The History and Attitudes to The Smaller Piano Keyboard in Japan

I am writing about the history and attitudes to the smaller piano keyboard, and the current situation with piano education in Japan. The span of my hands is 6.89in (17.5cm). There are many people who have small hands in Japan. Many Japanese people having small hands cannot play an octave; I am one of them.

The history of smaller keyboard pianos in Japan

"I have been thinking for a long time about a piano equipped with two exchangeable keyboards (conventional keyboard and smaller keyboard), to be used according to a player's needs, and I have found such a piano in Japan." These words by Leonid Kreutzer [1] were presumably written before the Second World War. But, the piano department chief professor of the then School of Music (current College of Music) said, "If this piano is used, the fingers of hands will bend", and stopped the production of these pianos.

Noboru Toyomasu [2] asked the piano engineer Hataiwa Ohashi [3] of Diapason [4] to build a piano with smaller keyboard soon after the war. Similarly, Yoshinao Nakada [5] also had Ohashi build a smaller keyboard upright piano in 1955, because he had small hands. Then, Nakada had Matsuyama, the head piano engineer of Yamaha at the time, build a smaller keyboard grand piano. Nakada said: "I understood the right style of playing the piano for the first time after using these pianos, and also my ability to compose developed dramatically." Incidentally, Nakada's smaller keyboard upright piano is now in the possession of the museum Taiho-kan in Tsuruoka-shi,Yamagata.

Yamaha stopped making smaller keyboard pianos in 2003 due to lack of demand after 14 years of production. By the same token, Kawai also stopped making smaller keyboard pianos in 2007. However, Kawai has recently (2013) resumed making smaller keyboard pianos on commission through an initiative by its Australian branch! Yamaha recently restored a double keyboard upright piano (upper keyboard conventional size, lower keyboard smaller size) that they had made about 75 years ago. According to the descriptive text with its video that was publicly available in other times, this piano is intended for children, and the smaller keyboard in this piano is removable. Based on the time of manufacture and its characteristics, I think that this piano may be the one that the above-mentioned professor was referring to, saying it would "make the fingers bend".

Attitudes about smaller keyboard pianos in Japan

Yoshinao Nakada let his pupils use smaller keyboards, gave his opinions to magazines and newspapers, and delivered a talk. However, at that time, there was hardly any response to Nakada's idea, although Nakada said that a few purchasers of the smaller keyboard pianos were surprised at the advantages when they played it. Nakada has mentioned in his writing: "A musical instrument maker's engineers mostly understand the necessity for a smaller keyboard but unfortunately, piano teachers and the general public barely understand it. Even when they can understand the necessity for smaller keyboards, most of them make no effort to change."

Nakada asked a professor at certain music college to conduct a survey to obtain opinions about this problem (the association between the size of the keyboard and the size of the hand) from students of that college. As a result, a student of the professor carried out a questionnaire survey of 153 students in 1984. Commenting on the results, Nakada said that it seemed that the opinions were similar to those of students at other music colleges and piano teachers in general. There were yea-sayers and naysayers, and the naysayer's opinions were along these lines:

"I understand the theory but it is economically impossible to buy new pianos as a child grows."

"It is not good to change the width of a keyboard according to growth. The performance will be of the highest quality by practising on a keyboard of fixed width."

"I think that practising on the conventional keyboard does not create any problems with motor function. The teacher should provide appropriate lessons based on a student having small hands."

"All the same, it feels important to make an effort to use pianos with keys of fixed width."

"As a child, even if the students find satisfaction in using a smaller keyboard, it is impossible to use it all the time. If I think about the future, it is much better to use the conventional keyboard. When playing a chord that is too wide, one can cover the problem with the power of expression."

"If training to open the hands is not carried out as a child, I have a feeling that my hand will not open smoothly later on. Therefore, it is better to practise on a piano with a large keyboard."

That was the questionnaire carried out about 30 years ago. However, when I look at the discussion regarding the smaller keyboard and smaller hands on the web, the naysayer's opinions seemed to have hardly changed since. I have seen the following debate about a smaller keyboard. These are the naysayer's opinions when the following suggestion was posted to a certain online bulletin board in 2008. If that tells you anything, I was not able to participate in this discussion because before I found this bulletin board, the discussion was closed.


