Learning the piano is high on the to-do list for most people. To be able to sit down and thoroughly understand the pattern of black and white keys and how to make songs out of them is a dream for many people (PianoForAll is a great start).
With that in mind, what would you choose, a classic grand piano, a retro organ from a second-hand store, or an 88 key keyboard with weighted keys? There are differences between them, so knowing them will help a lot.
For most players, a real piano is superior to a keyboard because pianos have weighted keys and they produce sound through mechanical energy, ie, the hammers that hit the strings. A keyboard can have non-weighted or weighted keys, and the sound is from either MIDI or a built-in speaker.
Keyboards are in no way like a real grand piano, but in some respects, they can be a better instrument depending on how you look at it. A grand piano has one sound and it’s not digital, so the sound can’t be altered in post-processing the same way a keyboard can. With a keyboard, you can have hundreds of sounds in its soundbank, all of which can be changed after it has been recorded. The keyboard is also very portable.
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Why the Keyboard isn’t As Good as a Piano
One of my friends, Audrey, is a piano teacher and she has been playing the piano since she was a little kid. When I asked her if a piano was better than a keyboard, here’s what she said: “pianos are absolutely better than keyboards because they’re the real thing that all of the other things like keyboards are based on.
Added to that, the (piano) keys are naturally weighted, they have 88 keys by default, and you just can’t match the sound and feel of a traditional piano. They’re inimitable, however, there are serious advantages of using a keyboard too, like the fact you can play it wherever and it doesn’t take a fraction of the space.” I have my own reasons why I think the traditional piano is a better instrument which we’ll talk about now.
1) Electronic Pianos are Based on the Acoustic Piano
Electric pianos like the Yamaha YDP-103R (from zZounds) are a great alternative to pianos, but they lack authenticity and the same unmistakable sound that an acoustic piano can make. Acoustic pianos feel like real instruments, where an electric piano can feel more like a toy (although, the YDP-103R doesn’t).
There are essential elements that make the electric piano a great alternative to the acoustic piano. Still, one of the main advantages is the cost can be thousands of dollars less. Most pianists will want to play a real piano, and if you walk into a pianist’s house that is big enough, you’ll probably find one because most people don’t get rid of them once they have them, and they get passed down from generation to generation.
Acoustic pianos are what you should strive for if you want to be a professional pianist, so you can always practice on what you eventually want to perform on. Still, electronic pianos do an excellent job of mimicking acoustic pianos.
2) Wood is Acoustically Resonant, and Keyboards Aren’t Made Out Of Wood
Most great instruments are made from wood; this is because wood is the perfect material to transmit sound waves. Different woods give you better or worse resonation depending on the thickness and denseness of it among other factors, so a piano made from great wood and great strings will probably sound superior to any keyboard.
The keyboard only imitates what the instrument sounds like, not the actual sound. They can do a great job of it, but at the end of the day, it’s still only an imitation of the real thing. Currently, there’s no better VST than a real guitar either.
3) Some Keyboards Do Not Have Weighted Keys
This is a crucial element that’s often overlooked by the beginning pianist. Weighted keys are important to look for in a keyboard. A lot of keyboards don’t have them. If you have ever used a real piano and a keyboard, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
You can go into Guitar Center right now in the keyboard section and try out each type. Some have weighted keys, and some do not; you’ll quickly notice the difference. Keyboards are far less expensive and take less of your time to actually get but this plays into why they’re not as good as the piano as well.
The keyboard doesn’t have the same tactile feel and vibe because they aren’t actually made to replicate pianos; they are made to mimic synthesizers. That said, coupled with affordable instructional programs like PianoForAll, keyboards can be a great way to learn.
4) Responsiveness From a Real Piano is Far Superior to a Keyboard
Pianos have the perfect resistance to touch for audio dynamics. The way a real piano feels when you press on the keys is unmistakable. You cant replicate a piano 100% on MIDI signals; it just doesn’t have the same mechanical energy and vibe.
It’s the same with digitally recording tracks or from a microphone pointed at a cabinet. VSTs and amplifiers like Blue Cat Audio’s Axiom (from Plugin Boutique) are amazing, but a real amplifier is still better at this point. A professional will be able to tell the difference, but a beginner, not so much. That’s one reason why a keyboard is great for people who are first starting out.
