While browsing Wikipedia recently, I discovered an alternative piano keyboard layout called the Janko keyboard (also referred to as a uniform keyboard or a wholetone keyboard). It consists of six rows of keys in a honeycomb array. That is, every other row is offset horizontally by half the distance between the keys, similar to a computer keyboard.
Each column of three vertically aligned keys activates the same note. The three keys are actually part of the same mechanism: When you depress one in the group, all three depress together.
In each horizontal row, the pitches increase from left to right by whole steps.
In each diagonal, the pitches increase from left to right by half steps.
Because the correspondence between direction of movement (horizontal or diagonal) and interval of pitch change (whole step or half step) applies across the whole keyboard, this kind of layout is also referred to as a uniform keyboard. (For comparison, on a traditional piano keyboard, the interval between two adjacent white keys is sometimes a whole step and sometimes a half step.)
This uniformity means that you can learn patterns for scales and chords and then transpose them by simply starting the fingering on a different key. For example, here is a pattern for a major scale in the key of C and the key of G.
Here are a few ways you can try out a Janko-style keyboard layout on your computer:
I tried out the Janko layout using the qwertymidi program. I used it to play along with some MP3s from my collection. While playing, I was able to find certain isolated intervals immediately. However, broken chords were difficult for me to play, since I am used to traditional keyboard fingerings for those.
I'm interested in trying out a real Janko keyboard. The computer keyboard is okay for an approximation, but it only yields a range of about one and a half octaves, and the horizontal offsets between rows are not quite aligned.
The Uniform Keyboard
Another introductory description of the Janko keyboard, plus lots of photos of actual Janko pianos.
Sweet Jesus! What's that girl playing? from Music Thing musicthing.blogspot.com
A blog post about a synthesizer with a Janko keyboard, with various interesting comments.
Beanboard: a click'n'play Janko piano from Intuitive instruments for improvisers improvise.free.fr
This flash based applet lets you click on a Janko keyboard with your mouse.
Online musical typewriter from Intuitive instruments for improvisers improvise.free.fr
This is the flash based applet that lets you try out a Janko keyboard using your computer keyboard.
Div's MIDI Utilities
A collection of command-line MIDI programs for Windows and Unix. The qwertymidi program lets you control a MIDI device with your computer keyboard, and includes a mapping for the Janko keyboard layout.
Here's how to use qwertymidi to try out the Janko piano keyboard layout.