"Let's lobby the manufacturers to make pianos for people with small hands. This may lead to exploitation of a new market for the manufacturer. I ask for everyone's approval."

Naysayer responses:

"There is already a small keyboard piano - developed in the past by the composer, Yoshinao Nakada. The idea has not only spread. Even if a different model was made now, it could lapse into the same or a worse situation."

"I do not think it is necessary. I also have smaller hands, and when I play a chord that is too wide, I play it by making my fingers jump. This could be considered to be individuality and a special technique. Let's overcome the problem of small hands by practice and good technique. Also the piano teacher whom I learned from has very small hands but has splendid technique."

"'Let's lobby the manufacturers to make pianos for people with small hands. This may lead to exploitation of a new market for the manufacturer.' I feel this attitude haughty, so I do not want to be forced to give approval. Certainly, I might be able to play the piano easily by using it but doesn't the tone of a piano change by making a keyboard small? I think that playing the piano will be easy if I have larger hands. Even so I do not think that a smaller keyboard is good."

"In this world, there are many situations that have a hard time with body size. The distance of the pool is defined as '25m' and '50m'. Therefore that is better for tall people, and they can cross the finish line faster than short people necessarily. All the more reason, I think that the human being makes an effort."

"The short person is not meant to be a volleyball player. The large person is not meant to be a jockey. The person without a good skeleton is not meant to be a ballerina. The particular body type that one inherits has its limitations."

"Must they choose a piano as their musical instrument? If access to piano repertoire is limited due to having small hands, then this person is not meant to be a pianist. A piano is not alone among musical instruments which create advantages and disadvantages resulting from differences in body size."

"A piano is not an essential of life. The thing which is not a living necessity does not have to be user-friendly. If it is impossible to play the piano, it is a simple matter of giving up playing."

"In the case of a violin, it is necessary to start training from early childhood. A smaller violin is necessary because it is absolutely impossible for a child to emit a sound with a violin of full size. In the case of a piano, even a child can strike a note, and unlike the violin, there is no problem technically to begin to learn the piano after the child has grown to some extent. Therefore, there is no need to make a smaller keyboard piano."

"I also have small hands, but do not need it. The piano is a musical instrument that one learns the layout of the keyboard by the sense of the fingers. This sense will be out of order and the pianist cannot play a piano if a keyboard is smaller than normal. Even so, a player cannot continue using only the smaller keyboard throughout their life. The reason why there is a violin for children is that elements apart from the sense of the fingers are relevant for a player. Violinists can revise the position of the finger to the sound of a violin, because they tune up a violin. Therefore they can cope even if the size changes to some extent. When I think about what kind of sense a piano player uses to hit the keyboard, I think that it is strange to talk about "a small keyboard"."

"The piano is a musical instrument to play by the sense of the hands. The pianist catches a very delicate sense and they practise repeatedly to let their body learn this sense. If there are keyboards of various widths, I think that a player, especially beginners, will be confused. If the gaps between their fingers open more, even a person with very small hands does not have any problem in many cases."

"There are many professional pianists with small hands. Chopin had hands which were not so large, but was able to compose such a splendid piano repertoire. No matter how small a pianist's hands are, it is possible to play an octave. If at first it is impossible, even people having small hands get to be able to play an octave by doing training to widen the stretch between the fingers."

"When a concert hall or music school must own pianos of several sizes, you should remember that the audience, the students and the buyers are made to bear purchase costs, extra maintenance expenses and storage charges for those pianos. At the risk of seeming callous, why must people of the world be made to shoulder such a burden for 'people who are not meant to be pianists'? I am an audience member, and it is too unpleasant to accept even if I bear double the cost."

"When a smaller keyboard piano is made, this piano is handled as 'non-standard'. Most non-standard products bear exorbitant prices. Circumstances are different with the violin for children. The rich piano lover with smaller hands may be pleased, but the idea will not spread generally."

"When a piano, an already complicated structure, is complicated even more, an amateur may not buy this piano due to problems of maintenance and cost. For the piano maker, it is not about exploiting a new market, and this suggestion is at high risk of making the general customer shun a piano."

