Some people take piano lessons, and only are able to practice when they are at their lessons, because they don’t have a piano at home.
If you or someone else in your household is a beginner, or has expressed an interest in learning, it really is best if you can have an instrument at home to practice on.
The problem is, a good piano can cost a lot of money, which many of us can’t really afford. So, is there another option? Well, there is one: a digital piano.
But is this going to be as good as having a real, acoustic piano to learn and practice on?
There are arguments both for and against learning on a digital piano, with some people saying that you need an acoustic piano to learn, and others saying that the digital piano is actually the better option.
In this comprehensive guide, we take a look at the benefits of each type of instrument, as well as how each works, and what beginners really need.
Let’s get started!
Digital Piano vs Acoustic Piano Comparison Chart
Warm, clear, rich tones
Sound is derived from digital sound sampling, which comes from an acoustic piano, but will never sound totally like the real thing
Requires tuning every year or two
Never needs to be tuned
May require parts repaired or replaced on occasion, must be kept in a room with the appropriate humidity and temperature
No maintenance, unless there is an issue with the electronics
Better control with true piano mechanisms
Some have touch sensitivity features, others do not
Generally upwards of $1,000
You can get a beginner model for less than $200
Most acoustic pianos have two to three pedals
Some digital pianos come with one or two pedals
Effects and Special Features
No effects or special features on an acoustic piano
Voices (instrument sounds), tempos, record and playback features, volume control, and many other effects and special features
An acoustic piano must stay in one place, and moving it will require at least two to three people
You can take a digital piano pretty much anywhere as they are lightweight and portable
You will need a fair amount of room for an acoustic piano, even an apartment size model
You can store a digital piano in a closet, and play anywhere as it takes up little space
There is no need to plug an acoustic piano in
You need to plug a digital piano into a power source, or use batteries
Size and Price
First of all, let’s discuss the sizes and prices for both acoustic and digital pianos. Anyone who plays the piano would love to have an actual acoustic piano in their home. When you come right down to it, a lot of people, even those who do not play, love the look of a piano in the home. But, is it really feasible?
If you don’t have a lot of room, a piano just isn’t going to work for you. Even an upright can take up a lot of space, and if space is at a premium, you just aren’t going to have the room. An acoustic piano also requires a fair amount of maintenance, such as tuning, which you will have to pay someone to do for you.
On the other hand, a digital piano is small and portable. Even the models that come with cabinets are much smaller than most acoustic pianos. Most digital pianos have a full-size keyboard, so you are getting everything you would with a real piano, but it is smaller and more portable. When was the last time you tried to take an acoustic piano outside of the home? It just isn’t going to happen.
Now we get down to prices. There is no doubting that you are going to save money by buying a digital piano instead of an acoustic piano. Sure, you can spend thousands of dollars on a high-end digital piano, but you can also get some fairly decent models, which are excellent for beginners, for under $500.
This is not the kind of deal you can expect to find on an acoustic piano, unless of course you happen to run across a really good deal on a second-hand model.
Digital and Acoustic Pianos: Types and Mechanisms
Now we are going to talk about the make-up of both acoustic and digital pianos.
Let’s start with acoustic pianos. These come in two different varieties:
and then there are sub-types within each type such as:
The mechanics inside an acoustic piano are as old as the instrument itself.
There are hammers and steel strings, which are encased inside a wooden frame. The piano keys are attached to the hammers, so when you press a key, the hammer will move, striking the strings for the particular notes you are playing. This causes a vibration, which in turn produces sound.
The layout of the innards of acoustic pianos are different, depending on the type of piano. For instance, the frame and strings for a grand piano are horizontal, while in an upright model, they run vertically.
This is why the upright is more compact, and is often the preference for home use.
Another difference between grands and uprights is inharmonicity. This is how much the overtone has a higher pitch than the primary pitch. Ideally, you will want a piano that has a sound with lower inharmonicity, because it is a much more accurate sound.
A grand piano is going to have less inharmonicity, and therefore have a richer, deeper tone, because it has longer strings. An upright model has shorter strings, so it doesn’t sound as well-tuned due to more inharmonicity.
