As a pianist, it can be pretty disheartening and off-putting when you sit down to play and feel dust or grease on the keys.
Even if you’re the only person that ever uses your piano, you might be surprised at how quickly and easily dirt can build up. Like dust on your bookshelf, you can’t avoid it.
Pianos produce a beautiful sound when played properly, but to do so, they must be kept beautifully, too. Whether you own a modern Moog or an antique Steinway, your approach to cleaning your piano keys needn’t change.
Cleaning your piano keys is recommended at least twice a week, but how? We’re here to help.
Here’s how to clean your piano keys in just a few simple steps.
Establish what material your keys are made from
First thing’s first, you need to know what your keys are made from before cleaning them, as some cleaning products may damage or not work properly on certain materials.
Most modern pianos have plastic keys as standard nowadays, but never assume this is the case for yours. In theory, there are four main materials your piano keys could be made from:
- Ivory – a hard, white material from the tusks and teeth of animals like elephants
- Ebony – a type of hard, dark tropical wood used for the black keys
- Cellulose – a type of organic plastic used as imitation ivory
- Acrylic plastic – the modern standard for pianos
Ivory keys were superseded by plastic and cellulose around the 1930s and were later made illegal in many countries. However, if your piano predates the 1930s, there’s every chance it’ll still have ivory keys—but you’d probably know already if that was the case!
Although plastic is a convincing substitute, a common tell-tale sign of ivory piano keys is a thin seam running horizontally just where each white key narrows—as shown below.
Ivory is a very expensive material, so keys were originally manufactured this way to reduce waste. The only seamless versions remaining today are old, ornate, extremely rare—and therefore very expensive—classic pianos.
Again, you’ll already be well aware if you own one of these pianos.
How to clean piano keys
1. Dry wipe the keys with a microfibre cloth
Whether you’re cleaning an antique grand piano with ivory keys or a modern synthesiser with plastic keys, a dry wipe with a microfibre cloth should always be your first step.
This will remove any dust that’s settled on the keys recently.
Wipe towards yourself, from the top of the keys to their nearer edge as you sit at the piano. Wiping horizontally may misalign or damage the keys if you do it too hard.
2. Rub the keys with a damp cloth dipped lightly in soapy water
Before using a damp cloth, remember that ivory is a porous material, so it’s vulnerable to certain cleaning substances and techniques.
Ivory keys can warp, and the glue sealing them in place can loosen if they get too wet, so ensure the cloth you’re cleaning with is only slightly damp, and any excess water is wiped away quickly.
You should also use a white cloth for this step, as the dye from coloured cloths may transfer to ivory keys and discolour them.
Plastic is more resilient than ivory, so it can withstand a wider variety of cleaning materials and techniques. As well as dish soap, you can also use substances like white vinegar, lemon juice or polish.
Another useful tip to prevent moisture or dust from slipping in between the keys is to carefully wedge a thin piece of cardboard between them as you wipe down.
Cleaning piano keys: technique
Your cleaning technique will differ depending on what type of piano and keys you have. However, here’s our general guide.
IMPORTANT: If your piano is electric, make sure it is switched off, unplugged, or the batteries have been removed first.
- Mix a solution of one part dish soap and four parts water
- Take a separate cotton cloth and lightly dab it into the liquid. The cloth should only be damp and cover an area the size of your fingertip
- Start cleaning the keys from the lowest white note on your piano, and work your way up. Make sure you’re rubbing the keys from back to front to draw the dust off the keys. Do this one octave at a time, and use a separate cloth to dry the keys after
- As you notice your cloth drying or getting dirty, pick another spot on it, dab it in the solution, and continue
- Once you’ve wiped down every key, return to the lowest white note and wipe down all the fronts as well (if your piano has full-sized keys)
- Repeat for the black keys. It’s important to clean the black keys afterwards to avoid staining the white keys
- Give the entire piano a final clean with the dry cloth to wipe the keys free of any leftover dirt
It’s only natural for piano keys to discolour over time. If this has happened to yours, we wish we could offer an easy solution, but the truth is it’s tricky to restore that original white tone.
However, you may find using the above method with the addition of toothpaste lightens ivory keys slightly (after all—they are made from teeth!)
Even plastic has a habit of yellowing over time, too, but this is normally because of prolonged exposure to sunlight.
Though we admit it’s difficult to restore them to their former glory, it’s not completely impossible.
If you’re still not happy, you might want to consider seeking a professional piano cleaning service. Here, experts can dismantle your piano and bleach the keys individually.
Related: How to restore yellow piano keys
Cleaning piano keys: what NOT to do
As with most step-by-step guides, there are a few important do’s and don’ts when it comes to cleaning your piano keys.
- Use spray or pour cleaning solution directly onto the keys. Water could seep between them and damage your piano internally
- Wipe side to side, as you may loosen a key’s alignment or move dust between the keys, which causes them to stick
- Wipe front to back, as you’ll push dust behind the keys. Instead, you want to pull the dust away and off the keys
- Be tempted to use a scouring pad or scrubbing brush for tougher stains, as you may dull or scratch the surface of the keys
How to stop your piano keys from getting dirty
There are several things you can do to stop your piano keys from getting dirty.
The first and perhaps most important thing is to keep on top of the dust build-up. You should regularly dry wipe the keys, perhaps every few days, as leaving them exposed even just for one day can lead to a noticeable layer of dust and dirt.
You should also wash your hands and make sure they’re completely dry before sitting down at the piano to play, as this will stop any dirt and grease from transferring to the keys.
If your keys are plastic, keep your piano out of direct sunlight as this yellows the keys. But if your keys are ivory, keeping your piano in indirect sunlight will actually whiten the keys slightly.
When you aren’t playing, close the keyboard lid (if your piano has one), or use a dust cover. This will protect the keys from spillages and also prevent the build-up of dust and dirt.
If you have pets such as cats at home, too, you’ll know they’re often prone to jumping up and giving us a tune (bless them). Cute it might be, but this is another way dirt can transfer onto your piano keys if you’re not careful.
However, older pianos can facilitate slightly humid conditions under the lid over time, which could cause further deterioration over time, so remember to let those keys breathe every so often—whatever they’re made of.
Regularly cleaning your piano, or indeed any other musical instrument or piece of equipment is one of the best things you can do to ensure its longevity.
But, in some circumstances, cleaning alone just isn’t enough. It’s wise to consider taking out some specialist musical instrument and equipment insurance, to make sure you’re not left out of pocket in the event of accidents, theft, damage, or loss.
At Insure4Music, the specialist musical instrument and equipment insurance policies can be tailored to meet your exact needs depending on whatever it is you play.
So, what are you waiting for? Click below to learn more about how Insure4Music can help you and get a bespoke online quote today.