Piano or Keyboard?
Making the Decision
Let’s be honest. Purchasing a piano or keyboard these days can be a grueling experience. You enter a music store whose walls are lined with keyboards, guitars and electronic gadgetry and find a few pianos in the corner, then try to extract information from the ex-rock’n’roller/salesperson who probably knows next to nothing about an acoustic piano and wants only to steer you to the keyboard with the most bells and whistles – and the highest price tag.
This scenario, which unfortunately is all too common, is not an accurate representation of the real world of acoustic and digital pianos. The fact is, there are still far more pianos in people’s homes than keyboards, and the choice between a piano and a keyboard is a much deeper consideration than what the typical music store salesperson is willing, or even able, to tell you. Many music stores that pressure you into buying a keyboard over a piano are doing it for profit (whether their own or the corporation whose products they are selling), not to help you make an informed decision.
A few advantages to the keyboard are obvious: they are easier to move, do not need to be tuned, and their volume can be controlled — a great benefit in some situations. But because of the higher profit margins in keyboards, many people are not told the many advantages of the acoustic piano. In order to make a wise decision, you must consider the advantages and disadvantages of both.
The sound consideration is undeniable: the piano is the real thing, while the keyboard is, to a greater or lesser degree, an imitation (not that an imitation is always bad). Genuine piano sound is the result of over 200 strings vibrating across a soundboard, and as such, it results in a very complex sound pattern. The illustrations below demonstrate the complex pattern of a vibrating string, which simply cannot be reproduced electronically. As the string vibrates, not only does it vibrate at its primary frequency (e.g., A=220, the A below middle C), but it subdivides itselt into partials which produce the harmonic tones that give the piano its unique sound. The illustration to the left shows the fundamental vibration at the bottom and partials one through eight, also referred to as first harmonic, second harmonic, and so on. The illustration on the left shows the fundamental wave and the partials sounding, as they do in fact, simultaneously, producing the complex composit wave in the illustration to the right.
This sound cannot be reproduced electronically. Digitized sound has come a long way, to be sure, but it can never replace the real thing, especially when considering the complex harmonics created by many notes being played together. It might be said that true piano sound is “alive,” while digital sound often sounds artificial or sterile.
Accuracy of “touch” is something most piano teachers consider a very important aspect of piano instruction. Again, the acoustic piano sets the standard: the touch is the combined resistance (created by springs, friction and gravity) of the many parts of the piano action working properly together.
While many keyboards claim to simulate piano touch, even the best are a poor substitute according to virtually all of the best piano teachers. Thus, while a keyboard may be a way for a beginner to “get started” without a piano, they pose the risk of encouraging bad habits that may be hard to break later on. In addition, no keyboard can match the dynamic range and flexibility and touch-response that a good piano action offers.
Stability of Your Investment
You will also want to consider the stability of your investment, whether or not you and/or your child continue to play the piano for the long term. What few keyboard vendors will tell you is that no electronic technology will retain its value over the long term (just try to get rid of a computer only a few years old!) The piano, on the other hand, is one of the most long-lived technologies in history, having remained almost unchanged in a hundred years.
A keyboard that develops a problem may often be considered “disposable.” On the other hand, a piano built in 1910, 1930, 1960 or 2006 uses essentially the same parts, and is repairable by any competent technician (not to mention the remarkable fact that a well-maintained eighty year-old piano may still be in good playing condition). For this reason, a good quality piano has exceptional resale or trade-in value and in many cases may actually be worth more than one paid for it. A good piano, indeed, can last a lifetime.
The issue of appearance certainly tips the scale toward the acoustic piano, with its ability to fit into the décor of your room because of its furniture value. Most keyboards have no real cabinet, and those that do often look plastic and artificial in a piano cabinet. In fact, experience over the years shows that the cabinet is even a major factor in giving a piano much of its resale value, since many people “buy with their eyes.”
It may be impossible to calculate the relative effects of a piano versus a keyboard on your child’s interest in continuing with piano playing. It has been suggested that a real piano will reinforce one’s commitment to playing and learning, while a keyboard, with all of its nifty gadgets, may seem more like a toy or a novelty item, only to be abandoned once the child is no longer amused by its different sounds and rhythms. Only you can weigh all of the above considerations when making the choice of a piano or keyboard. But when the choice is made, you may at least be able to comfort yourself in knowing that you have done your homework before taking the ultimate test: the purchase of a fine musical instrument that may indeed outlive you and be passed on to the next generation.