The Truth About "Digital" Pianos
By David Weiss, Registered Piano Technician
The first truth is that there is no such thing as a digital piano. 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. (Please note the term acoustic piano is redundant.) Now they are trying to cloud the terminology even further, by calling anything with a keyboard a piano.
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 one 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 pedal, 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.
Too many times I see 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 the right way. 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. Even financially, it's often a bad decision to go with the electric piano at the start. Like many electronic devices, digital pianos have terrible resale value. 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.