DIGITAL vs. ACOUSTIC PIANO - WHICH IS BETTER FOR PRACTICE?

Published in the Winter, 1996, Keyboard Companion Magazine


Dr. Virginia Houser, Kansas State University

Do you want an elementary student to have a digital keyboard for home practice?

Call me a purist, a snob, just plain old-fashioned-- but for keyboard instruction I always favor the piano over Generation X's digital keyboard. Why? The digital relative still cannot produce a true piano sound, touch, and response.

That being said, I will admit that digital keyboards have come a long, long way in recent years. Their sounds are amazingly close to that of a piano; after all, many use actual sound samples from acoustic grand pianos. They stay in tune. They are portable. They generally cost less than a piano. The most expensive ones offer touch-sensitive (also called velocity-sensitive) and weighted wooden keys quite similar to an acoustic piano. Digital pianos have one to three pedals which simulate those on an acoustic. They can also be equipped with headphones which allow private practice. Most even offer instrumental sounds and percussion effects which titillate many students.

Even with all the digital pluses, however, I prefer a student's primary practice instrument be a piano. Because of all those marvelous inner mechanical workings, the performer must engage with the instrument to create sound and effects in a way not possible on a digital instrument. There is also an unreproducible, resonant amplification resulting from vibrating strings and wood. Last but not least, subtleties in pedalling are all but impossible with an electronic instrument.

Since being the director of a university preparatory music program and facing real-life situations, however, I have found I cannot rigidly promote this view. If a student is eager and ready to study, and circumstances do not permit purchase of a real piano, it is not justifiable to delay lessons until an acoustic instrument is made available.

Many calls to our program come from military families and college students. Their circumstances often do not permit having a piano. I initially ask such questions as:

  • Do you have sufficient space for an upright piano?
  • If you are renting in a multi-family dwelling, are you permitted to have a piano?
  • Are you living on an upper floor, and if so, does access permit moving a piano up stairs?
  • Do your finances permit buying or renting a piano?
  • Do you have to move often?

If one answers "yes" to one or more of these questions, then a digital keyboard is probably the answer.

Another very important consideration in the choice of an instrument is determining short and long term goals for the student. College students are often interested in learning popular music and enjoy the additional instrumental and sound effects of a digital keyboard. The immediate goal for a young beginner may be to foster a love of music and develop the skills for simple expression. While a digital keyboard may be fine for this, I encourage parents to consider providing their child with a good acoustic instrument to best develop playing skills.

So while our program does accept students with digital keyboards for early-level study, we strongly recommend purchase of a piano as soon as it is feasible. We educate parents and students to realize that the more interesting, advancing piano literature reaches beyond the capabilities of a digital keyboard--both in key range and sound capabilities.

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This page was last updated November 29, 1996