This doesn’t mean that an upright piano is inferior to a grand piano, as there are also other factors that come into play when it comes to sound quality, including how the instrument was crafted, and the materials used to make it.
Now, let’s take a look at digital pianos. The first thing to look at is how the sound is made. The digital piano gets its sound from digital samples. These samples originally come from an acoustic piano, but because there are no strings or hammers, the sound just isn’t going to be completely true.
When you press the keys, the digital samples are going to come through the electronic speakers. This doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to get a great sound quality. Some digital pianos are about as close to the real thing as you can possibly get.
Many people don’t realize it, but there are actually three different types of digital pianos.
Next, we are going to compare the sound quality between acoustic and digital pianos. Obviously, if you are going to be spending any amount of money on a musical instrument, you want it to produce a nice sound.
No matter what anyone tries to tell you, an acoustic piano, either upright or grand, is going to produce the best sound. But, this doesn’t mean that many digital pianos don’t have great sound quality as well.
A digital piano isn’t going to give you that true grand piano sound, but it can mimic the sound of an acoustic piano so it is pretty close. The problem is that even the best digital piano is never going to have the same sound quality as an acoustic model, but some of them can come pretty close.
In fact, there are some low-end acoustic pianos that don’t sound as good as the higher-end digital models. But, all in all, if you are looking for the very best sound quality, nothing is going to beat a good acoustic piano.
Another thing to think about when choosing your instrument is maintenance. This is one area where a digital piano definitely has the advantage, as it requires little to no maintenance (unless of course there are troubles with the electronics, sticky keys, etc.). An acoustic piano requires a fair amount of maintenance.
For one thing, because they are made of wood, they need to be housed in an area where there is not going to be a lot of humidity, or frequent temperature changes. If the piano is not kept in the right environment (room temperature around 20 degrees C and a relative humidity between 45 and 70 percent), you are likely going to end up having problems with the inside components, not to mention the wood itself. This is not an issue with a digital piano.
Another thing to consider is tuning. An acoustic piano is going to require tuning about once or twice per year. This means that you will need to have a professional piano tuner come to your home, because it’s not like you can easily take the instrument to them.
This is something to consider when thinking about the cost of an acoustic piano as well, because the initial price obviously isn’t going to be your only expense if you want to own an acoustic piano. You never have to worry about tuning a digital piano.
Next, we need to take a look at the versatility of both acoustic and digital pianos. This is another area where a digital model is going to have more benefits than an acoustic piano.
For instance, a digital piano is going to have features that you just won’t find in an acoustic piano. Sure, an acoustic piano is going to have a truer piano sound, but it can’t mimic the sound of other instruments as a digital piano can.
Also, digital pianos offer drum beats that you can use while you are playing. Most quality digital pianos have record and playback features, again, something that an acoustic piano will never have.
You can record what you are playing, and it will be stored in a digital file. Finally, with a digital piano, you have control over the volume. You can even plug a pair of headphones in so you are the only one who hears it. An acoustic piano is generally going to be pretty loud, even if you are trying to play softly.
One of the biggest differences between digital and acoustic pianos is touch sensitivity, and it can be a pretty huge difference.
For one thing, there is a difference in the weight of the keys.
With an acoustic piano, you need to exert a bit of pressure to make sounds, while you can lightly touch the keys on a digital piano to produce sound, so you don’t necessarily get the same feel you would with an acoustic model. But, this is something that manufacturers have been able to overcome by creating weighted keys. These will mimic piano keys, at least when it comes to the heaviness.
Touch sensitivity is an advantage that acoustic pianos have over digital pianos, and why some musicians prefer to use an acoustic piano. When playing on an acoustic piano, how hard you hit the keys will determine the volume and tone of the notes being played.
So, even though you may hit a key with a different pressure each time, you are going to get the same sound. This can be quite limiting when it comes to expressing yourself musically. On the other hand, with a digital piano, the sounds are digital, so you can create a multitude of tones that you can’t produce on an acoustic piano.