"Speaking as persons involved in piano sale, it is difficult to put the suggestion into effect. The piano industry is already in decline. The present piano factory does not have enough development funds and budget to make various kinds of pianos. And another thing, it is impossible in the function of the piano to replace a keyboard."

"I think that the piano is not a musical instrument with the concept that one makes a 'replacement purchase'. For reasons of global environment protection, the piano should be used throughout its life or from generation to generation."

"It is free for a yea-sayer to indulge in a fantasy. But as a realistic problem, I think that the naysayer's opinions are more likely to be right. Even if a smaller keyboard piano or an exchangeable keyboard is sold, it is not necessary and I would not let my child use it."

"The current keyboard size was accepted as a result of selection over a long time in the first place. This size which has spread world-wide has achieved just the right balance (not too small, not too large)."

These are parts of the posted naysayer's opinions. Of course there are the yea-sayers but they are overpowered by the naysayer's seemingly plausible arguments because they cannot give a persuasive explanation like the naysayers. Therefore some of people watching this discussion feel the naysayer's opinions must be right, and tend to agree with them. And unfortunately some of the yea-sayers also feel the naysayer’s opinions might be right and give up on the smaller keyboard idea. The yea-sayers must become more aware of the relevant information and arguments in favour of smaller keyboard.

As for the naysayers, as you can see, they are persisting in supporting the current keyboard, so they feel antipathy to the idea of a smaller keyboard. Therefore, some of them discharged a 'shower of darts' at the proposer. As for asking for approval, "What on earth do you want to do? I do not understand the reason why you need approval. Are you lost without 'all and sundry' giving approval? You should only work by yourself if you want to have one made." For after information about the Steinbuhler keyboard was provided, "The answer to your suggestion has been already given. What do you want to do by collecting further information? If you do not make your purpose clear, I think that you are being rude." For the proposer who cannot readily answer the naysayers, "Do you ignore the dissenting opinions? Quite honestly, I am unhappy with a proposer seeking only favourable opinions.", "Although many people say the idea of a smaller keyboard doesn't make good business sense, it seems the proposer is not able to understand this.", "Does this proposer not have the experience of working in a company? I think that the proposer lacks the ability to consider the structure of the business."

Many of the naysayers will not change their views even if they hear the detailed information and arguments about a small keyboard because for them, their theory about a small keyboard has only one conclusion: impossibility, non-necessity, the 'wrong' way.
In the end, this proposer said: "I finally realized that my suggestion was only a story of an unrealistic dream, but I was able to learn a lot through the criticism, however, where does the thought 'a smaller keyboard piano is not recognized as the piano' come from? I wish you to ask yourself whether, at the back of your conscious mind, there is not a sense of superiority (if you have large hands) or of discrimination?"

The current situation with piano education in Japan

Nakada said that the piano education in Japan is built upon a fallacy from the beginning - the superstition that the width of a piano keyboard should never change. In Japan, most piano teachers tell a student with small hands: "The size of the hands does not matter in playing the piano, you can play various piano repertoires by devising how to play." Some piano teachers say: "Your hands are not suitable for piano performance", or "You cannot become a professional pianist", or "You cannot play even Chopin" to a student and recommend in a roundabout way that the student gives up piano. Even if a student is a small child with small hands, there are some teachers that say: "Don't be spoiled! Play it somehow or other!" and they scold the young child. The piano student with small hands tries to work out how to play and spends much time and labour to acquire a piano repertoire. Many of them stretch their hands and seek to widen their hand spans by force. I have heard that a tool for stretching between the fingers is sold at musical instrument stores, although I have not seen it myself. Also, there is the rumour that a pianist can be operated on to cut the web between fingers to widen a span of the hand. (I don't know who might have carried this out.)

