Earlier this month, I was challenged to play Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata, which required my hands and fingers to be quite busy. It contained the hardest finger twisters I’ve ever tried my hands on. So, I asked myself whether my hands belong to the range of ideal hand size for playing the piano.
Hand sizes vary from one individual to another and there’s a great difference between male and female hand sizes. When it comes to playing the piano, however, the size of hands may not matter that much. Several prodigious children, for example, can even play some famous musical pieces without flinching even if their hands are not yet fully developed.
What are the Average Hand Sizes?
If you’re not sure whether your hands are smaller or larger enough for playing the piano, you should check out the average hand sizes of most pianists. The hand size, of course, is equal to its length multiplied by its width. The hand’s length is usually measured from the palm’s bottom to the middle finger’s tip. Its width, however, spans the point from the outer edge of the little finger to the outer edge of the thumb.
The average hand length for men is 7.44 inches or 189 mm, while for women, it is 6.77 inches or 172 mm. On the other hand, the average male hand’s width is 3.30 inches or 84 mm, while for females, it is 2.91 inches or 74 mm. As a 6’1″ guy, for example, my hand is around 7 1/3 inches long and 3 2/3 inches wide. My hands are also a bit larger than the average size of male hands.
By knowing the average hand sizes of males and females around the world, you can figure out whether your hands belong to the average hand size for piano playing.
What are the Ideal Hand Sizes for Playing the Piano?
With average-sized hands, if you casually spread your hand across the keys, its span will measure around 6.7 inches and can cover an octave. If you add the 9th note, your hand’s expansion would be increased to 7.6 inches. Adding a 10th note would further augment your hand expansion to 8.5 inches, and so on.
Around two-thirds of female pianists with average hand spans would find it hard to cover an entire octave. Many among them would further find it hard to add a 9th note.
Male pianists, on the other hand, fare better than their female counterparts because they are capable of covering an octave with ease. Moreover, they can still stretch their hands to cover the 10th note.
If women pianists already have a hard time adding the 9th note while playing the piano, how much more would the children pianists do? Just imagine how difficult it would be for an eight-year-old boy to tinker with the keys of the piano and play complicated sonatas.
The piano, as a musical instrument, already had a long history. However, the standardization of its size only occurred recently. So, if you have an antique piano, you might find its keys and octave smaller. If the pianos used by Mozart and Beethoven, for example, have smaller keys than what we have right now, then, we would have more difficulty in playing the pieces they had composed. Children and female pianists would also find the present day 6.5 inches octave keyboard ergonomically challenging to handle.
The ideal hand size for playing the piano, of course, is not easy to pin down. Yet, downsizing the keyboards’ sizes would surely let pianists fare better in playing the piano. Besides, I believe it is better to rethink the keyboard’s size instead of trying to inquire into the ideal hand sizes for pianists.
Understanding Hand Size Differences Due to Gender Differences
The range of hand span of those who play the piano is wide. The adult men, for example, may have a hand span five inches wider than the hand span of women. A cursory look, for example, at the available data about hand sizes between genders indicates that adult men, on average, have hand spans one-inch wider than adult women. This means that men have an advantage over women when it comes to hand span and can handle another extra white key of the modern keyboards.
The small hand span, compared to the large hand span, has a benchmark span of 8.5 inches. Endowed with an 8.5” hand span, one can still not play a tenth with ease. Moreover, one will find it hard to make a quick transition from one octave to another. They will also have difficulty with large chords.
Around three-quarters of adult men are capable of 8.5 inches hand span or greater, leaving almost a quarter of them incapable of playing a tenth. If such is the case with men, then, the situation is even further aggravated for women, given their smaller hand spans than men. On average, around 87 percent of women will have difficulty playing a tenth.
Most men will play octaves with ease, accomplishing legato octaves without so much fuss. So, if you align the hands of adult females and males, the placement of the male 9th would then correspond to the female octave with the thumb resting near the fore of the keys.
In this position, the hands would appear flat. The fingers would be overly stretched likewise, reducing their power. Moreover, hand tension buildup would be apparent because of overextended passages. On the other hand, the male 10th placement would correspond to the female 9th.
Hand Spans of Children
An Australian study on 49 children pinpointed that the 1-5 hand span of subjects indicated a wide range of hand span with a minimum of 5.8 inches and a maximum of 9.2 inches. The older the children, of course, the larger their hand spans are.
This study pertained to only a small sample of children aged 6 to 17, yet, it did show that there is an obvious variability among children and teenagers’ hand spans. About women and children, it is obvious, of course, that children will have a smaller range than those of the average women.
The hand span of women and children (under 12 years of age), however, appear to have a significant overlap based on one study. In such a study, it implied that around a third of the female population bear a childlike hand size.
Age and Ethnic Variations
Since the piano is of European origin, it is designed for European pianists. This puts at a disadvantage those who are non-Europeans who are endowed with smaller hands. Asian female pianists, for example, have an average of 8.5 inches hand span, which is a bit smaller than the European hand spans. Yet, this ethnic difference in hand sizes may be negligible.
The variation in hand spans, however, is even more pronounced among children of varying races. Moreover, age may also factor well when playing the piano because hand sizes shrink as one gets older.
FAQs About Hand Sizes
To further learn about the difference in hand sizes and its impact on piano playing, you should read more about the frequently asked questions about the impact hand sizes have on piano playing. Here are some of these questions:
Is it Necessary to Have Big Hands to Play the Piano Well?
Although bigger hands may mean a wider hand span and longer reach, it doesn’t mean that smaller hands are handicapped when playing the piano. There are musical works that fit well those with larger hands. Yet, these musical pieces are a rarity. You will seldom find musical works that are meant for larger hands. Examples of such works are those of Alkan—a 19th Century composer.
Most composers, however, did not really care about hand sizes. Their compositions were mostly meant for the average-sized hands. Thus, if you can stretch your hands over an octave, you can surely play their compositions. You don’t need to feel handicapped if your hands are not large. You can play most piano music as long as your hand can stretch across an octave length.
You would find kids who could play Prokofiev’s sonatas despite their younger age. You also would have heard of child prodigies like Helen Huang and Aimi Kobayashi, who are truly exceptional in playing the piano despite their miniature hands and fingers. So, when you feel handicapped by the size of your hands, however, just think of the prodigious children who could play complicated pieces despite the fact that their hands are not yet fully developed.
Would the Choice of Repertoire Limit One’s Playing Capability?
Pianists are like singers. As a singer, for example, you should know your vocal range and tessitura so that you can choose songs that suit your voice well. Similarly, pianists should choose a repertoire that fits their playing capability and styles.
If you have smaller hands, for example, to choose complicated musical pieces would be preposterous. Similarly, if you have larger hands, you should choose pieces that are designed for larger hands. Moreover, if you have difficulties playing with closed hand positions because you have large hands, you should instead choose musical pieces with more open hand positions.