The piano has caught your fancy and you are fired up about learning to play!
You are ready to lay your money down on the best-reviewed instrument within your budget so you can hurry up and get started, like, yesterday! Or you’ve been playing awhile already, practicing on the same instrument for some time, all the while wondering if the grass is greener.
A lot of people land squarely in the middle of a dilemma when preparing to take the plunge and buy a piano or an electric keyboard. What is the big difference between pianos and keyboards, and which is best for you? Is one kind superior to the other? Should you start with something basic and maybe upgrade later when you get more serious?
Let’s start with the differences (and similarities) of pianos and keyboards. The most obvious difference is that traditional pianos are acoustic instruments that operate “unplugged.” The sounds produced are from real moving parts (10,000 or more) that are hidden away inside a big wooden box. Incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered what goes on inside a piano, it’s fun to take a look under the hood and watch all the action while playing around on the keys and pressing the different pedals. Pianos are complicated feats of engineering even though they have been around for a few hundred years (still relatively new in the world of instruments), and because of this complexity, keeping them in good working order requires the help of a professional. A piano tuner will charge a fee for piano tuning and maintenance, which usually should be performed twice a year, depending on the piano and its environment.
Electric keyboards have none of the interior mechanics of acoustic pianos, but instead, have circuitry and computing functions to simulate the sound of a piano.
Keyboards have to be plugged in (or supplied with batteries) and turned on to operate. It does not ever need tuning, but like all electronics, it can start to become faulty with age. A keyboard may have many settings that allow it to sound like other instruments, but the way it’s built is to imitate a piano. Keyboards don’t always do the best job of that, however, depending on the quality of the construction and the included features.
For instance, some keyboards don’t have the built-in ability to play loudly and softly at the touch of the keys. This is the opposite of a piano and can be frustrating to the player since so much musical expression comes from varying volume. Also, the way the keys feel when pressed can be very different from a piano. They are sometimes too springy, too firm, too loose, too shallow. It’s best to try out lots of keyboards in person in a store to get acquainted with how different they can feel.
There are other differences.
Keyboards are frequently smaller in size and are lighter weight than pianos, so fit in more homes than pianos. You don’t need professional movers or tuners, so they are lower maintenance with fewer added costs. Some keyboards are built to be moved easily and frequently so that musicians can set them up to be played in a band. In this case, you will also need a quality amplifier to get enough power of sound to balance the other instruments.
Speaking of playing in a band, the keyboard can be very versatile. With preprogrammed effects, you could stand in for the bassist, or the guitarist, or both if you’re good enough! A keyboard can provide percussion, strings, even special effects. Pianos can’t. Some keyboards have onboard recording capability. Typically, there is no built-in memory to keep recordings once the unit is turned off, but, you can play along or add layers to your recordings by using this function. Pianos don’t have that option.
Pianos, however, have 88 keys, while many keyboards aren’t all playing with a full set.
Keyboards often have a smaller range with fewer keys and thin sound from inferior speakers. Some don’t have pedals—yes, you do need those!—or a well- proportioned bench, a stand, or music holder. Keyboards can feel like they are skimpy and wimpy to a good or even average piano player because they are missing so much. They are built to imitate what real pianos sound and feel like.
Does this mean that traditional pianos are superior to keyboards? Well, yes—for the most part.
The gold standard among piano players is the acoustic piano. Keyboards can only imitate them. Students, new and seasoned, understand best what they can do as musicians when they play a real piano, as long as that piano is of good quality and in good shape. Here’s when you could still argue that a high-quality keyboard is better than a beat up or cheaply made acoustic piano because it will feel and sound better, and be overall more pleasant to play.
So, which one is best for you?
You can decide that by considering a couple of factors. First off, do you have the room for an acoustic piano? Secondly, are you willing to part with a couple grand to buy an acoustic piano, used or otherwise? Pianos purchased used from previous owners will keep the initial cost down, but often will need help from a tuner to get up to full functionality.
If you don’t have room for a piano, you are probably looking at a keyboard. Keyboards vary widely in quality and price. There are high-end keyboards, known as digital pianos, which can be as expensive as acoustic pianos, while some keyboards are so cheaply made, they aren’t much more than glorified toys.
So, what do you buy? What about a starter instrument to eventually be upgraded?
Not a bad idea as long as you don’t go too cheap at the outset, sabotaging the efforts of becoming a decent player. An inferior instrument can be underwhelming to play at best, and entirely discouraging at worst. You don’t want to throw away a few hundred dollars on one of those glorified toys when that cash could go toward a better instrument that’s worthy of your hard-earned money and precious practice time. After all, your starter instrument has to be good enough to hold its value and fetch a respectable amount on Craigslist when you upgrade!
Cara Walsh Dorman teaches piano with an emphasis in creative exploration balanced with solid musicianship. Cara and her husband, Eddie Dorman, opened Muse School of Music 12 years ago to offer the community a fresh, spirited, and modern approach to music education. To reach Cara, email: firstname.lastname@example.org