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how to choose a piano or keyboard
Photo of Michael Lane
by Michael Lane

Chapter 1 - How to Choose a Piano or Keyboard

Deciding to learn piano is the first step on an incredibly rewarding journey. The good news is that you won’t be taking that journey alone. You will have an instrument to learn on. It will be a daily source of satisfaction, a comforting presence in your home, a companion with keys.

So let’s find you the right instrument. Even a short search can uncover a wide range of terminology and options that can be a little daunting. We’re here to help. This chapter gives you all the knowledge you need for choosing a piano or keyboard to choose the right instrument for you. If you don’t need all the information, take a look at the quick buyer’s guide at the end of this chapter. If you already have an instrument and you’re happy with it, feel free to skip ahead to Chapter 2 - Piano Learning Methods

Let’s start by splitting your options into three categories:

  • Digital keyboards - The cheapest, most convenient, and most versatile. Sound and feel aren’t as good as acoustic pianos, but keyboards work well as a first instrument.
  • Digital pianos - Larger and more expensive, but nearly as versatile while mimicking the feel of an acoustic piano well. A great alternative if budget and space allows.
  • Acoustic pianos - The best option for playing experience and sound quality, but by far the largest and can be extremely expensive.

Digital keyboards

digital keyboard
A digital keyboard for beginners with 61 keys

A keyboard is the most minimal option, just a casing around the keys and controls. This makes it portable and usually the cheapest option. You may also see it called an “electronic” or “electric” keyboard because the sound is either synthesized or sampled. It comes from an in-built speaker with adjustable volume (or a headphone input if you don’t want to disturb).

Digital keyboards don’t need maintenance, and you can almost always choose to play with a range of instrument sounds: pianos, organs, or non-keyboard instruments like strings. The sound quality on cheaper, older keyboards isn’t great, but modern models are pretty good.

A downside of digital keyboards is that the playing experience can vary from excellent to not-so-good based on two key factors: the number of keys and the type of key action.

Number of keys

A full-size piano keyboard has 88 keys, spanning seven octaves and three extra notes. If you want the most accurate piano experience, go for this. If you’re limited by size, then the next largest is fine (76 keys: six octaves, three notes). This will serve you well, but you will find yourself hitting the lower limit on some classical pieces like Beethoven’s "Für Elise", the upper limit on much of Chopin (he loved the high notes), and many 20th century composers like Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, and Bartok.

Anything less than 76 keys and you will regularly hit the upper or lower limits. Of course, if you simply don’t have the space and it would be a choice between 61 keys and nothing at all, then 61 keys it is. Five octaves will limit you, but that’s all they had back in the 1700s when Mozart was composing music. And if it was good enough for Mozart…

Key action

This term refers to the mechanism of a piano that produces sound. Digital keyboards and pianos don’t have the same physical parts as a real piano, so they use various techniques to recreate the heavier touch and feel of a real piano’s keys. Better instruments do this by including or replicating versions of the moving parts (see Key action guide). Simulating the key responsiveness of an acoustic piano, these are more expensive and heavier than other keyboards, but still smaller, cheaper, and lighter than both digital and acoustic pianos.

Key action guide

Hammer action The highest quality and most expensive. Each key moves a mechanical hammer, giving an almost identical feel to an acoustic piano.

Weighted Weights are built into the keys, similar feel to a real piano.

Semi-weighted Combines spring-loaded action with weights attached to the keys. Some dynamic lost, okay for a first instrument.

Unweighted (aka “synth action”) Typically moulded plastic keys creating resistance with springs. The cheapest option.

Accessories for keyboards

Sustain pedal. Piano pedals are foot-operated levers designed to affect the sound in various ways. On an acoustic piano or digital piano, they come attached, but if you go for an electronic keyboard, then you will need a sustain pedal (aka “damper pedal”).

Sustain pedals vary in price depending on how robust they are. The best option is a heavy “piano-style” lever pedal, made of metal and weighted to feel it is really attached to a piano. But if you are on a budget, there are small, square plastic pedals available that are also fine. Bear in mind that these lighter pedals may slide around a little and work with a simple on/off mechanism, so will not allow for subtle use of the pedal.

