Are Kalimba Notes The Same As Piano?

If you ever read about the kalimba, you probably noticed that this instrument has a nickname. Popularly, kalimba is known as a thumb piano. But how similar are these instruments really? Is kalimba a smaller version of a piano or is there something else? 

And are kalimba notes the same as the ones on the piano? Kalimba is a westernized version of mbira, and it follows the music theory used in western music. This means that the notes on the kalimba are the same ones as on the piano. However, there are a couple of differences between the two. 

There are a couple of things you need to know about this instrument and all the similarities it shares with a regular piano. 

Kalimba Vs Piano

Today, there are so many different types of kalimba available on the market. You can find models with as little as five tines, as well as kalimbas with over twenty keys. Furthermore, these instruments can have any key you like, and be tuned in any scale. 

For instance, most commonly, kalimba is tuned in the key of C major, and it has seventeen tines. But it is possible to find several other keys as well as different modes. 

What is interesting is regardless of the kalimba you pick, you will be able to find those notes on the piano. A regular piano has 88 keys, and it offers a bit over seven octaves. 

Kalimba, on the other hand, has a lot fewer keys, and they are identical to the ones you can find on the piano. 

When we compare the notes, we can easily see that even if you have a 17-key kalimba, you’ll be able to find all those notes on the piano and 71 additional notes. 

Moreover, if we go even further, we can see that the piano goes from C1 to C8, while the kalimba covers only notes from C4 to E6. Needless to say, if you pick a smaller kalimba, your range will be even more limited. 

The reason why many people call kalimba “thumb piano” is because of the visual similarity. Both instruments have horizontal keys, and you will press (or pluck) them to create a note. But other than that, these instruments are quite different.

Even though the notes have the same frequency, they will still have a different color and sound to them. For example, both kalimba and piano have A4 notes which are 440 Hz. 

The Difference Between Notes

Even if you have never played the piano, you are probably aware that there are white and black keys. At the end of the nineteenth century, Steinway started manufacturing 88-key pianos, and other companies followed.

Today, each piano has 52 white and 36 black keys. Now, why is this important, you might ask. The piano is designed in a way where each white key is a whole note, while black keys are either sharps or flats. 

If you start from the note C and play notes on the right, you will get a C major scale or the following notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, B. The black key on the right side of the C note is either C# or Db based on the scale. 

Now, if we take a look at the kalimba in the key of C, we can notice the exact same notes. Kalimba has only these notes repeating over and over again, at least when it’s in the C major. So, C kalimba has identical notes as white keys on the piano. 

This means that you won’t get any sharps or flats, and you’ll be unable to play some songs unless you compensate. 

But this applies to diatonic kalimbas, which are the majority of instruments you can find. And even if you get an instrument in the key of G, the notes will follow the same pattern as the C scale does. However, instead of F, G major kalimba will have F#, and notes will be G, A, B, C, D, E, F#. 

A perfect example of G kalimbas is Hugh Tracey Alto Kalimba. 

Note Layout

The next major difference in notes is in the layout. On the piano, the lowest note is on the far left, and each next note is a bit higher. Naturally, the highest note on the piano would be far right. 

On the kalimba, the note layout is quite different. The notes don’t go from left to right, and there is a unique pattern you will need to learn. The longest note is the lowest one, and it’s usually located in the middle of the keys. 

From there on, you will need to alternate left and right to form the scale. Unlike the piano where you will find a linear progression, on the kalimba higher notes are both left and right. 

If we take a look at our favorite C major kalimba, the root of the scale (or the note C) will be in the middle. The first note on the left will be a D note, while the first one on the right is the key E.

From there on, the left of the D note is F, while the right of the E is G, and so on. This means that you might need some time to adjust to the new method and to learn to navigate between the tines. 

Even though I used C major kalimba as an example, any other key will follow the same principle. On the standard G major kalimba, the longest tine is G, which is also the root. The first one on the left is A, and B is on the right. 

It is worth mentioning that on some kalimbas, a root note might be different from the lowest note. This means that the longest note is not always the root, and it’s based on the tuning. 

Learning How To Navigate Notes

As you can see, the whole bi-directional principle of the kalimba can be a bit too much for beginners. Most instruments have lower notes on one and higher on the opposite. 

But this is not something that will bother you for a long time, and you’ll be able to adjust to this method after a bit of practice. 

One of the best ways to navigate through scale is by using visual aids. Most kalimbas have painted tines or stickers you can use to pain them. Even the first kalimba had every third tine painted, and many other manufacturers followed this method. 

This way, you won’t need to spend time counting the tines to see which note you should play next. On the seventeen-note kalimba, there are five or six painted tines, and they can significantly help with navigation. 

Furthermore, since adjacent tines are not adjacent notes, this will allow you to play chords with only one finger. If you take a look at the longest tine, the first one on the right is actually third in the scale and the second one on the right is fifth in the scale. 

By playing the first, third, and fifth note at the same time, you will get a chord. As you can see, it is a lot easier than playing chords on other instruments, and it is one of the main advantages of the kalimba. 

Reading Music 

Finally, if we want to compare notes on the piano and kalimba, sheet music is also an important factor. 

Sheet music is designed for instruments that have all notes, as well as sharps and flats. Kalimba, on the other hand, doesn’t offer anything other than a single scale. But if you find a song that has the same notes as your instrument, you’ll be able to play it. 

The main problem here is that many people who start playing the kalimba are not able to read sheet music. And that’s normal. Even if you don’t know how sheet music works, you can still play the kalimba. 

How, you might ask. The answer is ktabs or tablatures for the kalimba. Instead of using regular sheet music, many people are creating tablatures especially for kalimba. If you take a look at any ktab, you will notice that they are quite beginner-friendly. 

There aren’t any symbols, Italian words, and everything is apparent. The drawing will show you exactly which notes you need to pluck and in which order. 

This way, you will be able to learn how to play any song without knowing music theory, which is another great quality of ktabs. Piano, on the other hand, would take you a lot of time if you start learning without music theory and knowledge of sheet music. 

Interestingly, to read ktabs, you will start at the bottom, and work your way up similarly to how musical boxes work. 


If we compare the piano and kalimba, we can notice that there are some similarities between the two. However, the piano has a lot more notes than the kalimba. A standard piano has 88 notes, while kalimbas have as low as five. Usually, a thumb piano has seventeen notes, and it’s commonly in the key of C major. 

While it is possible to change the tuning of the kalimba or find something other than C major, all these notes are following a single scale which means that kalimba is usually a diatonic instrument. 

Another major difference between the two is that keys on the piano are arranged from lowest to highest where the lowest note is on the far right. On the kalimba, the lowest note is in the middle and higher notes are alternating from right to left. 

So, are kalimba notes the same as the one found on the piano? The answer is yes, but the piano offers semi-notes and more octaves. 

If you found this article useful you may want to save this pin below to your Kalimba board

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