There is no getting around this bottom-line fact: A traditional acoustic piano is an instrument of beauty. It can out-sing a full symphony orchestra; it has complex overtones; it has an organic feel and sound. But there’s no getting around the downsides either: The black beast is big, heavy, expensive, and takes a lot of upkeep.
A digital keyboard might not be able to outshout an orchestra, but it can copy the sounds of one (not to mention the sound of a piano). Also on the bright side: it’s less expensive, light, movable, and doesn’t need tuning.
Which Kind of Piano is Better?
Choosing a piano depends on a number of factors. Consider:
- For gigging with a rock band? (digital)
- For a child’s practice? (either could work)
- For a serious classical musician? (acoustic)
- For an apartment dweller who needs to practice late at night? (digital)
- For a composer who wants to experiment with lots of sounds and voices? (digital)
Cost and Care Considerations when Buying an Acoustic Upright or Grand Piano
The great classics were written for the acoustic piano and can best be realized on an instrument that the great composers would recognize. So many piano teachers strongly encourage the purchase of an acoustic piano; some insist on it.
In practical matters — cost, portability, versatility — the heavy, expensive acoustic piano loses ground to the digital. But the acoustic piano has a certain sound and feel that simply cannot be duplicated by a digital instrument. For the development of proper hand position, finger strength and dynamic control, acoustic pianos are essential. Digital pianos offer neither the resistance nor the response of an acoustic piano. Advanced students cannot learn how to work with a piano’s sonorities by playing on an instrument that merely mimics them. Pianists are unanimous about this: No concert pianists currently perform classical music on digital instruments.
- Cost of new acoustic pianos: Upright pianos start at around $3000: Good student uprights run $5000 – $8000. Grand pianos start at around $10,000 and, with name brands such as Steinway or Bosendorfer, can run upwards of $100,000 — clearly not an appropriate or even possible purchase if the user is a six-year old beginner.
- Price of used pianos: Used pianos can be found in retail shops for less than half the price of new pianos. They can also be found when people move or are disposing of estates for far less. Always bring a qualified piano technician when looking at a used piano.
- Acoustic pianos must live away from windows, sunlight, and heating vents: No exceptions!
- Acoustic pianos are extremely vulnerable to changes in temperature and humidity and in a volatile climate, they may need frequent repair work.
- Acoustic pianos should be tuned twice a year.
- If properly maintained, acoustic pianos hold their value and may even appreciate.
The verdict: Acoustic pianos are expensive, require maintenance and space, and are completely inconvenient when it comes to moving. But people still fall in love with fine acoustic pianos. And that is not going to change.
Basic Facts and Features about Buying Digital Pianos
Digital pianos are also known as electronic keyboards or synthesizers. If the keyboard is a synthesizer, it usually has a full range of sounds, including percussion tracks and sound effects A digital piano typically has fewer sounds and effects; its design is more concerned with achieving a piano-like feel and sound; it may even (sometimes) have a baby-grand piano look. Good synthesizers have both good piano-like quality and the full complement of synthesizer sounds. To be used as a substitute piano, a keyboard should have 88 weighted keys, touch control, and a pedal.
Digital pianos start at under $100; for that, you get an instrument with very limited use and poor sound and feel. They range up to more than $5000. Synthesizers with good piano tone and feel are available in the $1000 – $3000 range. Name brands (with a long history) include Yamaha, Casio, Roland, Kawai, and Technics.
Digital piano benefits include:
- Multiple instrument voices, which can be used for composing and gigging. A split keyboard lets the pianist play one voice with one hand, and a different voice with the other.
- Rhythm tracks and built in metronomes.
- Transposing buttons for use in gigging situations.
- Maintenance-free operation (mostly). Digital pianos don’t need to be tuned, and are not subject to the tone and wood damage problems that affect acoustic pianos suffering from changes in humidity and temperature. However, when something does go wrong, it can be hard to find someone to fix an electronic piano.
- Upgradable with new software.
- Attractive and easy; can be good choices for young children’s piano practice, because kids are likely to be intrigued by the multiple sounds and possibilities.
- Ear phones allow pianists to practice any time, anywhere there is an electrical outlet.
- Recording capability for practicing one hand against the other, or checking a performance.
- Computer compatibility for composing and learning software.
- Better overall piano sound, feel, and reliability at $1000 to $3000 price-point.
- Likely to depreciate more quickly than a well-maintained acoustic piano.
The choice between an acoustic piano and a digital piano will be affected by budget, the kind of music, and gigging and traveling requirements. Many keyboard players and pianists ultimately end up with both a traditional piano and a digital keyboard. Or two.