This question is inspired by the heated debate that went down here: Is there physics behind the layout of a piano keyboard?

The question itself is fascinating to me, and I'd love to see a long and comprehensive answer to it. However, after some contemplation it seems to me that the matter of deciding where this question would be best at home (restricting ourselves to the SE network) is quite a subtle one. By means of this question I would like to ask all of you what your opinions on this matter are. Here are some of the things that I have considered thus far:

  1. Music.SE: Not a good place because it focuses on practicing and experiencing music rather than the science behind it all.
  2. Physics.SE: A reasonable option, but the debate on the question from my link shows that there is no agreement no whether this is on-topic here. It's quite a broad question that will certainly have to incorporate some non-physics aspects.
  3. Biology.SE: Perhaps this might work, but I'm quite skeptical that there will be anyone who knows a lot about acoustics over there, as the inevitable biology component to the sought-after answer is quite far removed from the technicalities of understanding the associated waves. I have better hopes that someone from physics.SE will understand the biology part, at least at a level sufficient to properly answer the question, than vice versa.
  4. Math.SE: Not a good place. The question simply isn't all that mathematical.

Any ideas? Should this question be on-topic in physics.SE? Is there a better site within the SE network? What do the mods think? Let's discuss!

Also, let's try to refrain from petty/'smartass' remarks as much as possible. We're all here for fun & physics, after all!

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I agree with dmckee's answer on this one and I think it's one of those questions that proves why we want 5 votes to close or open something. It's borderline, and if 5 people think it should be closed then it probably should be. If 5 people happen to think it should reopen then it will. If one or the other happens then that kinda settles it. If both happen, we rent out a wrestling ring and it's 5v5 tag team to decide. $\endgroup$
    – tpg2114
    Commented May 27, 2014 at 18:23
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    $\begingroup$ @tpg2114 hah, that took a beautifully unexpected turn. $\endgroup$
    – Danu
    Commented May 27, 2014 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ Why wouldn't it belong at Music.SE? The OP wants to know why the keys are arranged as they are; I would have figured that musicians would be the most capable of answering this question. $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Commented May 27, 2014 at 19:07
  • $\begingroup$ I think we probably aren't in a position to decide what is on/off topic on Music.SE any more than they can easily decide what is on/off topic here. In general, the question of on-topic-ness is to first decide if it fits here or not. The second step is to decide if it might be better somewhere else. But the absence of a better location doesn't change the answer to the first question. $\endgroup$
    – tpg2114
    Commented May 27, 2014 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ @tpg2114 I think the first question has been more or less settled an am ready to move on to the second ;) $\endgroup$
    – Danu
    Commented May 27, 2014 at 20:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Danu But my point is that's not for us to decide where it is on-topic. At best, we can decide which community to ask if they consider it on-topic there and are willing to take it to their site. But we can't render the judgement here. $\endgroup$
    – tpg2114
    Commented May 27, 2014 at 21:34

2 Answers 2


(More of an extended comment so down vote if you must...)

Consider the title question of the post: "Is there physics behind the layout of the piano keyboard?"

Now, if the answer is simply and plainly no then, it seems to me, an appropriate answer would succinctly explain this, the OP would accept it, and that would be that.

And, if the answer is plainly yes then, you know the rest.

If the answer isn't plainly yes or no, then there is the problem of how to proceed (close? migrate? ...) but, even then, there is potential value in the thought process behind this.

In other words, I still do not understand the motivation for the down votes to this question.

It's one thing to vote to close and I have no problem with that but I just cannot imagine downvoting this simple, honest and, perhaps for some, thought provoking question:

"Is there physics behind the layout of the piano keyboard?"

It's a far more interesting question than many here of late.

  • $\begingroup$ I suppose one could argue it falls under the "This question does not show any research effort" reason for downvoting. Although right now, the vote count is +10/-3 so the downvotes aren't a significant detriment to anything. $\endgroup$
    – tpg2114
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 0:43

Can't say I have ever understood why people want this kind of topic to be "physics". Certainly sound is waves and waves are physics, but "sounds good" is a physiology topic which turns out to be defined by the math of small integers. Fascinating stuff with a very interesting history, and something a physicist should know about. But it has only a peripheral claim to be physics.

That said, we have a lot of questions on the site which are really about the response of the human sensory apparatus, rather than about physics proper. I think it has to be that way because unless you know the answer it seems like it ought to be a physics question.

Accordingly I don't close questions on this border despite their being off topic. On the other hand, I don't open them either.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Fair point. I was personally hoping the biology component to the answer could be relatively simply understood in terms of the vibration of the organ responsible for hearing in humans or something like that, which could be modeled with a simple object (some sort of oscillator?), thus reducing the question to (almost) purely physics with some history intermingled. $\endgroup$
    – Danu
    Commented May 27, 2014 at 18:31
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    $\begingroup$ One question remains: Do you think there is a better place for this question? $\endgroup$
    – Danu
    Commented May 27, 2014 at 18:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Danu Order-of-magnitude biophysics can tell you approximately the smallest interval you expect to find in music (based on the frequency resolution of the cochlea) and why perfect intervals sound pleasing, but it most certainly cannot say anything about a piano layout, as evidenced by the fact that only Western music makes sense on a piano. $\endgroup$
    – user10851
    Commented May 27, 2014 at 19:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Danu I'm taking your word about how well it does or does not fit on Music: Practice & Theory, and beyond that I don't have a good suggestion. Not every good question will find a home of the Stack Exchange network. $\endgroup$ Commented May 27, 2014 at 19:30

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