Treblemakers Music Blog

music lessons with piano
15 Dec 2016

Piano or Keyboard?

Choosing an instrument to purchase can be a difficult decision for students, from beginner to advanced. There are many factors that go into choosing the piano or keyboard that will suit your needs. Modern music technology has made affordability less of an issue but it’s still important to avoid getting a poorly made instrument that can add an unnecessary obstacle to learning.

This depends on your situation, space and budget. There are piano teachers that will insist you MUST have a real acoustic piano to learn on. This is simply not the case. Having a nice digital piano is better than a cheap or poorly functioning upright. Acoustic pianos are wonderful if budget, space and noise level aren’t issues. Unfortunately, they are not always a realistic option for city dwellers. Making a good choice may require compromising between what you want and what you need.

The piano is a universal instrument. If you start there, learn your theory and how to read, you can go on to any other instrument. -Eddie Van Halen

We’ve created the following chart to help in your decision between a piano, digital piano or small starter keyboard. The small starter keyboard is only offered as a temporary beginning option for those that need it and not recommended as long term practice instrument. A general recommendation for both piano and keyboard purchase is to go with a well – known brand at least one step up from the entry – level model. Pianos and Keyboards are complicated instruments that end up flimsy and not very functional if you buy the cheapest available model and brand.

Features/Issues Piano Digital Piano Small Starter Keyboard
Purchase Cost New – $3000 – $100,000
Used – Free* to $3000 may be hard to
assess condition without technician
New – $400 – $1500
Used – $300 – $1000
New – $100 – 300
Used – $50 – 100
Moving Cost $100 – $600 Depending on upright or grand and
also flights of stairs involved
Minimal to none – possible to move by self. Minimal to none – possible to move by self.
Repair Cost Varies, older pianos are more likely need repairs Unusual Unusual
Tuning $100 – $200 twice a year No Tuning Needed No Tuning Needed
Space requirement Differs by model but at least:
Uprights – 58” long X 2.5’ depth
Grands – 4’11″ to 9’ plus space for bench
Differs by model but at least:
52 ” width X 12” depth
Differs by model but at least:
37” width X 14” depth
Mobility 300 – 1200 lbs not easy to move, requires bonded professional piano mover 30 – 70 lbs easy to move 10 lbs easy to move
Space Requirement Differs by model but at least:
Uprights – 58” long, 2.5’ depth
Grands – 4’11 to 9’ plus space for bench
Differs by model but at least:
52 ” width X 12” depth
Differs by model but at least:
37” width X 14” depth
Volume Control No – may limit playing hours
** Practice Pad installation can help
Yes
Adjust volume knob or use headphones
Yes
Adjust volume knob or use headphones
Action: feel of keys being pressed down and how they spring back up again Dependent on piano model and brand. In general usually better than most digital pianos. Poor – Good
Dependent on model and brand. Better models have better action and feel good to play. Cheaper models often sorely lack in this area.
Poor
Not recommended as sole practice instrument over long term. Ok for very beginning note reading, playing chords or theory. Not possible to work on technique (other than hand position)
on this instrument.
88 keys Yes
There are some pianos that have less than 88 keys. Although they take up less space than most uprights, they still take up more space than a digital piano and are usually not great instruments.
Yes
There are models that have less but if you’re going to spring for a digital piano, the difference in price is negligible. The size difference is marginal so there’s no much space saving.
Some have 88 keys. Many do not.
Not recommended with less than 61 keys since it is not practical for most music. Even so, 61 keys is outgrown fairly quickly by most students.
Weighted Keys:
the resistance required to press down keys.
Graded refers to the upper range having less resistance than the lower range the way it occurs on an acoustic piano
Naturally part of the mechanical nature of acoustic pianos. Can vary depending on brand and model.
Keys in the upper range generally have less resistance than the lower range. Grand pianos have more heavily weighted keys than upright pianos.
Be careful of ‘thumpy’ or ‘flimsy’ feel.
Extremely dependent on model and brand
Most keyboards in this category don’t have weighted keys. You can instantly tell from the shallow key depth
OK for very beginning note reading, playing chords or theory. Not possible to work on technique (other than hand position) on this instrument. Be careful. Some keyboards claim to have weighted keys but are so lightly weighted that they don’t feel anything like real keys. Also never mistake “velocity” for weighted keys, as this refers to response of keys to the pressure applied to keys during attacks.
Sensitivity: how keys responds dynamically (louds & softs) to pressure