Keyboard stand. Unlike an acoustic or digital piano, a keyboard doesn’t come with a casing to raise it up. Don’t settle with putting it on a table; do your posture a favor and use a keyboard stand to ensure it is at the correct height. Sturdy, stable stands will feel better and won’t distract you by rocking back and forth when you play with feeling.

Digital pianos

digital piano
A clavinova digital piano with 88 keys

Digital pianos give the convenience and flexibility of a keyboard while recreating the playing experience of an acoustic piano very well, especially as technology keeps improving. They usually have hammer action keys (see Key action guide above) and are made of wood or an imitation material. This gives you the feel of playing a solid instrument, while they don’t require tuning or the same physical maintenance as an acoustic piano.

Like a digital keyboard, the sound is either synthetic or sampled, and like a digital keyboard, this gives you a range of piano and other instrument sounds. Unlike many digital keyboards, they have the full 88 keys, so you won’t limit what you can play (see Number of keys above).

One downside is that while they vary in size and shape, and are smaller than their acoustic counterparts, they are not easily portable. So if you go for one of these, then you may need to experiment with where to place it at home. In general, digital pianos are more expensive than keyboards, but far cheaper than the equivalent acoustic piano.

USB MIDI connections

Digital keyboards and digital pianos will almost always have a USB MIDI connection (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), allowing you to connect a computer or portable device. This allows you to use apps and other programs to access more sounds, record your playing, and access other functionality of piano-learning apps.

how to connect a piano via midi
MIDI connection of a digital piano

Acoustic pianos

The original sound and playing experience that has shaped Western music for centuries. As you play, you can feel the notes resonate up through your fingers and around the room. This “acoustic” sound is created with entirely physical parts, so no electronics, sampling, or loudspeakers are involved.

The physics of an acoustic piano

Pushing a key sets a hammer in motion that hits a string, creating the familiar piano sound. The hammer mechanism gives the key weight against the finger (“Hammer action” keyboards imitate this touch feeling). The strings’ vibration spreads to the air around them inside the instrument. This causes reverberations that bounce around the casing and escape through carefully designed holes in the body of the piano.

While this makes it difficult to fully recreate the feel of playing an acoustic piano using samples or synthesizers, technology is advancing fast. Modern digital pianos are excellent at simulating all physical elements of the sound- even the noise of the dampers muting or releasing the strings. A good digital instrument can sound and feel even better than a low-end acoustic piano.

inside grand piano
The inside of a grand piano with hammers, strings, and dampers

The downside of acoustic pianos is that they are the most expensive option by far, and the expense is not limited to buying. Moving a piano is costly, and they need maintenance. The parts react to small changes in moisture or temperature, so acoustic pianos need regular tuning. This also means you need to consider where you place an acoustic piano. They can’t be kept in damp conditions or too close to a radiator as they can easily dry out and warp.

High-quality pianos hold their value well, so you might see it as an investment. The flipside is that you should be careful of cheap, used instruments, as a “bargain” is often damaged and expensive to repair. You should always get an opinion from someone with expertise before buying any instrument, but this is especially critical for used pianos. Also, if you’re set on an acoustic piano but aren’t sure whether you want to learn in the long term, there is a range of options available online for renting a piano or hiring out a practice room with a piano.

Acoustic pianos are available in two forms: grand and upright pianos.

Grand piano

grand piano
A concert grand piano

This is the iconic, long, low, curved piano you may have seen in concerts or videos of famous classical pianists. The strings lie flat and are wound horizontally, giving the casing its signature shape. This means the hammer needs only gravity to fall back from the string, so the key pushes back on the fingers with an entirely natural feel. The high dynamic range gives a rich tone that rings out whether quiet or loud, in a living room or a large concert hall.

Upright piano

upright piano from yamaha
A Yamaha upright piano

This is the tall, rectangular piano that comes to mind when you think of a Wild West saloon or a blues band in a bar. The sound quality is similar, but since the strings are wound vertically, the hammer action requires springs, slightly reducing the dynamic range and feel. While a little less impressive, the smaller floor space and square back makes them more convenient, as they can be placed up against a wall.

