Learning Piano vs. Keyboard

Comparing Electric Keyboards & Acoustic Pianos

When it comes to learning and playing piano, there are some clear differences between acoustic and electric instruments that you’ll want to consider. For practical reasons, you should also figure out which will be easier for you to own and maintain.

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The Musical Style You Wish 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 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.

However, despite there being some excellent electronic replicas of the piano’s sound (and the option to buy standard foot pedals), many classical pianists prefer the feel of an acoustic piano; in which case consider…

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Size & Feel of the Keys

Some keyboards – portable keyboards in particular – 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.

If you can only afford a keyboard but plan to eventually play on an acoustic, weighted keys are the way to go; if you begin learning on light, unweighted keys, switching to an acoustic instrument might prove to be a bit of a challenge while your hands adjust to the added labor.

  • 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.
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Keyboard Range

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

Now, 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: If you plan to use a keyboard to mix and record with music-editing software, a smaller range is suitable, since pitch and octave can be manipulated easily during the editing process.
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Your Purchasing & Maintenance Budget

Let’s face it, whether you buy one new or used, a decent acoustic piano can go for at least a couple thousand dollars … not to mention the cost tuning and repairs (which depends on the piano’s condition and how often it needs to be tuned in your climate).

On the other hand, portable keyboards range from $100-$500, and digital pianos average $300-$1000 (learn the difference between the two). 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: If you’d like a full-sized keyboard with a lower price tag – and you have a capable computer – 88-key MIDI controllers can be found for as low as $300-$500; check out M-Audio’s line of instruments.
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Present & Future Living Arrangements

I doubt I need to convince you that keyboards are more convenient spatially, but here’s some food for thought: 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. But, even if the move is a successful one, it will undoubtedly be a costly one.

  • Tip: A 50 lb. keyboard can usually be shipped through the post from $50-$150 if you plan to move long-distance.