 

Good – Very Good
Dependent on piano model and brand.
Dependant on model and brand. In general digital pianos have better sensitivity than other types of keyboards but usually less sensitivity than most pianos. Poor – Ok
Most models will respond to some louds and softs but there isn’t a lot of subtlety. Ok for very beginning but not suitable for working on in depth dynamics and musicality.
Midi
Allows information to be sent and received between instruments and computers. Used for recording programs.
No
There are midi triggers you can install on a piano but it’s expensive. (thousands of dollars)
Yes – Either through MIDI USB or through standard MIDI ports. Major brands and models all have midi capability. No-name brands may not. Yes – Either through MIDI USB or through standard MIDI ports
Major brands and models all have midi capabitlity. No-name brands may not.
Polyphony –
How many keys can be pressed down at one time and all still continue to sound.
Becomes an issue when using sustain pedal.
Not an issue. Pianos have strings that are struck by hammers and continue to ring until the string stops vibrating. Good – Very Good
Should have 128 note minimum polyphony. Beware of no-name brands that often cut corners in this area. Keys on a keyboard trigger samples of each note. More notes being held or played at the same time require more processing power. Once the maximum amount of voices (notes) in the polyphony are reached, the keyboard will cut off held notes.
Not great but good enough for beginners. If only 61 keys, you need a minimum of 64 note polyphony.
Ease of Resale/Resale Value Good pianos hold value well and can be resold without losing a lot. However, it is not always easy to find a buyer, especially when there’s a moving deadline. There is a demand for used 88 key digital pianos but in order to sell, it needs to be priced enough below a new one that there is an advantage to buying used. Not as easy to resell unless super cheap. However, it’s easier to store and can be used for practice when traveling.
Outgrowing Instrument Not an issue since all essentials needed to learn from beginner to advanced are present.

Exception: Concert pianist who needs a finer instrument cable of more nuance.

Not an issue if a decent 88 key model is purchased since all essentials needed to learn from beginner to advanced are present.

Exception: Concert pianist who needs a finer instrument cable of more nuance.

Student may quickly outgrow the number of keys, lack of sensitivity, and action. Continuing to practice solely on a beginner keyboard beyond the beginning stage can allow bad habits to form and don’t allow work on musicality or technique.
Key size
Refers to the size of each individual key not how many keys the instrument has
Not an issue since all essentials needed to learn from beginner to advanced are present.
 Full Size Full Size Full Size
Make sure keys are not ‘mini’. Muscle memory and dexterity will be formed with smaller distances and will not transfer to a standard keyboard or piano..

* Occasionally it is possible to find pianos being given away for only the cost of moving it out of its present location, which can cost several hundred dollars at least. As is the case with every piece of older equipment, pianos can have issues that are not obvious and are more expensive to repair than they are worth. It can be difficult to dispose of a piano if you get stuck with one that won’t hold a tuning. Since moving a piano costs several hundred dollars, even piano rebuilders or charitable organizations may not decide it’s worth the effort. Free pianos can be wonderful for both the person that needs to get rid of it and the person that receives it, just be sure to bring along a piano technician to ensure that it is functional. Practicing on a piano that won’t hold a tune or has keys that don’t work can be an obstacle to learning.

** Practice Pads can be installed on most pianos for a few hundred dollars (some come already installed). This puts a layer of felt between the hammer and the keys to reduce the volume of the sound. There is no volume control but it can significantly reduce the volume. It does affect the tone of the piano giving it a muted sound.

Piano Purchasing:
If you’re interested in purchasing a piano, we recommend the following book as a resource for your due diligence before investing in the right piano for your home.

The Piano Book: Buying and Owning a New or Used Piano

Keyboard Purchasing
See blog topic “Buying a Keyboard for Piano Lessons