Updated: Jul 31, 2020
Besides “What age can my child start lessons?”, this is the next most popular question I receive from parents. If you ask any classical musician, an acoustic is always preferable.
Let’s start with the key facts about the piano. The modern piano has been around for over 300 years. An Italian harpsichord maker (Bartolomeo di Francesco Cristofori) invented the first piano around 1709. In that era, it was given the name gravicembalo col piano e forte or “harpsichord that plays soft and loud.” In short, pianoforte, for the ability to change its softness – piano, and loudness -forte, by the amount of pressure put on the keys by the musician. This quality and change in sound were not achievable on the harpsichord instrument of the Baroque period because of its plucking mechanism. The pianoforte replaced the mechanism of the harpsichord with a hammer action capable of striking strings, causing the strings to vibrate and create a sound. Many well-known instruments produce sound this way, however the way the strings are caused to vibrate on an acoustic piano is different. When the keys are pushed down, it causes the hammer to hit and bounce off the strings. True musical expression is achieved by the pianist varying the force, speed, and release when playing the keys. This raw, authentic sound can only be produced on an acoustic instrument.
Here is a breakdown of three types of instruments that people will look at when in the market for a piano.
Acoustic pianos come in two styles, being the grand piano and the upright piano. Grand pianos range in size from 4 feet to over 9 feet in length. The strings on the grand piano are parallel to the ground, and gravity pulls the hammer back down after they strike the string (or strings). The upright piano also comes in various sizes and the “console upright” is the most common one found in homes. Acoustic pianos contain all 88 keys.
Digital pianos attempt to imitate the feel of an acoustic. Unlike the electronic keyboard, digital pianos have a full 88 note weighted keyboard. The sound is reproduced by storing samples on computer chips inside the piano. They do not have any of the moving parts, such as the hammer and strings, that are found in an acoustic piano. This may be a practical option for beginners who want an instrument for a reasonable price and for musicians who want to plug in their earphones and practice in the early morning hours or late into the night.
Electronic keyboards are different than digital pianos. Many people confuse the two. They do not have weighted key action. As a result, when the key is pressed it bounces right back up. The sound is heard through internal speakers, an external sound system, or headphones. They can have anywhere from 49 keys to 76 keys. These instruments are good for those who want to have fun and make music on the go, or who already have an acoustic and want an extra keyboard for fun. The largest drawback? Eventually you realize you need more notes to play the classical pieces real pianos were intended for.
Overall, here are some general recommendations:
· Try as many pianos as possible to see what feels and sounds good for you
· In the first year, a digital piano would be okay so long as the keys are touch-sensitive
· In the first year, opt for a cheaper digital over a poorly tuned and regulated piano
· After the first year of lessons, ideally you want to be practicing on an acoustic. The resonance and dynamic response of an acoustic piano, as well as the pedal actions, are part of learning the piano.
I hope this post has provided a clear outline of what types of keyboard instruments are available, as well as some guidance on selecting an instrument that is right for you.