This is an essay I wrote for the benefit of the parents and prospective students entering my studio with the age old question–to buy a pianoforte or a digital keyboard? All material on this site is copyright; if you like the essay enough to place it on your website, please give credit and link back here :) [Ning, 30 June 2012]
Since you are reading this, your child(ren) or you are taking piano lessons or thinking about taking piano lessons. Perhaps you have a keyboard and are debating investing an a real instrument. Firstly, congratulations on adding music lessons to your curriculum; it is a luxury to be able to consider placing music on one’s intellectual horizons! Secondly, thank you for taking the time to consider your options—choosing a musical instrument is not an easy choice, and especially if you are buying for a young beginner.
Electronic keyboards are cheaper than real pianofortes (the full name of a piano) because they do not need maintenance and their components cost less to manufacture. However, depending on the model of keyboard, they may not be appropriate for any serious musician (novice nor mature) to practice on. A few things to consider when looking for an electronic keyboard:
- Number of Keys: some models of digital pianos, especially the cheaper ones, do not have a full set of keys (88 keys, from A – C). There are ‘cute’ baby pianos which only have one octave or two octave range (13 or 27 keys)… this is not conducive to serious piano education.
- Key width and depth: some models of digital pianos do not have full size key width. One must look for a model that touts ‘full-sized keys.’ The cheaper models will have smaller sized keys—some even claim that this is better for younger children to learn on due to smaller hand size. These young children will grow up becoming accustomed to the smaller, incorrect key-width; it will be very difficult to transition to playing on a real instrument later.
- Key weight: look for a model that touts ‘weighted keys.’ Due to the mechanical nature of a real piano, keys have a certain weight, certain friction when being played. When a cheap keyboard does not have weighted keys, it is one more thing for you/your child to transition from when playing on a real instrument later. Of course, due to the fact that a digital piano does not have remotely the same mechanical parts, the weighted keys will only be a rough approximation of the feel of a real piano… but it is infinitely better to learn on than not having any weights.
- Touch sensitivity: this means that when you strike the key with more force, it will play louder, and when you strike the key with less force, it will play quieter. This is the definition of the name pianoforte: piano meaning ‘soft,’ forte meaning ‘loud.’
- Bench: the keyboard you buy should come with a bench, or you should have an adjustable chair to use. Setting up the keyboard next to the bed, or on the floor, is not an appropriate way to study piano technique. One’s sitting posture is of significant importance to playing well, and not injuring oneself with long-term practice. [Incorrect sitting posture will lead to hand positions compensating for the difference and will lead to carpal tunnel syndrome or worse, with long-term practice.]
- Pedals: the piano should come with at least two pedals, a shift pedal (“left pedal”) and a damper pedal (“right pedal”). These pedals should be fixed in place at bottom of the digital piano; do not buy a “stage piano” where the pedal is connected by a detachable cable, and can be placed wherever needed. On grand pianos, the “center pedal” is the sostenuto pedal, which is capable of sustaining one note/several notes over the regular action of the rest. Upright pianos, due to their internal mechanics, are incapable of this function, so the center pedal is replaced with some other function, or discarded entirely. Digital pianos usually discard the center pedal, but may be able to recreate the correct function of sostenuto.
One can buy an electronic keyboard/digital piano for a mere $200; however, this will not purchase any of the above key points. There are also digital pianos with many unnecessary features, such as orchestra sounds; sound effects; recording and playback; transposition capability, and so forth. These features will never be used in regular practice and are only amusing for as long as the novelty lasts. Additionally, these novel features will rack up the cost of the digital piano to as much as $8000. As long as the keyboard is capable of the six aforementioned points, it is acceptable. The average cost for a digital piano with the six qualifications is $2000.
After reading the above passage on digital pianos, it is easy to say that real, crafted pianos have no real substitute. The things one purchases with a real piano are accurate touch-weight and musical acoustics.
The very nature of the pianoforte, a mechanical beast of a machine, gives a performer a different playing experience when compared to a digital piano. If you’ve never looked inside a real piano, you should visit a local piano manufacturer or workshop if you are so lucky to live near one. Or, lacking the proximity to these, perhaps you have a friend who needs to have their piano tuned—you could request the technician take the piano apart (a very easy thing to do), so you could take a look at the action of the piano.
You’ll notice that the action has many moving parts, all sorts of levers. Even the key itself is a lever. Due to this fact, every single one of these parts must have a certain amount of friction, must have the correct balance ratios, to work properly—every single time a key is struck. This structure inherently has a certain key-weight, which is the weight that that the player must overcome to create sound when striking a key.
This inherent difference between an electronic keyboard (which usually has some simple spring mechanism behind a key) and a pianoforte will lead to many long-term effects. Playing a pianoforte takes skill and muscle control in each finger, which will only be exercised by playing one. It is extremely difficult to transition from playing an electronic keyboard to a pianoforte; they are two completely different mechanical beings. A skilled and sensitive electronic keyboard player will not be able to recreate the same musicality on a pianoforte because the control in the muscles they have built up (or rather, not built up) will not translate.
