Should you learn the piano or the keyboard?

Millions have been drawn to key instruments. Some listen, others learn. As far as learning goes, the common dilemma that students face is whether to learn the piano or the keyboard. Both instruments offer great scope for performance; they can help you express yourself articulately (in musical terms), challenge you with the potential for growth, and, at the same time, soothe your restless nerves. Which one is the right choice for you? Can you learn piano on a keyboard? Can you switch between both instruments? 

Let’s explore the different facets of each instrument. And then you can decide which is the best fit for you – the piano with its rich history and classical bent or the keyboard with its multiple sound systems and ensemble performance options. 

1. Keys

In terms of arrangement of keys, both the piano and the keyboard are similar. But beyond that, there are some subtle nuances that differentiate these two keyed instruments. 

  • The width of a piano’s keys are slightly more than a keyboard’s. But, it is not difficult to get used to playing slightly wider keys. 
  • The number of keys in a piano are more than that of a keyboard. Pianos generally have 88 keys while keyboards generally have 61 or 76 keys or even fewer. Some electric keyboards have 88 keys.  Ideally, you need at least 76 keys to play piano pieces. 
  • The keys of a piano are weighted. This adds to the dynamic range and musicality of pianos making the sound unique. You also need more finger strength to play the piano because of this. While you can also get keyboards with weighted keys, if you decide to go in for such a complex keyboard, a piano might be a more logical choice! 

2. Sound

A. Production

The piano is an acoustic instrument.  This means that the sounds you hear are produced manually. How do you get that sound? When you press a key on the piano, a wooden hammer strikes the strings and the sound resonates, which produces that beautiful rich sound we all love about the piano. Every time you press a key on a piano, it is an original sound. Also, unless you use a digital piano, you cannot adjust the volume of the sound produced by the piano. 

On the other hand, a keyboard is electronic – the sound produced is recorded. There are no strings or hammers that make the sound. Instead, there is a synthesiser that plays digitised samples of the sound. Hence, the name digital keyboard. You can increase or decrease the volume of the keyboard with a knob. 

B. Multiple sound systems 

While the piano has a great dynamic range, it has only one type of sound. When you play, you know what it will sound like. Of course a digital piano offers you a few extra instruments recorded in it. But it cannot compare to the polyphonic abilities of a keyboard that can mimic instruments from horn and piano organ to guitar and harp – you, basically, have the whole orchestra at your fingertips! On top of this, there are various sound and volume controls to manipulate the sounds produced.  

You can connect it to the computer and explore further digital controls, and use the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) compatibility to play different sounds. 

How different are the keyboard and piano in sound?

Keyboards have an option to ‘sound’ like the piano with their multiple sound systems. So, how different are the sounds of a keyboard from that of a piano? While they may sound quite indistinguishable to the untrained ear, a musician/player will be able to tell the difference without much difficulty. The piano sounds richer and has a lingering sound, especially if you use a pedal, as compared to the keyboard. More than anything, when you play the piano, you can ‘feel the sound’ produced by it, which can make a significant difference to your performance. Of course, there are some very good, high-end keyboards that can have you believing you are playing the piano!

3. Usage of left and right hand

With piano lessons, you will learn to use each hand independently and together – to play different keys. This requires more skill as playing with both hands at the same time can be challenging, requiring a good deal of practice. With keyboard lessons, you will predominantly use the left hand to play chords while the right hand is used for tunes and melodies. This is generally easier for beginners to do. But, of course, as you progress and learn to use the full functionalities of a keyboard, you will be busy with the host of digital controls. 

4. Performance

The pianist is more of a soloist; at times, he/she is also part of a duet. If you like to own the stage on your own, this is the instrument that will give you that opportunity.

The keyboard player is often part of bands and orchestras. So, if you like to collaborate and play in groups, this is your instrument. 

5. Cost 

Keyboards are generally more affordable than pianos which can cost you lakhs! Of course it depends on the range of pianos and keyboards you are looking for. A basic digital piano might be comparable to the 88-key weighted keyboard. Your choice will depend on your purpose for purchase as well as your portability requirements.

6. Portability

Pianos are generally not portable. At least it will require a lot of effort and more than just your hands to move one. So, you will need to ensure that your music academy has a piano for you to learn on when you go for classes.   

Whereas, you can move your digital keyboard relatively easily with a case. This makes it easy for you to practise with your band or take it along with you on tours. This also makes it easier for you to stow it inside somewhere so it doesn’t always occupy space in your house. 

7. Maintenance and longevity

The high tension of the strings used in a piano causes them to stretch over time irrespective of whether you play it or not. This is why a piano needs tuning from time to time to maintain pitch – usually once a year. However, pianos are known to last for even centuries if maintained well!

Since keyboards are electronic, there is no tuning requirement. This makes the keyboard a more hassle-free instrument. You only need to visit a shop in case of repairs. If you maintain your keyboard well – this should be a rare event – once in many years. High-end keyboards can also outlive a generation or two. So, both these instruments have a reasonably long lifetime. 

Can you learn piano on a keyboard?

Many students want to learn the piano but are not ready to invest in one just yet. It is possible to learn piano on a keyboard. But you will have to make some adjustments when you switch – the width and weight of the keys, as discussed, are different – and even the length of the piano could be an octave or two more so you might have to negotiate with the smaller keyboard. You can work your way around this by investing in an 88-key keyboard with weighted keys. Which is more or less like buying a digital piano!

You could also consider renting a piano or keyboard till you are sure which one you want to learn. 

So, which instrument seems more up your alley – the classical piano or the polyphonic keyboard? Both have their attractions and, many times, those who play one instrument manage to play the other too. So, it is a choice that opens up more avenues for learning. 

If you would like to learn the piano or the keyboard, you have come to the right place! SaPa’s educators are also performers and can guide you in stage performances, exam certifications, and more!

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