Now we need to take a look at pedals. There are three pedals on an acoustic piano: soft, sostenuto, and sustain. Generally, sustain is used in all types of music, while the other two aren’t used as much. Low-end digital pianos don’t usually come with any pedals, but you can often buy a separate sustain pedal to use.
Better models will often have a sustain pedal, but that’s it, and in most cases, they are not available as extra options. If you think that you are going to be using these pedals, you will need to have an acoustic piano instead of digital.
Finally, you need to consider the portability of your instrument. If you are not concerned with having to take your piano anywhere, and you have the space, you may be more interested in having a traditional acoustic piano in your home.
But, if you want to take your piano to lessons, gigs, studios, or any place else, you can’t do this with an acoustic, and a digital piano is going to be your best option. Most digital pianos weigh 25 pounds or less, so they are highly portable and you can take them pretty much anywhere.
A Few More Things to Think About
In addition to the features on each piano, there are other things that you need to think about before going out and spending hundreds, or even thousands of dollars on an instrument. First of all, what is your favorite musical genre?
If you are really interested in playing classical music, then an acoustic piano may be the best choice for you, because of the sound and the touch sensitivity. But, if you want to play rock, pop, funk, etc., you can really play around with the extra features on a digital piano. Other things to consider include:
If you are just starting out, you may prefer using a digital piano, because most of them come with so many terrific learning tools, including lesson software that you can use by syncing your instrument to your computer, iPhone, tablet, etc.
If you live alone and there is no one to disturb, you can go ahead and practice to your heart’s content on an acoustic piano. But, if there are going to be others around, they might not want to hear you practicing all the time.
A digital piano lets you take it to another location, so you can practice without bothering anyone.
Again, you need to think about anyone you may be disturbing while you are practicing. An acoustic piano is going to be loud, and if you prefer to practice late at night, you are going to keep others awake. With a digital piano, you can plug in your headphones so only you are going to hear what you are working on.
What Beginners should Look For
Whether you are going to choose a digital or an acoustic piano, there are certain features that should be considered when buying an instrument for beginners. These include:
Number of Keys
While some people say it is fine to learn on a keyboard without a full 88 keys, others argue that one needs a full keyboard in order to learn things like finger spacing, scale, etc. Also, as the beginner progresses, they are going to want to use the entire scale of keys for certain songs.
An acoustic piano will have weighted keys, but not all digital pianos do. It is important that if you go with a digital model that it does have weighted keys, because they are much closer to the feel of an acoustic piano. The weighted keys will help the beginner to learn technique and build their finger strength.
This means that the keys respond in volume in accordance with how hard you press them. If you play softly, the volume should be lower, and if you have a heavier touch, it should be louder.
This is a feature that you likely won’t find on the less expensive digital pianos, but the higher-end models do tend to have this feature. There should also be an option to turn this feature off.
If you do decide to go with a digital piano, it is imperative that you also have an adjustable keyboard stand, and if possible, a bench as well. It is not easy to learn and practice with the keyboard in your lap, so you need to make sure that you are going to be able to play comfortably, with the keyboard at a level that is comfortable for you.
When it comes to a beginner piano, if you are going with digital, keep it simple. Beginners don’t need to have a lot of extra features, effects, etc. as it can be overwhelming. There is already a lot to learn, especially in the beginning, so there is really no need of adding to it.
This is especially important if the beginner student is a child, as they can be easily overwhelmed.
When you come right down to it, the choice between an acoustic piano and a digital piano involves several considerations. If you don’t mind spending a lot of money, and you don’t want something that is portable, your best choice is likely going to be an acoustic piano.
On the other hand, if you want to be able to take your piano anywhere, that isn’t likely to happen with an acoustic model, and you will need a digital piano.
Price is obviously a huge factor, and in most cases, you are going to spend a lot less on a digital piano. Both styles are good for beginners to learn on, and as you know, there are arguments for and against this on both sides of the fence.
Neither type of instrument is actually better than the other. It is often all a matter of preference.
In the end, you will choose the instrument that suits your preferences, your needs, and your budget, whether it is digital or acoustic.