Learning Piano Vs. Keyboard

When it comes to learning and playing piano, there are some clear differences between acoustic and electric instruments to consider. For practical reasons, future owners of a piano or keyboard should consider which instrument will be easier to own, maintain, and play. There are several musical styles that can be learned on an electric keyboard or acoustic piano, and subtle differences in​ the feel of the keys may also contribute to a purchasing decision. Review the following tips to discover if playing on a piano or keyboard is best.

The Musical Style One Wishes to Play

young blonde girl playing piano
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A digital piano is a versatile option for those who would like to learn many styles, or for those who have not yet discovered their musical preferences.

A pianist can successfully learn traditional styles, such as classical, blues, or jazz piano, as well as more modern electronic music with a keyboard. The latter style isn’t accomplished as easily on an acoustic piano without quality recording equipment and a knack for mixing software.

Tip: Despite there being some excellent electronic replicas of the piano’s sound, as well as the option to buy standard foot pedals, many classical pianists prefer the feel of an acoustic piano.

Size and Feel of the Keys

Portable keyboards often have small, thin keys with a light, plastic feel. Fortunately, many modern digital pianos offer a more realistic experience with full-sized, weighted keys that feel like a real piano.

For those who can only afford a keyboard, but plan to eventually play on an acoustic, weighted keys are the way to go. Switching to an acoustic instrument might prove to be a bit of a challenge while one's hands adjust to the added labor if first learning on light and unweighted keys.

Tip: Keyboards with “graded hammer-action,” also known as “scaled hammer-action,” take the realistic feel a step further by giving the bass octaves a heavier touch than treble notes.

Keyboard Range

A piano has 88 notes, which range from A0 to C8 (middle C is C4). Many digital pianos can be found in this size, but smaller ranges such as 61 or 76 keys are more common and cost-friendly alternatives.

A lot of piano music can be played in full on 76-key models, as the highest and lowest keys on the board are often ignored by composers. Early classical piano and harpsichord music may even be played on 61-key models since the range of early keyboard instruments was a couple octaves shorter than today.

Tip: When planning to use a keyboard to mix and record with music-editing software, a smaller range is suitable. Pitch and octave can be manipulated easily during the editing process.

Purchasing and Maintenance Budget

Whether buying one new or used, a decent acoustic piano can go for at least a couple thousand dollars, which does not include the cost of tuning and repairs. The latter depends on the piano’s condition and how often it needs to be tuned in a specific climate.

Portable keyboards range from $100-$500 and digital pianos average $300-$1000. The 76-key models offer a wide range of notes while still remaining cost effective, but price tends to jump up considerably for a full set of 88 keys.

Tip: For a full-sized keyboard with a lower price tag, use a capable computer with 88-key MIDI controllers. These can be found for as low as $300-$500 on M-Audio’s line of instruments.

Present and Future Living Arrangements

Keyboards are more convenient spatially, and some apartment landlords do not allow tenants to keep an acoustic piano in their residences. One reason is the issue of sound-transmission through floors and walls, and headphones are simply not an option.

Another reason is the dilemma of getting the instrument into the building itself. Moving a piano up or down tight stairwells and through doorways can damage walls, door frames, or the piano itself. Even if the move is a successful one, it will undoubtedly be a costly one.

Tip: A 50-pound keyboard can usually be shipped through the post from $50-$150 if planning to move long-distance.