipping during extended playing sessions. Additionally, ivory has a natural flexibility that contributes to the nuanced touch and responsiveness that many pianists appreciate.

However, ivory is not without its drawbacks. The limited availability due to conservation efforts and ethical concerns surrounding the ivory trade have led to increased regulations and restrictions. Moreover, the aging process of ivory can cause yellowing and brittleness over time, impacting both the aesthetic and functional aspects of the keys.

Advantages of Plastic Keys

Plastic keys have become the standard in modern piano manufacturing, offering several advantages over their ivory counterparts. The uniformity of plastic allows for consistent production, ensuring that each key on a piano feels and responds in the same way. Plastic keys are also resistant to changes in humidity, making them less prone to warping or deteriorating over time.

From a cost perspective, plastic keys are more affordable to produce, contributing to the overall accessibility of pianos for musicians of varying budgets. The absence of ethical concerns associated with the use of ivory makes plastic a more socially responsible choice.

Ethical Considerations

The ethical implications of using ivory in piano keys cannot be overstated. The international ban on ivory trade, aimed at preserving endangered elephant populations, has made it increasingly challenging for manufacturers to source ivory legally. Consequently, the shift towards plastic keys aligns with global efforts to combat illegal wildlife trade and promote ethical practices in various industries.

While plastic keys eliminate the ethical concerns related to ivory, they do raise environmental issues associated with the production and disposal of plastics. Manufacturers are continually exploring sustainable alternatives to address these concerns and reduce the environmental impact of piano production.

See Also: The Best 88-Key Digital Piano: Everything You Need To Know


In the ongoing debate between ivory and plastic piano keys, each material presents a unique set of advantages and drawbacks. The historical significance and unparalleled characteristics of ivory keys are contrasted with the cost-effectiveness, consistency, and ethical considerations associated with plastic keys.

As technology continues to advance, piano manufacturers face the challenge of balancing tradition with sustainability. Whether one prefers the classic elegance of ivory or embraces the practicality of plastic, the evolution of piano key materials reflects a broader trend in the music industry towards ethical and environmentally conscious practices. Ultimately, the choice between ivory and plastic keys becomes not just a matter of personal preference, but a reflection of our collective responsibility towards the planet and its diverse ecosystems.

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