When one strikes a key on a real piano, a felted hammer is sent to strike a set of strings. The physical and acoustical property of having real strings on your instrument is something that cannot be replaced.
Digital pianos merely play one clean, invariable pitch, produced electronically. Some may tout a ‘richer,’ more ‘accurate sound,’ attained by recording a real piano’s pitch, and playing it back. However even this playback of a real piano’s string vibrations will be the same each and every single time. Both of these creates a very dead, uninviting sort of sound.
Due to the properties of acoustics, one hears a vast number of overtones created from the striking of just one note! Becoming aware of this phenomenon is just as important as being encompassed by it; like a foreign language student being immersed in the new culture and tongue, merely being surrounded by this phenomenon puts one at an advantage to later understanding it.
Many people say that this phenomenon is less important to reconcile. For an unskilled player who does not care about progressing further in the musical arts, this is an acceptable belief to have. It is true that for many beginners, the biggest concern is being able to hit the right notes, at the right time, in hopefully a musical fashion. However, at least with a pianoforte, this acoustical phenomena is always hanging around subliminally, and can be demonstrated by a capable teacher. With a digital sound, this phenomena cannot be demonstrated, and neither will it be at the periphery of the learner. It decreases one’s aural horizons and does the student a disservice to limit their boundaries to things they can only immediately pursue.
Buying a pianoforte
Pianofortes come in many different shapes, sizes, and prices. Prices vary according to manufacturer (e.g. Steinway pianos will be more expensive than Yamaha pianos because of the brand name) and size of the piano (each category has many size variances, generally the larger the cabinet, the longer the strings, which give better tone due to inhamonicity). Other variables include finish/veneer type and case decoration. There are two basic categories of pianofortes:
- The upright piano: Upright pianos are defined by their vertical cabinet where the action and strings are housed. These are typically what beginning students on a budget buy to learn on. Assuming you are buying a new, unused piano, these range from around $3000 to $20000. A decent student upright piano will be around $6000.
- The grand piano: a piano with the iconic, curved horizontal profile. These take up the most floorspace, and are generally more expensive, due to size and manufacturing process. Assuming you are buying a new, unused piano, these can range from around $10000 for the smallest size to over $150,000 for a concert grand size (largest size) with a very good brand name.
Maintaining a pianoforte
Given everything you now know about pianofortes and what makes them a better musical instrument when compared to electronic keyboards, we now look at how much maintenance one requires and the dangers of not maintaining your hard-earned investment.
In the average lifespan of a piano in the hands of a budding pianist, one will tune the piano once or twice every year. This is required to keep the piano in tune and in good regulation. A good tuner (look up piano tuners who are RPTs or Registered Piano Tuners, which means they will have passed a national guild exam on the subject) will run no less than $100 per tuning session.
It is best to tune your piano a few weeks into the summer or winter. Because of the organic nature of the instrument, the wood will shrink and swell depending on your climate and local temperature.
Be warned that if you do not get your piano tuned for several years at a time, not only will it be out-of-tune and terrible to listen to, but it will cost doubly to tune it since the strings will not be used to keeping the correct tension. In the worst case scenario, after years of neglecting to maintain your piano, you will end up with a piano whose strings Cannot be tuned, and you will have to restring the piano (a costly operation compared to tunings) or entirely discard it.
Potential buyers beware! A lot of people will get this death pronouncement from their piano technician, and dishonestly decide to try to make some money off an untunable, unusable product from some unsuspecting customer at a garage sale or on Craigslist. If a deal seems too good to be true, it usually is. Keep in mind that piano moving fees go from $100 to over $200 depending on the transportation distance and size of the piano.
When you or your child becomes a more skilled and serious pianist, you will inevitably start being able to notice the minute intricacies of each keystroke. At this time, you may want to consider having your action regulated every so often (once a year, or if it starts to bother you). These hundreds of moving parts have less than a millimeter of tolerance to do their jobs efficiently, it is natural over the course of weather changes and wear on parts for these parts to have moved out of alignment. Small fixes in regulation (a “light regulation”) may only take 20 minutes and is usually charged at an hourly rate. A full regulation (going over every single moving part) usually costs around $2000 and takes about 8 hours, barring any oddities in action geometry.
In summary, a good electronic keyboard is a temporary stand-in to test the musical waters. However, the sooner one switches over to a pianoforte the better; in terms of satisfaction with the music you produce, and to provide an irreplaceable tool for laying the foundation to healthy piano playing technique. If you have the luxury of time and funds to provide the gift of music to yourself or to another, you might as well go the distance and set the foundation right.
A Pianoforte (“Real Piano”) vs. An Electronic Keyboard or “Digital Piano” by Yee-Ning Soong is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.