What is dynamic range and why is it important?

This is the range of volume available to you when pressing the keys. Low dynamic range forces you to either thump the keys or barely hear the notes. A high dynamic range allows smooth transition between loud, quiet, and anything in between. Good control of your dynamic range allows you to play with real passion and emotion.

Take Beethoven’s "Moonlight Sonata." When played well, there are subtle differences between delicate and powerful notes throughout the piece. The best players have such good control over their dynamic range, they can even vary dynamic while playing multiple notes at the same time.

Other accessories

Bench/stool

Forget the keyboard players you see standing up. As a pianist, it is best to sit at the piano, and a bench or stool set at the correct height is essential. Larger, heavier stools remain comfortable for longer, but are generally more expensive. Make sure it is adjustable so you can set the height to allow for correct posture and sitting position.

Metronome (optional)

A metronome provides an audible sound (usually a click or a beep) to keep you in time with the tempo (speed) set by you. You don’t necessarily need one, but it can help at the start if you find yourself slowing down or speeding up. Be careful not to get into the habit of always listening for a count, as it often makes it harder to keep time without it. Most keyboards and digital pianos have a built-in metronome, but if you go for an acoustic piano and need one, there are plenty of apps available online, most of them for free.

A quick buyer’s guide

There is a lot to consider and the options can be confusing, especially if you are a beginner to all of the terminology. Don’t worry, it will all make sense once you get learning. Just ask yourself the following questions and use the table below to help you make a decision:

  • What are my expectations towards sound, feel, and dynamic range? (1-3)
  • What is my budget? (4)
  • Do I want to play other sounds (e.g. organ, electric pianos, strings)? (5)
  • How much space do I have? (6)
  • Do I want to take my instrument somewhere else other than home to play? (7)
  • Am I willing to spend $100-$300 (€90-€250) yearly to maintain the instrument? (8)
  • What time of the day do I want to play / will I bother my neighbors? (9)

1. Sound

Digital Keyboard: Good
Digital Piano: Very Good
Acoustic Piano: Excellent

2. Feel

Digital Keyboard: Basic
Digital Piano: Good
Acoustic Piano: Excellent

3. Dynamic Range

Digital Keyboard: Low - high, depends on key action
Digital Piano: High
Acoustic Piano: Highest

4. Price

Digital Keyboard: Cheapest (> $100 / €90)
Digital Piano: Mid-range ($500-$4000 / €450-€3600)
Acoustic Piano: Expensive (> $4000 / €3600)

5. Other Sounds

Digital Keyboard: A range of instruments
Digital Piano: Some keyboard options
Acoustic Piano: None

6. Size

Digital Keyboard: Smallest
Digital Piano: Smaller
Acoustic Piano: Large

7. Portability

Digital Keyboard: Easy
Digital Piano: Hard
Acoustic Piano: Very Hard

8. Maintenance

Digital Keyboard: Practically none
Digital Piano: Practically none
Acoustic Piano: Regular required

9. Noise disruption

Digital Keyboard: Silent (w/headphones)
Digital Piano: Silent (w/headphones)
Acoustic Piano: Loud
Digital Keyboard Digital Piano Acoustic Piano
1 Sound Good Very good Excellent
2 Feel Basic Good Excellent
3 Dynamic range Low - high, depends on key action High Highest
4 Price Cheapest (> $100 / €90) Mid-range ($500-$4000 / €450-€3600) Expensive (> $4000 / €3600)
5 Other sounds A range of instruments Some keyboard options None
6 Size Smallest Smaller Large
7 Portability Easy Hard Very hard
8 Maintenance Practically none Practically none Regular required
9 Noise disruption Silent (w/headphones) Silent (w/headphones) Loud

Other instrument types

There is such a great variety of instruments that not all of them fit entirely into one of the above categories. For example, silent pianos are acoustic pianos that can be set to mute and then be played like digital pianos with — they are somewhere in between keyboards and digital pianos, combining a small casing with a good hammer action and playing feel.

So make sure to consider all options and get an expert’s opinion before making your choice. There most likely is an instrument out there that is perfect for you.