Barb Hall, Certified Piano Technician

Digital vs. Acoustic, Which is Better


Perhaps the most frequently asked question that I am asked about is whether to purchase an acoustic or a digital piano. In this section, I shall point out the advantages and disadvantages of both types of instruments, to help everyone make a more educated decision. I have experience with both types of piano, because I have worked in an environment that sells both types of pianos. I have played the piano my entire life, have taught, and am now a piano technician. I have contacts with many music teachers and know their sentiments on each type of piano.

What is the Difference?

For clarification, a digital piano is anything that has anywhere from 61 to 88 keys that needs some sort of auxiliary power such as batteries or electricity to function.

An acoustic piano is one that will have either 85 or 88 keys and will NOT plug in. There are pianos which are called diskclaviers made by Yamaha which combine the best of both features and can be used either way, but for the purposes of this discussion, and since they are out of most people's price range, they shall be left out.

How is The Acoustic Piano Made?

An acoustic piano is made of parts which include moving action components, strings, bridges, and a soundboard, which when played, cause strings to vibrate and transmit their e nergy through bridges to the soundboard. This is how sound is heard on an acoustic piano. The design of an acoustic piano has not changed very much in the last 100 years, and it looks like the current action design is here to stay. An acoustic piano will last a very long time, sometimes as long as 100 years. It is a very complicated instrument with over 10,000 parts in it, and all should be in good working order to produce the full acoustic sound. They are built and regulated by skilled craftspeople, and can sometimes take over one year to build. They should be tuned at least once a year, and may require regulation from time to time or other minor repair. They are very heavy, up to 1000 pounds and can be difficult and costly to move about, and they will only ever make one sound, that is the sound of an acoustic piano.

How is The Digital Piano Made?

A digital piano, on the other hand, usually only has keys and sometimes pedals that move. Gone are the strings, the action and the soundboard. The sounds in a digital piano have been sampled from an actual acoustic instrument and stored in the piano's memory chips. Some digital pianos have what is called "simulated weighted action touch" or "touch sensitivity". Simulated weighted action touch is supposed to mimic the weighted sensation on an acoustic piano, where touch sensitivity allows you to alter the sound you hear by how hard the key is played, much like an acoustic piano. Some digital pianos come with pedals which imitate the sustain, soft, and sostenuto pedal functions on an acoustic piano. They come with a headphone jack, volume controls, sometimes a built-in metronome, recording capability, and on the very expensive models, Karaoke functions. The sound you hear from a digital piano comes out of speakers underneath the keys, much like sound from your stereo system. Digital pianos never need tuning, and are very lightweight, (usually under 100 pounds), and can be wired to

a sound system or hooked up to a computer for composing, making them suitable for musicians. The inside of a digital piano looks more like the inside of a computer, than that of an acoustic piano, and servicing is less frequent, but can be very expensive if required. They are mass produced on an assembly line at a cost that is a fraction of the retail price. It is not uncommon for a digital piano to be ruined during an electrical storm resulting in a power surge.

The Sales Pitch

Many people are impressed when they see a demonstration of a digital piano being played in a retail store or a home show, by the number of different tones it produces. A few things should be brought to your attention. First, you will still have to know how to play the piano in order to produce these tones. The sales person has prepared a well-rehearsed medley of tunes to demonstrate the digital piano's ability to make music. This person is usually a very accomplished musician, probably not a teacher or never has been, or has had plenty of time to prepare this medley, and is a polished performer who may or may not be classically trained. You will also need to know a lot about music harmony in order to play chord accompaniment. Don't let any sales person fool you into believing you'll be able to take it out of the box at home and make it sound that way, because it simply isn't going to happen. Secondly, the more tones you have in an instrument the more expensive it will be. Many people are fooled into believing that a digital piano can be cheaper. The high-end sophisticated ones can cost up to twice as much as an acoustic piano. If you decide to purchase a digital piano, it must have weighted keys, pedals, and a full-size keyboard, otherwise you are wasting your money. This kind of piano can cost at least $2500.00. Quite often, the initial novelty of having so many tones eventually wears off and you'll end up just using the one sound, the piano, which will NEVER sound as good as an acoustic piano. The various piano tones have been compromised to make room for the many additional sounds you're unlikely to use.

If it Looks Like a Piano Is it a Piano?

The next question I always ask people is this. If your child were learning the guitar or the flute, would you buy them something that sounded like a guitar or a flute, or would you buy the actual instrument itself? Of course, you already know the answer. If you want an instrument to sound like a drum set, then buy a drum set. You will not use it when practicing the piano anyway. Many people feel that it makes practice more fun to have a piano piece sound like it's being played on a guitar. While it may be fun, it is not helping your child develop the skill to necessarily work with the subtle expressions an acoustic piano can deliver. It's just not right to play a piece that was written for the piano and have it sound like something else. If you want practice to be fun, the right teacher can keep your child focused on the piano in an interesting way and eliminate the need for these extra sounds.


Another consideration is this. If your child is destined to go the route of serious music study, you will have to purchase another instrument for them if your original investment was a digital piano. There are many teachers who will not teach a student who has reached a certain level unless they are practicing on an acoustic piano, REGARDLESS OF WHAT A SALES PERSON TELLS YOU. If in doubt, ask your music teacher. You will get more bang out of your buck if you purchase a good acoustic piano now. Remember that an acoustic piano can last up to 100 years and holds its value much better than a digital one can. A digital piano will become obsolete within five years because the manufacturers are always coming out with something better for less money, much like today's computers, and you would probably not be able to give it away after a few years, should your child lose interest or outgrow the instrument.

The "Final" Note

Always remember that unless you are a professional musician who needs a piano that is easily transported, or can be wired in to a sound system, or you plan to do composing on your computer with software, think very seriously before purchasing a digital piano instead of an acoustic one. It will be a lasting decision that you may regret down the road that will be very difficult and costly to undo.

Authored by: Barb Hall
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May not be copied or used
without written permission.

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