Studio cleaning part 2: The piano keyboard (2017)

Infection Control in the Music Studio, Part 2:  Cleaning and Disinfecting Acoustic Piano Keys

As a savvy piano teacher who wants to keep the spread of infectious and harmful microorganisms out of your teaching space, you will:

  1. Avoid teaching sick students.
  2. Cancel lessons when you yourself are ill.
  3. Require effective handwashing or sanitizing before any person plays your keyboards.
  4. Regularly clean and, with discretion, also safely sanitize or disinfect the piano keys.

Piano manufacturers like Steinway and Yamaha generally advise wiping down the keys with a soft, lint-free cloth dampened with either plain water or a mild detergent solution, and then wiping the keys dry immediately with a second soft, dry cloth.  This process can remove dirt and grease and is a great start, but it removes only some of the invisible disease-causing microorganisms on the keyboard.  So how can we reduce the number of pathogens or “germs” to a much safer level in our studios when colds, flu, staph, strep, and other infections are sometimes epidemic in our communities?  

I have not found any piano manufacturers recommending the use of disinfecting agents that would eliminate most pathogens on piano keys.  Why? Many of the disinfectant chemicals commonly used in our households can be harsh and potentially harmful to piano keys.  So if you choose to “disinfect” the keys, you assume a risk of possible harm to them.  Which raises the question:  Is disinfection really necessary? How clean is “clean?”

Standard definitions from the Schiff Environmental Consulting group’s paper “Choosing a proper sanitizer or disinfectant” <> helps establish degrees of cleanliness on a hard, non-porous surface:

  • Cleaning: removes visible dirt and grease
  • Sanitizing: kills most (99.9%) of a limited bacterial test population in 30 seconds
  • Disinfecting:  kills 99.9% of pathogenic bacteria, and some viruses in 5-10 minutes
  • Sterilizing: kills all living microorganisms—bacteria, viruses, mold spores

In our studios we need to be concerned only with cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting the keys.  Leave sterilizing to hospital and surgical needs.  Since the majority of microorganisms within and on our bodies are beneficial, we do not aim to kill them all.  Our immune systems also work best when they are periodically exposed to very small amounts of pathogens to stimulate the production of antigens which can kill those same germs when we encounter them again in greater number. But in public spaces like schools and teaching studios where there are many “common touch” surfaces such as piano keys, we need sanitization and disinfection techniques to lower the number of pathogens to a safer level in our environments during infectious outbreaks that might otherwise overwhelm our immune systems and make us sick.

John M. Zeigler, Ph.D., a polymer chemist also interested in music, deals with this problem of disinfecting piano keys safely in his article “Piano Hygiene in the Teaching Studio” <>.  His paper was last updated on 2/4/16 and released to students and teachers by the Piano Education Page during the then current viral pandemic.  Polymers are substances made up of identical molecules strung together in long chains like the paper chains of childhood.   All of the common piano key surfaces are either natural polymers (ivory, wood or paint) or synthetic (plastic) ones.  Since all polymers are porous to a degree, they can absorb disinfectant chemicals or their solvents causing discoloration as well as swelling and cracking of the key surfaces with repeated use. The natural polymers, which are more porous, are the most easily damaged.  

Zeigler determined from his knowledge of chemical disinfectant agents and piano key polymers that the quaternary ammonium chloride disinfectants are safe for plastic keys, particularly because wipes contain mostly water and only a very small amount of the disinfectant.  These compounds are the active ingredients in Lysol Disinfectant Wipes or Clorox Disinfectant Wipes. He also believes the wipes are safe for ivory keys if the keys are wiped with a water-dampened cloth to remove disinfectant residue following a four- minute disinfection period.  He does not state if he believes the wipes are safe for painted black keys.  Microfiber cloths are his choice for cleaning cloths because they are soft, hold particles like bacteria, and are easily washed.  His recommendations are based on his scientific expertise and knowledge, and not on a particular scientific study.  If disinfection is not necessary, Ziegler recommends plain water or a simple soap solution cleansing followed by a plain water wipe, and then a final dry wipe.

High quality microfiber cloths are 80% polyester and 20% polyamide and woven very tightly of fibers 1/200ths the size of human hair, thus making them stiffer than the softer and fluffier lower grade cloths sold in bulk packages more inexpensively.  Quality cloths are advertised with claims that 99.9% of bacteria (but not viruses) are removed from hard surfaces and locked in the cloth until rinsed with hot water, or, if very dirty, laundered with hot water and detergent.    Norwex cloths with BacLoc  <>  contain long tiny threads of silver imbedded in the weave which, if initially activated with a water rinse, will inactivate the bacteria in the cloth within 24 hours as it dries.

Piano Key Care Products:

  • Cory Care Key Bright:  a mild, water-based detergent for plastic, ivory and wood keys developed by piano technician owner; non-aerosol spray bottle:
  • Cory Care Cleaning and Polishing cloths:  quality, microfiber 
  • Norwex microfiber cloths:  quality, plain or silver-containing anti-bacterial  cloths; expensive;  sold by consultants, Amazon   
  • E-cloth:  removes 99.9% bacteria; caution:  not always colorfast—launder several times,  test before use; color transfer difficult to remove from keys 
  • Disinfectant wipes—quaternary ammonium chloride compounds, e.g. Lysol or Clorox Disinfectant Wipes 

Based on my research from piano dealers, piano technicians, science experts, microfiber and disinfectant manufacturers, and government regulators, I intend to use the following simple Piano Keyboard Cleaning and Disinfection Procedure in my private studio:

Three microfiber cleaning cloths:  #1 Water only, #2 Soap solution, #3 Dry

Disinfectant wipes (for example, Lysol Disinfectant Wipes or Clorox Disinfectant Wipes)

Mild soap solution (water and dish soap; pre-mixed Key Bright or similar product)

Water, distilled or tap

Regular key cleaning (once a week or as needed)

  1. #1 Water Cloth,  damp-dry, (gloves optional)
  2. #3 Dry Cloth

Dirty keys (as needed)

  1. #2 Soap Cloth, dampened with mild soap or detergent solution
  2. #1 Water Cloth; remove soap residue
  3. #3 Dry Cloth

Quick Sanitization (mild infection symptoms)

  1. Wear clean disposable vinyl gloves
  2. #2 Soap Cloth.  Prerequisite for Sanitization
  3. #1 Water Cloth; remove soap residue
  4.  Disinfectant wipe, wet on keys for 30 seconds, then discard in hands-free wastebasket

Caution:  do not use disinfectant sprays containing large concentrations of alcohol or phenol—will quickly damage polymer keys and destroy circuits on electric pianos

  1. #1 Water Cloth; remove disinfectant residue
  2. #3 Dry Cloth
  3. Discard dirty gloves
  4. Wash or sanitize hands

Disinfection (after sick persons have played on the keyboard)

  • Same procedure as Sanitization except…
  • Disinfectant wipe, wet for 4 minutes instead of 30 seconds, discard

           Cleansing of microfiber cloths

  • Rinse with plain or soapy hot water, wring tightly, air dry after each use
  • Launder with laundry detergent, hot water, extra rinse with only lint-free fabrics
  • Air dry, or machine dry without fabric softener

Summary:  Clean, Disinfect, Remove Residue, Dry, Discard, Launder

DISCLAIMER:  Mention of consumer products is for illustrative purposes only and is neither a product endorsement nor medical advice.  For specific medical advice, consult a physician.

Always read the entire product label, carefully follow instructions and heed all warnings. Chemical disinfectant use on piano keys is a personal choice not supported by piano manufacturers, but when used carefully, can minimize the spread of serious infections.