The words ebony and ivory are a couple of words that are typically synonymous with the piano, and it’s true – historically, the keys on the piano were made from these two materials. However, this tradition is no longer the case, and this article will explain why you probably won’t see a keyboard with ivories too often or at all anymore.
Why Was Ivory Used For Piano Keys?
Before we go into why piano keys no longer use ivory these days, I believe it’s important to discuss why it was used in the first place.
Contrary to popular belief, the white keys on the piano weren’t made of solid ivory. Instead, the keys are made from wood, and only the front and tops of them were covered with a few strips of ivory.
In fact, usually one of the ways to tell if you have ivory keys is to keep an eye out for fine lines on them since they are not made of one solid piece.
Ivory is a bone; so it is inherently a very hard material, which is why it was a go-to choice for reinforcing white piano keys. The bone specifically comes from the teeth of certain animals, especially the tusks of elephants.
While it was very durable and could handle a lot of use, many people also liked the feel and aesthetic of ivory, and it became the tradition to use them.
Throughout history, it has also been used for creating a variety of different objects like jewelry, carved ornaments, and religious artifacts because of its desirable traits.
The Reason Behind Ivory’s Disappearance
Ivory has been phased out for a good reason, and that is related to animal conservation.
The first ban was placed internationally in 1975 due to the Asian elephant becoming severely endangered, and nowadays there is a near-total ban on the sale and import for all ivory products including African elephants, walruses, and rhinos.
The ivory trade has existed for several centuries and has been responsible for wiping out elephant populations in certain parts of the world and poaching continues to threaten species.
This article isn’t intended to be an opinion piece, rather an informative one about why ivory pianos are no longer in circulation.
In order to protect the wildlife, a worldwide ban was placed on the ivory trade, and buying or selling it is illegal in most cases.
Is It Illegal To Own An Ivory Piano?
It’s not illegal to have ivory stuff in your possession, but if you have an old piano with ivory keys that you want to sell (or any ivory product for that matter), you will need to provide proof that the material was lawfully imported which means that it will need to be old enough. For instruments specifically, this means that they would need to be made before 1975.
Some marketplaces are even more strict and won’t allow the sale of ivory at all. eBay is one that immediately comes to mind, and they have policies against these products. Listings will automatically get removed through filters.
It’s possible that with online marketplaces like eBay, it’s difficult to prove that the ivory was produced before the legal dates.
It may also prove to be very difficult to replace your old keys unless you go for some of the alternatives. However, this might take a lot of work and will be very expensive.
More than likely you will have an interesting antique piece that serves as a decoration if your keys are in very bad shape.
While there is a federal law in place in the United States, always check with your state-level laws regarding ivory if you decide to make any transaction.
What Replaced Ivory For Pianos?
Since the 1970s, the piano industry has stopped using ivory on its keys and have since been replaced with more sustainable alternatives.
The main materials that have been used since the ban have been plastic or synthetic ivory (a.k.a. “fake ivory”). A type of synthetic material, called Ivorite, has been created by Yamaha and later adopted by other brands.
These hard plastics and synthetic ivory are used on high-end pianos, and they emulate the traditional stuff very well, especially when it comes to look and feel.
Some people also praise these substitutes for being less prone to chipping and staining than ivory.
Since the materials that the white keys are made of don’t have much of a direct impact on the sound quality of this instrument (piano tone comes from your fingers and the way you hit notes as well as the hammers and strings inside of the it), replacing ivory has been a win in everyone’s book. More animals can be spared, and pianists have keys that are more reliable than the ones in the past.
Is Ebony Still Used For The Black Keys?
Although ebony has been listed as endangered (some species are even extinct) due to exploitation, it is still used for the black keys in a lot of pianos today.
Even though ebony can best be described as a dense wood, the reason why the black keys didn’t use a tougher material like ivory is that those keys wouldn’t be played as much as the white ones.
However, back when the harpsichord was in prominence, ebony was sometimes used for the natural notes on the keyboard, and bone was used for the sharps, basically the opposite appearance of a piano.
It also continues to be used on other musical instruments, like the guitar, and ebony is sometimes used to create fretboards on both acoustic and electric models.
While it doesn’t precisely influence the sound of a piano, ebony contributes a bright sound quality and a sleek feel to fretted instruments altogether. It was the choice of wood for the fingerboard for Stradivarius instruments for a reason!
Ebony is a lovely wood, but it may end up phased out just like ivory did. If that means preserving the trees that it comes from, it’s probably for the best. Plastic and other woods like spruce and basswood are already being used for the black keys on many pianos, so it’s quite possible.
Despite there being plenty of purists out there, it seems that most pianists have gotten over not having ivory keys, and even prefer the alternatives more. If they feel and look like the original material, it doesn’t seem productive to keep following old traditions.
Not only that, some pianists have questioned if it’s ethical to have a piano with ivory keys.
Regardless of your personal stance on the ivory ban, this article has outlined why it was used in the first place and why laws were created to curb the trade. With the success of alternatives like Ivorite, the ebony used for the black keys may disappear in a similar fashion, but no one can know for sure just yet. One thing is for certain, ivory keys are no longer used in modern pianos, and they probably won’t come back.