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Acoustic v. Digital

Acoustic verses digital – Which is Better for Practice?
Dr. Virginia Houser, Kansas State University
Keyboard Companion Magazine, Winter 1996

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. They are portable, they can be equipped with headphones to allow private practice, and the more expensive ones offer touch-sensitive keys. Most even offer instrumental sounds and percussion effects which titillates 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 a non-reproducible, resonant amplification resulting from vibrating strings and wood. Last but not least, subtleties in pedaling 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.

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.

The Truth About "Digital" Pianos
By David Weiss, Registered Piano Technician
​Charlottesville, Virginia

​The first truth is that there is no such thing as a "digital piano" and the term "acoustic piano" is redundant. A piano is a musical instrument made of wood, felt, leather, and metal. It has no electronic components. It is a percussion instrument where felt covered mallets called hammers strike strings to set them in motion.

The term "digital piano" was created by marketing departments to increase sales of electronic keyboards. Their objective was to create the illusion that electronic keyboards are the equivalent of real pianos, thereby increasing their market share of musical instrument sales. In this endeavor they have succeeded very well. They have created what seems to be two categories of keyboard instruments, digital pianos and acoustic pianos.

The more important truth is that digital and acoustic pianos are not equal, and in fact are not even close. For the studying of traditional, classical music of the great composers, the only appropriate instrument is a piano. The same holds true for studying jazz, or any other type of serious music. A digital piano is not suitable for this because of several critical limitations:

1. You can't develop the proper touch on an electric instrument.

The art of playing beautiful music on a piano involves training the muscles to do very subtle movements. The fingers develop strength, dexterity, and most importantly, sensitivity. Electric keyboards, even the most expensive ones simply cannot replicate the action of a real piano. Therefore one can never develop the finger strength or sensitivity needed to play the correct way. A good pianist can play one note on the piano and elicit a thousand different shades. This is the art of great playing, and this is why it is so moving to hear a great pianist play. On an electric keyboard, the available palate is 3 or 4 colors, not a thousand. Even expensive keyboards that claim to be touch-sensitive and have weighted keys do not perform much better. While weighted keys are better than non-weighted keys, it still doesn't come close to the touch of a piano.

2. The sound is artificial on an electric instrument.

The sound of a real piano is generated by felt hammers striking strings, the strings vibrate, this in turn makes a wooden soundboard vibrate, and then the air around the soundboard starts to vibrate. In other words, the sound is generated by felt, steel, and wood, and therefore the sound is alive. Compare this to a digital piano, where the sound is produced by an electronic signal. How alive is that signal? Most of the time digital pianos sound like CD players. It's the difference between hiking up a beautiful mountain trail versus looking at a picture of nature.

3. The pedals are completely different on an electric instrument.

Pedaling is a skill that takes years of practice to develop. Pedaling on a piano is not simply on or off. There are multiple pedals and they each require different techniques. Some electric keyboards don't have any pedals, some have one, but they are vastly different in feel from the pedals on a piano. You simply cannot develop proper pedaling technique on an electric keyboard. Again, plastic and electronic do not feel or perform like wood, felt, and metal.

4. The pleasure factor is missing or diminished on an electric instrument.

There is a sensual pleasure in playing an acoustic piano. Playing an acoustic instrument can be an experience that digs deeply into our souls. People are drawn to it because it touches something inside of them. It makes them feel alive, it brings joy into their lives. I maintain that this experience is either not possible or greatly diminished when playing an electric instrument. In this case, the medium is as important as the message.

Many times parents buy an electric keyboard to get their child started on piano lessons. Their thinking is to begin with the electric instrument, and if the child takes to it then later buy a real piano. The problem with this is that the child is not really getting a taste of piano lessons by practicing on an electric keyboard. Their fingers go up and down, but what's missing is the sensual pleasure. The pleasing sound is gone, the feel of real piano keys is not there, and they don't develop the finger strength or touch needed to play with expression. Often the child stops enjoying the lessons, but can't verbalize why. The parent assumes he or she is not interested, and terminates the lessons. Why did the child stop? It's simple, there was no pleasure in it.

Financially, electric keyboards have limited resale value similar to computers and other electronic devices.  Contrast this with pianos which hold their value very well. Many times you can sell a good used piano for the same price you initially paid.

Why can Miles Davis play one note and captivate us, why can a great pianist play the same piece we do and as we listen we are transformed? Great musicians have trained themselves to play with sensitivity, and fire, and softness, and to evoke emotions that move us, inspire us, and make us feel fully alive. Studying music is not about moving fingers up and down, it's about developing our own ability to bring forth sounds and feelings that fulfill us. We aspire to play like the masters, in a way that moves our listeners, and nurtures us as we play. In this pursuit, a piano is required, a real piano.