5) Each Piano Has Its Own Texture and Tonality
Pianos are usually partially handmade but always hand-tuned and there’s a lot that goes into perfectly tuning a piano. How pianos make sound is what keyboards lack, which are the hammers that smack against the strings in the back of the piano. The strings vibrate together to give the piano a unique timbre that you can’t emulate on an electric version, similar to an acoustic guitar.
Additionally, with a piano, you don’t have to worry about what’s called “maximum polyphony,” which refers to the maximum number of notes that a keyboard or sound module can produce at one time. A piano can play all keys at once if you can find a way to press them all.
But with digital keyboards, you cannot. You have to check what the Max Polyphony is. The higher, the better, obviously. A solid keyboard like the YDP-103r will be able to play at least 10 at the same time.
6) Pianos Don’t Need Power
Obviously, this isn’t a huge issue, but it’s one to at least consider. You’ll need to be close to an outlet if you play an electric instrument like the keyboard. Acoustic instruments do not need a power source. If you don’t have a power source near where you want to use the keyboard, you’ll need to have an extension cord.
There is something to be said about instruments and sounds that don’t require any set-up, electrical outlets, or computer-related troubleshooting. Every once in a while, I might get a little bit tired with powering on computers and what not to play the guitar and I’ll just use my amp instead. I may even decide to play without any amplifier at all.
7) Pianos Come Fully Prepared
Pianos also usually come with a custom piano bench and a built-in sheet music holder. With a keyboard, you’ll have to purchase these separately (Amazon is a great place for this) or in an all-in-one package from a music store. You’ll need a comfortable bench that you can spend more than an hour on and won’t give you back problems down the road. You’ll also need a keyboard stand so that you can properly play the instrument.
8) Pianos Have Tone Pedals
The set of pedals you see on the bottom of a piano are used for different things, all of which are very cool. For one, they can change the tone. You can hold a note for an extended period of time, or help get a better sound from the piano itself.
The three pedals are called una corda, sostenuto, and the damper pedal. Each has a specific function that you don’t usually get with a keyboard. An electric piano usually has pedals, that’s a good way to tell an electric piano from a keyboard apart.
Sometimes Keyboards Are Better Than Pianos
1) Keyboards Are Great for Beginners
If you’ve bought an inexpensive keyboard with weighted keys like the Yamaha YDP-103r like I mentioned earlier along with PianoForAll (which is an EBook that includes video lessons and audio examples), you’ll be more than prepared to start learning (get PianoForAll here from their site).
I’ve argued elsewhere on the site that PianoForAll was one of the best ways to learn piano for music production because of the way the content is taught. While the program might not be specifically about music production, all of the lessons are created in a way that gets someone playing the instrument immediately, rather than sometime down the road.
2) Keyboards Are Easier To Travel With
If a band uses keys in their music, they most likely have a keyboard or digital piano. It’s a lot more portable, and only the piece that needs a grand piano will often rent one from the venue, or they are a big enough band to support bringing a grand piano in a semi-truck.
3) You Don’t Have To Tune A Keyboard
If you were to purchase an acoustic piano, you’d have to make sure it’s tuned, and all the keys work. Buying a used piano will also need a thorough inspection to make sure everything works. If you find an affordable acoustic piano and you want to take it home, you’ll need to find a person to come over and tune it for you as well.
A piano tuning can cost you a couple of hundred dollars, about as much as the new keyboard. If you commit to an acoustic piano, you’ll need to tune a piano at least twice a year. Let’s be honest though, they’re incredibly cool.
4) You Can Play To A Backing Track
As I’ve explained in my practice guide on my other site, Traveling Guitarist, when you are just starting out with any instrument, you have to work on time the most, otherwise, the music won’t make any sense. To have a full band backing track available at the push of a button can be a lifesaver. As you get better, you won’t need them, but they are still a great practice to play along to.
A MIDI keyboard can plug into your computer for audio recording or to use backing tracks from your computer to play along with. Once you know how to properly hook up your keys to the computer (my guide here), you’ll be able to play along to songs or your own backing tracks.
There are MIDI keyboard adapters like this one from Amazon for both iOS and macOS if your keyboard doesn’t come with one. Check out the video below to see how to connect a MIDI keyboard.
