Piano or keyboard

How to choose a piano or keyboard for beginners

So, you have decided to learn piano – congratulations! You are embarking on an exciting journey, at the end of which, you will develop a wonderful skill to impress the audience with flowing instrumental music that goes directly from your heart. A piano is a magical instrument, indeed: it can become your main source of inspiration, the way to express your feelings, and the gateway to the world free of life tribulations. Just your best friend with keys.  

The matter is that finding the best friend is difficult, so as picking the right instrument for beginner musicians. Even if you apply to the Internet to make initial research and know the fundamentals of piano playing, you can be overwhelmed with abstruse terminology and a huge selection of pianos, which may ultimately discourage you from fulfilling your dream. This guide provides beginners with the knowledge to empower their buying decision and help choose the proper instrument or a digital keyboard to fit the specific requirements and budget.

First of all, let’s categorize the available piano instruments. Essentially, there are three of them:

  1. A digital keyboard is the least expensive, yet pretty convenient and versatile alternative for novice pianists.
  2. A digital piano is an amazing alternative for beginners looking to master the piano-playing art. Such an instrument wonderfully resembles the feel of an original acoustic instrument but is a bit larger and pricier than a digital keyboard.
  3. An acoustic piano ensures the ultimate playing experience and is characterized by the finest sound quality. Yet, such an instrument is expensive and bulky, which makes it not an ideal variant for cash-strapped beginners with a space-limited environment.

What is a digital keyboard?

Ditgital keyboard

Cheap but great, a digital keyboard is a minimum viable product to learn and harness the basics of piano playing. Such a device can imitate the flow of sound of an authentic piano fairy well as its keys are highly responsive to finger pressure, just like in the authentic unit. The sound quality in such models is generally excellent, yet, you should be careful choosing an electronic keyboard, since in inexpensive and obsolescent devices, the sound may be not that good as in the original instruments.

Such keyboards are also known as electric or electronic keyboards because the sound they produce is sampled or synthesized.

Simplicity and absence of extra details translate into a lower price and greater portability of digital keyboards. The sound goes from an embedded speaker with a volume adjuster (or from a pair of headphones, if you do not want to disturb people around you).

A digital keyboard is low-maintenance and allows for playing with various instrument sounds including pianos, organs, and even strings. It is a decent solution for entry-level pianists with a limited budget who still want to master the skill of adequate key pressure – closely imitating the key mechanics of an original instrument, a digital keyboard does allow developing manual dexterity to control the force of keystroke.

 

Number of keys

Do you know how many keys a full-fledged piano keyboard consists of? A full-size piano keyboard includes 88 of them (seven octaves and three additional notes). The 88-key digital keyboard delivers an authentic piano playing experience. This is a classic, full-size keyboard that lets you play any piano composition. Instruments with 88 keys are recommended for academic pianists, as well as students of musical institutions and just anyone who wants to have the maximum flexibility to perform any piece.

 

If your aspirations are not so great at the beginning of your piano career, go for a 76-key keyboard spanning six octaves and three extra notes. The 76 keys allow for performing the majority of piano and grand piano compositions, as well as they provide plenty of room for non-academic instrument playing. However, such a keyboard is not enough for the proper execution of classical musical pieces.

 

There also digital keyboard with 61-keys (5 octaves) and 49 keys (4 octaves). Keyboards with such tonal ranges will not allow you to harness the piano-playing craft to the max, but if you already have such an instrument, consult with your teacher whether it is wise to change this device for something other.  

 

Key mechanism

The key mechanism refers to the way how keys work to release sound. Digital keyboards and electronic pianos have a different constitution than a real piano and exploit different techniques to imitate keys resistance and cushioning of a genuine instrument. High-class alternatives often replicate the design and mechanics of the moving parts of an original piano. Digital keyboards that offer adequate key responsiveness are nearly as good as the real thing in terms of sounding; yet, they are cheaper and lighter than full-size digital and acoustic pianos.

 

Key action types

Hammer action. A keyboard with hammer action in real pianos assumes that each key is connected to a system of mechanical hammers and levers and can generate different sounds based on the force of pressure and release. Digital keyboards with hammer action work on the base of hammer-like sensor mechanics. Such mechanics means that every key has two sensors to detect wound and release, while and the third sensor is triggered when the key is released incompletely. Keyboards with hammer action are consummate and expensive as they fully imitate the performance of an original item.

You, probably, heard about weighted keyboards. But what are weighted keyboard keys? It means that every key is equipped with a certain weight to realistically emulate the responsiveness of an authentic instrument. Weighted mechanism is typical for pro-grade devices.

Semi-weighted key action. The semi-weighted keyboard uses springs and shock-absorbers to simulate cushioning. It is easier to play on such a keyboard than on a weighted one, which makes it good for absolute beginners, but not for professional musicians.

Unweighted keyboards make practically no resistance when pressed, making them very easy to play. Such keyboards are used in many cheap digital keyboards, synthesizers, and children's models.

 

Keyboard accessories

Pedals. If you want to play like a real pro, it is recommended to obtain a sustain pedal (also known as damper). When pressed, this pedal lengthens the sounds, allowing them to last even after the key is released.

Keyboard stand. A digital keyboard does not come with a casing to adjust it by height. Still, simply putting your digital keyboard on a table is not a way out – this is, at least, inconvenient and can give your back and limbs hard times if you are going to practice regularly. The keyboard stand will securely hold your digital keyboard or piano and help you regulate it to perfectly fit your height.

 

Digital piano

Digital piano

A digital or electronic piano is a modern, cost-effective, yet multi-functional solution for pianists. 

The sound quality in digital alternatives is overwhelmingly excellent because they come with three-sensor mechanics typical for solid pianos with hammer key action. The sound produced by a digital piano is either synthesized or sampled.