Takahiro Sonoda [6] worried that the effort made by a student with small hands is useless under the present conditions and said: "The College of Music should reject them in an entrance examination because it is impossible that a person with small hands can become a pianist." The student with small hands believes in the reasonableness of the current keyboard size and for this reason, they endure very hard practice. Some of them withstand arduous practice and learn acrobatic techniques, and are then hailed as the hope for people having small hands. But most of them cannot do this, so they give up piano before they get to the higher levels. Even if there are only a few small-handed pianists who endure, many Japanese people think the many pianists who do not succeed must have no will power because there are rare examples of those who have ‘overcome’ the handicap of having small hands by various means. Therefore, if the person having small hands says "I cannot play a lot of piano repertoire because I have small hands", they are criticized in Japan with reactions like: "It's just lack of talent or practice, do not replace a problem with your having small hands", "Don't be spoiled!" or "Just give up the piano!"

Dr. Naotaka Sakai [7] writes as follows: "Little is known concerning the frequency or types of injuries to the hands of musicians in Japan. Even if investigations are carried out, musicians don't always respond truthfully because they are afraid that of losing their position as a performer. However, it is certain that injuries are common because according to the overseas research estimates, there is a report that more than half of musicians suffer from hand injuries."

There is the following especially memorable message in the online debate mentioned above.

"'No matter how small a pianist's hands are, it is possible to play an octave'? I can't play an octave. Everyone says: "A person saying that it is a handicap to have small hands is just a sluggard. If you can just play an octave, you can manage it by making an effort." But I can't play even an octave! An octave pattern appears in any piano repertoire if I want to advance to the next level. Everyone says that the shortest answer is to make an effort, but nobody can teach me a concrete way. If there is consecutive octave, does it mean that I play it all as arpeggios? As for the 4th movement of Piano Sonata No.3 of Chopin - how can I keep up the tempo of this piece? Nobody can answer this. Anyone who says it can be done through effort and special technique always gives the same ambiguous answers. If I hear you say "You are not meant to be a pianist" that would be the end of it, but I won the grand prix in a famous domestic competition a few years ago. But that's the end. My performance collapsed because I cannot avoid playing octaves if I want to pursue higher goals. No matter how good my technique is, my small hands make a performance impossible. If I could play even the octave, I could easily play the Hungarian Rhapsodies! I can't play to my satisfaction even such simple piano repertory from having small hands, so I always feel regretful! Various people say to me: "You are getting a double advantage if you can play even an octave.""

The root cause of these problems

Japanese people have tended to assign great value to effort itself and think of everything as part of mental gymnastics and deem that removal of a difficulty leads to a lack of perseverance and they appreciate a person making an effort in a difficult situation regardless of the nature of the situation. Therefore, many people appreciate a performance by someone trying very hard more than a performance by another person who can play naturally and easily. Hence they believe someone supporting the idea of the small keyboard or a person saying that small hands are a reason not to be able to play the piano is a just a dropout, or a pampered, lazy person. Also, most Japanese believe that the establishment of the size of the current keyboard width of the piano was based on reasonable grounds and that a keyboard of the same width was used in olden days. They assume that the virtuosos who had "smaller" hands, like Chopin and Schubert, also made an effort using the keyboard of the current width, hence the act of changing the keyboard width of a piano is desecration to a piano and its history.

Regarding conceivable other causes, as mentioned in the opening sentence, many Japanese people have small hands. If having small hands is the cause which bars acquisition of a piano repertoire, this means that there are few Japanese (especially females) who can play the piano at a high level. Presumably, Many Japanese may be denying that hand size has an influence on piano repertoire acquisition because of their unwillingness to accept the fact that many of them can't play the piano at a high level. Or the student having small hands may be afraid to find that their past hard practice may have been in vain. And it may be difficult to change piano teaching methods because the teachers themselves also took similar piano lessons and continue to provide the same instruction to many students.

Issues surrounding the piano keyboard and the key to solving its problem

In Japan, pianos began to spread in popularity with the public about 50 years ago. People developed a longing for a piano and getting to be able to play the piano and having a pianist in the family, so pianos were purchased in large numbers, helped in part by the then buoyant economy and parents arranged piano lessons for their child (mostly the girl). The piano market in Japan peaked around 1980 but since then, the size of the market has been falling. The domestic piano market has now decreased to about 1/8 of its peak. Regarding its cause, everybody blames the reduced birth rate, reduced numbers of piano lovers, and the current recession.