5) You Have To Play the Piano Regularly
If you don’t play an acoustic piano regularly, you may end up with strings that need a lot of maintenance. When you tune a piano, there is a specific amount of tension on the strings. If this tension just sits on the string without being manipulated, the string stops holding the proper tension causing it to go out of tune. For the overall sound of the piano, you need proper tuning about twice a year.
Among all the things you need to do to a piano, it’s quite a fantastic investment, but to get a grasp on how much work you need to do to keep a piano playing great, here’s a great article I found on what goes into the maintenance of owning one.
6) You Can Play the Keyboard Whenever You Want
One of the real advantages of using a keyboard is that you can hook it up to a set of headphones like the ATH-M50x from Amazon and then practice whenever you want to. Pianos can be quite loud and you can’t practice them whenever best suits you. I spoke to Robin from PianoForAll, and he argued that this was one of the reasons why he always recommended keyboards to people:
“Hi, Andrew, nice to hear from you. I always suggest people get a keyboard. A Piano is HUGE – it goes out of tune continuously – and it’s LOUD so beginners feel shy to practice. A good keyboard is small – never goes out of tune – and you can use headphones which is a blessing for other people and also you can practice late at night.
The type of keyboard is important. It needs to have at least 61 keys – more is definitely preferable. It MUST have a touch response; it MUST have a pedal input and weighted keys are far better than light keys.
Like the Yamaha P series – P45 is acceptable – P125 upwards is very good – feels and sounds like a piano
I hope that helps. Of course, if someone has room and the money for a grand piano and volume doesn’t matter then obviously THAT is better :-)”
Important Things to Note
1) Whether Pianos or Keyboards Are Better Is Up to Personal Taste
We have discussed how far superior of an acoustic instrument the piano is compared to a keyboard, but the bottom line is that a keyboard is still a great instrument to consider. They are inexpensive, easy to carry, and because of technology, can sound like any instrument known to humankind.
Some keyboards have hundreds of sounds in their sound-banks with accompaniment and rhythm to imitate a full band. Grand pianos are classical instruments, and if you enjoy classical music and can afford it, this may be your first pick. Modern music calls for modern tones, so a keyboard fits nicely in these genres.
2) There is a Difference Between Digital Pianos and Keyboards
When it comes to instruments with keys, there are acoustic pianos, digital pianos, and keyboards. Pianos are acoustic instruments with incredible playability and what you need if you want to play professionally in the future.
Digital pianos try to emulate an acoustic piano by having weighted keys and being sensitive to pressure. If you’re going to learn piano on a digital keyboard, make sure it’s at least 61-keys. This will help the student strengthen the muscles in their hand and help bridge the gap between the electric keyboard and digital piano.
Keyboards are not based on acoustic pianos; electric pianos are. Keyboards use synthesizer technology, which is why they have so many sounds and beats and pre-recorded rhythm tracks.
3) Acoustic Pianos Are a Huge Investment
Acoustic grand pianos can be extremely expensive. To get one that sounds amazing can take years of saving and, of course, dedication, unless you have a lot of money and space and thought maybe it would help you get “into” playing one day. That investment of time and money can be a lot for the average piano hobbyist.
For someone who wants to play good enough to be in a band or play for their close friends and family, an acoustic piano may be too much. A keyboard does just fine, or an electric piano without too many bells and whistles will also do just fine.
You have to know how much time every day you are willing to dedicate to playing as well. If you can’t say that you will sit down for at least 1 to 3 hours per day for years to come, you don’t need anything professional.
4) MIDI May Be Important To You
If you want to record yourself from your keyboard or if you would like to play along to an educational App like SimplyPiano or Piano Maestro, you have that option with a MIDI keyboard (check out my guide on how to get the best free sounds). To record an acoustic piano, you’ll have to hook up a microphone or an amp.
An electric piano that does not have a midi hookup will require a keyboard amp. If you are looking for a simple way to hook up keys, used a keyboard with MIDI capabilities or you can use a MIDI keyboard like the Arturia KeyLab 88 (from zZounds). This is a keyboard that functions as an extension of a DAW like Garageband.
Recommendations For Your First Keyboard
Below are a few recommendations for a keyboard or electric piano that you can look into as a beginner, intermediate or advanced player.