 Like a keyboard, a digital piano also provides for performing different instrument sounds, creating various sound effects, and executing adaptation of musical compositions. Such pianos come with a comprehensive 88-key keyboard to give you the freedom to play most musical pieces.

Unlike the acoustic originals, electronic pianos do not require constant tuning or the same hard (and costly) physical maintenance. It is always ready to use at any time provided there is electricity. The electric piano is significantly lighter and space-effective compared to acoustic.

If to speak about the difference between piano and keyboard, digital pianos are not so easily portable and quite bulky. Mostly, electronic pianos are a little more expensive than minimalistic keyboards yet not as pricey as conventional instruments.

 

USB MIDI connections

Most modern digital keyboards and electronic pianos are equipped with a USB MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) connection. With the help of it, you can connect your musical instrument to a PC or a mobile device with piano-learning apps to access more sounds, record/edit your playing, or avail yourself of other functionality provided by such software. 

 

Acoustic pianos

An eternal classic, an acoustic piano delivers the quintessential playing experience. The acoustic piano is the most popular keyboard instrument, it was used by great composers of the past, it is highly valued by modern famous musicians.

On the technical side, a classical piano is a stringed keyboard instrument consisting of a string-plate, strings, and vertical hammer mechanics. By the way, this is how the piano differs from the grand piano, where the mechanical part is located horizontally.

There are two types of acoustic pianos: grand and upright pianos.

 

Grand piano

Grand piano

The royal instrument, a grand piano is the main type of piano, in which the strings, string-plate, and mechanical parts are located horizontally, the body is designed in a wing-like shape, and sounds are emitted by hitting the strings with hammers using the keys. Unlike an upright piano, the sound of a grand piano is more expressive and rich in tone, the keyboard is more sensitive, the playing qualities are more virtuoso, coupled with the ability to convey a wide range of dynamic shades, smoothly transition from forte to piano and back.

The grand piano keyboard mechanism consists of the keys themselves (usually 88), hammers, dampers, and a system of transmission levers – together, they form so-called piano mechanics. The piano mechanics includes many units and parts (a total of about 6,000 parts made of wood, metal, leather, and felt).

Upright piano

Upright piano

A light version of a grand piano, an upright piano is characterized by the vertical arrangement of the strings, sound-plate, and hammer mechanics with generally 88 keys. The vertical string design results in smaller dimensions, greater compactness, relatively cheap production, and, consequently, a moderate cost. An upright piano is rectangular with a square back, thus, it will not occupy much floor space and can be put directly against the wall.

In terms of its complexity, the mechanics of an upright piano is nearly the same as in a grand piano. For example, when you hit a key nearly 70 details are involved to emit the sound, while the whole sound-producing mechanics in this instrument consists of more than 6,000 parts.


What is dynamic range and why does it matter?

This is the volume range available to you when you wound the keys. Low dynamic range will send you fiercely thumping the keys to hear a faint note. The high dynamic range ensures smooth transitions between loud and quiet notes with every overtone in between. Good dynamic range control allows you to execute musical pieces with genuine emotions and exactly convey the subtle differences between delicate and strong notes. The skillful pianists have such good control over their dynamic range that they can even alternate dynamics by playing multiple notes simultaneously.

 

Extras

Bench or stool

Long standing at the piano or keyboard is highly inconvenient and can evoke pain in the back and legs, which, surely, does not facilitate honing piano excellence. A player should sit on the stool or bench with correctly adjusted height to ensure the proper posture and sitting position while learning. Large, heavy stools are very comfortable and hold their value for long, but they come at a cost.

Metronome (not so essential yet can work well for you)

The metronome emits an audible sound (usually a click or beep) so you can keep up with the pre-set tempo (speed). It is not a must-have accessory, but it can help in the beginning if you notice that you slow down or speed up at times. However, constant reliance on a metronome can do you an ill service: and one day, you may find yourself experiencing difficulties keeping time without it. Most digital keyboards and electronic pianos come with a built-in metronome, but if you choose an acoustic piano and need one, there are many apps available on the Internet, most of which are free.

 

How to choose the instrument for piano learning: a quick guide

Too many factors shall be considered when going for the right instrument for beginner pianists. The versatility of available options is embarrassing especially if you do not have a versed piano teacher to consult and guide you through the process. The questions below the comparison table will help you narrow your choice. So, ask yourself the following:

  • How much money can I devote to the instrument?
  • What sound, feel, and dynamic range will suit me?
  • Do I need other sounds like organ or DJ music?
  • Do I have enough space to accommodate a full-size instrument?
  • Will I need to transport my instrument to play in other places?
  • Do I have extra cash for regular maintenance and tuning of my instrument?
  • Will my playing bother my neighbors?

A small comparison table to facilitate your decision-making:

 

 

Digital Keyboard

Digital Piano

Acoustic Piano

Sound

Great

Excellent

Superior

Feel

Resembles the original thing

Resembles the original thing

Genuine

Dynamic range

Depends on key mechanics, generally broad

Excellent

Fullest

Cost

Very affordable (under $100)

Affordable (varying from $500-$4000)

Expensive (over $4000)

Additional sounds

Different instruments

Different instruments

None

Dimensions

Small

Quite large

Huge

Portability

Very easy to move

Easy to move

Difficult to move

Maintenance

Low

Low

Regular and professional

Noise disruption

Low-noise (can be connected to headphones)

Low-noise (can be connected to headphones)

Loud (no headphone output)

So make sure to get a professional consultation before buying an instrument for piano practice. Only a dedicated piano tutor will explain to you all the nuances of learning piano and help you pick up the right option to meet your requirements and budget yet allowing you to fully master this beautiful art.

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