In Japan, many piano students begin to take piano lessons from early childhood, but many lose interest or take a dislike to the piano, with most quitting by their mid-teens. And the time of quitting is gradually happening at an earlier age. Therefore, many unnecessary pianos are sold off, and nowadays in Japan the trader who buys and sells used pianos are more prosperous than distributors of new pianos. Regarding its cause, everybody says that a student is not striving to balance study with the piano lessons or they have a lack of perseverance. However, nobody makes reference intentionally or unintentionally to the fact that many people give up the piano due to the difficulties they face by having small hands. But I think that the above-mentioned situation is closely related to the fact that many people do indeed give up piano owing to having small hands. If this vicious circle continues, the piano industry in Japan is in an extremely precarious position. Nowadays, because many Japanese people have painful memories by which they had to give up the piano owing to their small hands, some of them do not let their children take piano lessons. Because of this situation, many piano teachers have difficulty in retaining students. Some piano teachers will understand the need for a small keyboard, but many cannot afford to buy an expensive small keyboard piano, and their economic situation is not helped by the unfavourable business conditions mentioned above.

Many Japanese people react negatively to a small keyboard but surely some will be interested – in particular, those who enjoy playing the piano as a hobby. I have seen several enquiries on the Internet about an electronic piano (or a digital keyboards) equipped with a small keyboard. Because most of these pianists go to work or school in the daytime, they can only play the piano in the early morning or at night and so they cannot make a lot of noise at these times due to the potential impact on neighbours. Many are unwilling to buy an expensive piano because they mainly play as a hobby. Also many houses in Japan are not so large. Therefore, most of them only have room for an electronic piano. In Japan today, many pianists, not just those who play for a hobby, tend to choose an electronic piano from a similar reasons. Current parents tend to hesitate about buying an expensive new acoustic piano and choose an electronic piano or an inexpensive second hand acoustic piano (if there is the environment to be able to play) for their child because they foresee that their child may abandon it after a few years.

Therefore, I think that electronic pianos equipped with a small keyboard should be offered. Additionally, if everyone can obtain a small keyboard cheaply, I think that pianists who are interested will try out it and piano teachers also can introduce it due to the relatively low cost. As it should be clear from the discussion above, the knowledge about small keyboards among many people is full of preconceptions and mistaken assumptions. Before anything else, Japanese pianists first need to try small keyboards and must acquire accurate knowledge about it. Also some in the Japanese piano world (pianists, teachers, piano technicians, etc.) feel the need for a small keyboard and refer to the need for it in their blogs. But at the moment it is difficult for them to contribute further for the sake of their reputations, given the negative attitudes toward small keyboards in Japan. However, I realize that many Japanese are beginning to get interested in a small keyboard because my blog received high ratings after I wrote about the news of the Dallas Chamber Symphony International Piano Competition 2014 (


  1. Leonid Kreutzer: 13 January 1884 (or 1883) - 30 October 1953, pianist and conductor from Russia who was active in Germany and Japan.
  2. Noboru Toyomasu: 23 May 1912 - 9 October 1975, a Japanese pianist, a music school teacher, a member of The Japan Art Academy.
  3. Hataiwa Ohashi: 17 March 1896 - 23 December 1980, the Japanese master craftsman of piano making who raised the Japanese piano to the international level, pupil of Naokichi Yamaha, said to be the founder of piano engineering in Japan, a founder of Diapason, received the Medal with Purple Ribbon.
  4. Diapason: Japanese piano manufacturing company, Kawai has since taken over the business rights of Diapason.
  5. Yoshinao Nakada: 1 August 1923 - 3 May 2000, a Japanese composer, worked on Movement for Smaller Keyboards, a document dealing with smaller keyboard - chapter 4, Nihonjin To Piano (The Japanese and piano) in his book - Collected Essays Ongaku To Jinsei (Music and the life) RM.
  6. Takahiro Sonoda: 17 September 1928 ­- 7 October 2004, the pianist who led the music world of post-war Japan as a player and an educator.
  7. Naotaka Sakai, MD, PhD: The musician's hands specialist, enforcement of the measurement of keyboard span in old musical instruments, see summary of Sakai's dissertation.