Revolutionary piano has 108 keys and nine-octave range – and it sounds huge

15 September 2021, 09:04

Stuart & Sons piano is first-ever to have 108 keys
Stuart & Sons piano is first-ever to have 108 keys. Picture: Photos Courtesy of Beleura

By Rosie Pentreath

Meet the world’s first 108-key piano, handcrafted by one of Australia’s last-remaining piano makers.

An independent piano maker has produced the first ever nine-octave piano.

Australian piano maker Wayne Stuart hand-built the 108-key instrument at his independent studio in southern New South Wales – and it sounds resplendent.

The magnificent grand was crafted with Tasmanian Huon pine, and, measuring a whopping three metres in length, it took 18 months to build.

Pianos typically have 88 keys, and span just over seven octaves, so Stuart’s impressive instrument adds nearly two octaves to the possibilities at pianists’ fingertips.

Read more: This 19-foot piano has the longest bass strings in the world – and it sounds huge

A piano with nine octaves
A piano with nine octaves. Picture: Photos Courtesy of Beleura

Speaking to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Stuart says, “There has been music around for the 108-key range for quite a long time, and it’s not a peculiar range because it actually mirrors the range of the pipe organ.”

Expressing enthusiasm for continuing to make his 108-key hand-crafted pianos, Stuart says, “I personally think it’s the minimum frequency range for a piano in the 21st century. I could not stand to sit at an 88-key piano now. I would want to take an axe to it because it's just too limiting.”

The standard piano was invented in around 1700 when Italian instrument technician Bartolomeo Cristofori decided it was time to update the harpsichord with a hammer and damper mechanism that could allow for dynamic range – louds and quiets – in the instrument.

Piano manufacturers designed new pianos with more keys, so that composers like Haydn and Mozart could write more challenging material for a fuller keyboard in the Classical era.

Read more: A standard piano has 88 keys. But why?

Romantic composers and piano virtuosos like Chopin and Liszt made music that continued to demand more from the instrument, and by the late 1880s, piano manufacturer Steinway had created the 88-key piano. Steinway’s model has been the standard ever since.

Australian maker Wayne Stuart isn’t the first piano maker to produce an instrument building on the range of the Steinway standard, though.

This piano with extended bass strings was invented in New Zealand to enhance the instrument’s lower range a few years back, while this innovative Japanese design took away all the black keys to produce a piano that looks striking and only plays in one key.

Australian pianist and composer Ashley Hribar had a go on the nine-octave Stuart piano, demonstrating its twinkling top octaves and profoundly deep bass range.

Hribar’s review (watch above) reveals the rich sonority and resonance of the piano, which is enhanced by the piano’s size and structure. Apart from the extra keys, the piano closely resembles a standard concert grand piano.

Read more: The ‘invalid piano’ for bedridden individuals was a real-life 1930s musical invention

Nine-octave Stuart & Sons piano
Nine-octave Stuart & Sons piano. Picture: Photos Courtesy of Beleura

“The ear can’t detect which notes they are” at the top of this nine-octave piano, Hribar explains. “But the brain and the ear together can kind of imagine the sounds” at this pitch.

Read more: This piano doesn’t have any black keys. How will it sound?

The instrument was commissioned for AU$300,000 (£160,000) by Anthony Knight, director of Beleura House & Garden in Victoria, who describes it as “the best bloody piano in the world.”

The piano maker says, “It’s the 21st century. We need new things. We need new horizons and this is certainly a new horizon.”

The piano is now safely at its new Beleura House & Gardens home in Victoria, Australia.