Piano, keyboard, what's the difference? Part 1

Should you get a piano or a keyboard when you’re starting to learn piano? Everyone is different, but what’s right for you? You’ll need all the information, with the advantages and disadvantages of both, before you can make a decision. In this two-part blog post you'll discover all you need to know about learning to play on an acoustic piano or keyboard.

The Sound

An acoustic piano is the real deal – it has the piano action mechanism with keys setting off hammers, which in turn strike strings. It creates a sound that can’t quite be replicated electronically, but many digital pianos are coming close. These days the sound is so efficiently sampled it is difficult to tell the difference when listening to a recording. Some can simply know when it’s the real deal, but can you hear the difference?

While the acoustic has the REALNESS of the piano, the keyboard has more choice. You can choose between bright or mellow piano sounds, grand or upright? It’s all there at the touch of the button. While you are learning the piano this sort of freedom can be a lot of fun.

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The Feel

Due to species becoming endangered ivory keys are firmly in the past. Now acoustic pianos generally have a plastic covering strip to each wooden key (made of spruce or basswood). When looked after properly, ie by not putting any cleaning products on the keys, they have a slip that allows you to glide your finger along the keys but also retain control.

At a beginner level the need for a good action on the keys is non-essential. As you are beginning to learn piano the best choice is usually to opt for something easily transportable and affordable.

Piano keys have what is called ‘action’, which is described as heavy or light depending on the responsiveness of the hammers when the keys are depressed. Each piano has it’s own signature action and provide a bounce-back feeling as you lift your finger from the key.

This is a feeling that is replicated in digital pianos – as different to keyboards. With digital pianos the feel of the hammer action is replicated to varying levels, stating ‘hammer-graded action’. The keys have been artificially weighted to create the feel of a hammer behind the key. Keyboards generally have no hammer action or weighting whatsoever, so that bounce-back feeling when you play a key is absent.

At a beginner level the need for a good action on the keys is non-essential. As you are beginning to learn piano the best choice is usually to opt for something easily transportable and affordable.

As you progress to more difficult pieces you will need to upgrade – and where you want to go with your learning will dictate what sort of piano or keyboard you need. If you decide that you prefer the electric piano sounds, like Wurlitzer, Rhodes, or Clavichord, then the feel of a keyboard will help you to play those styles convincingly. However, if you prefer the acoustic sound but a real piano is not an option, you’ll need to look at something with the replicated hammer-action, fully or semi-weighted keys for the responsiveness you’ll need to play more difficult techniques.

Digital Pianos

Digital pianos have the advantages of the keyboard but without some of the downfalls, they are a midway point. It gives the response needed to play piano pieces but it still plugs in to your computer, device or sound system, and has a headphone jack. It’s seemingly the best of both worlds – but if you want the experimentation of the keyboard, these will not suffice. They usually only have a dozen sounds to them at most, while dedicated keyboards have hundreds.

Digital pianos come in two types: stage piano and home piano. The home piano is just that, it has speakers built in so that you can play at home without headphones and still produce a sound, usually they are affixed to the stand so that they are sturdy.

A stage piano is usually on a foldable stand so that it can be carried on a stage easily – it is intended for gigging so it does not have speakers on the piano itself. In order to hear the piano without headphones you need to plug it in to an amp, sound system, or computer. The reason it doesn’t have speakers is so that you are forced to listen to fold-back speakers from the PA system or headphones from the audio console in a studio setting, and not have the speakers on the piano interfering with the audio output or recording. The lack of speakers onboard allows you to have a microphone near you, for singing perhaps, without the piano sound also ‘bleeding’ through the mic.

In Part 2 of this post we look at more differences between pianos and keyboards including volume and dynamic control, authenticity versus creativity, mobility and budget considerations.