Introduction

So you’ve started shopping for a piano and you’re immediately faced with the question; should I be looking at an acoustic piano or a digital piano? Don’t fret because you’re not alone – this is a question every piano player and parent needs to answer. Despite what you may have heard from your piano teacher, modern digital pianos, especially those made by the ‘Big 3’ of Kawai, Roland and Yamaha have come a very long way in mimicking the playing experience of a ‘real piano’ since the early days of the first synthesizers, primarily through the development of graded hammer-actions. Digital pianos can actually boast some really nice advantages too, such as the volume control offered by playing with headphones, the fact that they require much less upkeep as compared to their acoustic counterparts, and the portability offered by slab and stage pianos.

All of this being said, for some, going with an acoustic instrument right off the bat is the way to go. While digital pianos have come along with regards to touch sensitivity, even the finest digital piano is no match for the musical expression achievable with a traditional piano.

Today we’re going to address this topic and get you asking the right questions to figure out, digital vs acoustic piano, and which one might be better for a student that’s just getting started out.  We’ll look at how the action on an acoustic and a digital are both different and similar. We’ll also get into tone and how an acoustic piano generates its sound compared to a digital piano. And then, we’ll look at what some of the limitations are between an acoustic and a digital, both in terms of price, space and maintenance.

Differences In Touch

Roland Digital Piano
Roland Digital Piano

Let’s first start with how digital and acoustic pianos are actually different, and we’ll get into recommendations, comparisons and pros and cons a little bit later in the article. The first thing we’ll look at is the action. A piano action is essentially a mechanism that takes a basic lever with a pivot point and translates that into the motion of a hammer coming up and striking the string.

Acoustic piano actions have been under constant evolution and development for around 300 years now, with the very first one having been innovated by the Italian inventor Cristofori. The modern piano action has been designed to accomplish several things, but most importantly, to allow for dynamic control over the volume, instead of only having only a single volume available such as with a harpsichord. Depending on how softly or how hard a player hits the key, that hammer is going to respond accordingly, either with a soft strike on the string, or a really fast-hard strike on the string, resulting in a big volume and tonal difference.  One of the things that develops with a student is the ability to create all sorts of different tones and shades of color by using different pressures, velocities and playing techniques on a given key. The better the piano, the more accurately it translates the players intent. On a really well-built piano, there are literally thousands of tiny nuances that the player is able to draw out of the instrument simply by how they’re touching the keys.

There’s a lot of nuances that you get when you have a direct mechanical link with a tool that you’re using, and a key is essentially a tool in the hands of a musician. This is no different than a violinist physically holding a bow when they’re playing the violin or even an athlete when they’re using a tool themselves. Once you translate this into a digital piano, there is a risk of losing all sorts of that nuance. And this is where some of the early criticisms of digital pianos came from due to how a digital piano action tries to recreate this. When the key on a digital piano presses down there’s a counterweight that swings up to simulate the feel of a hammer being swung. This is then detected by a sensor that tries to determine whether the key has been pressed quickly and hard or whether it’s been pressed slow and soft. In the early days, the sensor technology was very limited in being able to accurately process this information, resulting in a key-action incapable of much if any dynamic range.

In the 1980s and even the 1990s, music teachers would completely scoff at the concept of learning proper piano on a digital piano due to the lack of nuance, which meant that the player wasn’t capable of developing the muscle coordination and accuracy necessary to get a sense of how to control the dynamic range of the instrument.

Today, there is a huge range of high-quality digital options in terms of not only how closely the physical mechanism has been replicated but also how accurate that sensor is in terms of really capturing the nuance of what the player is doing, which has now been mated to a powerful computer-generated sound engine that can do a whole lot with all of that different data.

Differences In Tone

So, second, let’s talk about tone and how this tone is created. We’ve already implied that on an acoustic piano the hammer hitting the string has a lot to do with the piano sound we hear, and that’s very true. But, on an acoustic piano, it goes even further than that. A hallmark of really great instruments is their capacity to resonate, and in the case of a violin, cello or a piano in this case, the more that the entire structure of the instrument is resonating, the better. Instead of just hearing the sound of the string being amplified a little bit by a soundboard, in the case of a well resonating piano, you actually have a large wooden structure that starts to vibrate and create tones of its own.

This is probably one of the biggest differences between an acoustic and a digital piano in terms of how they each generate sound, not necessarily with regards to the quality of the tone, but how the tone is physically created and how it reaches our ears. As we mentioned before, on an acoustic piano, the hammer comes up and it strikes normally three strings, unless of course we’re in the bass where it might be two or one, and these strings then vibrate. The strings themselves are very quiet, you’re not really gonna be able to hear them much on their own. You can almost think of this as like playing an electric guitar if the amplifier is not on, you can still kind of hear the string but they’re very quiet. That would be what would be happening on a piano if you took away the soundboard.

The bridge and the soundboard, which is that big flat wooden piece in a piano, or, in an upright piano, it’s actually vertical, takes those vibrations from the strings, and then, the whole thing starts to vibrate kind of like a speaker cone. This is where most of the sound comes from. So the big difference with tone in an acoustic piano is you actually have a speaker which is several square feet in size. On a 48-inch upright piano, for example, there’s almost 2,000 square inches worth of soundboard area. If you had an electronic speaker that had a cone that was that big, it would be the size of a wall, nobody would ever do it! So you have this big difference with the sound literally coming from the whole structure of the piano, mainly the soundboard. In comparison, on a digital piano, the sound is reproduced just the same way as it would be in a stereo. You have this audio signal that’s being sent to an amplifier, and then, the amplifier is driving to relatively small speakers, in some cases maybe four. From there, you’re hearing all of the sound coming out of speakers, as opposed to a soundboard which is the size of a table. No matter how good those speakers get, they’ll never be able to produce the acoustic effect of a very large resonating surface.

This is why you’ll sometimes hear people say, “Oh yeah, the digital pianos these days are sounding really good but they’ll never be as good as the acoustic.” Well, I don’t like the words “Good” and “bad” or “better,” but will the acoustic piano always be different? Absolutely. And that’s one of the critical differences that no one really seems to be trying to overcome or frankly, is interested in overcoming. One of the reasons of course, if you’re going with the digital, sometimes the reason is portability and size. You’re not about to attach a table-sized speaker to this thing if the whole point was to get it smaller and get it more portable in the first place. This your main difference in sound and sound quality. You’ve got a whole wooden structure that’s resonating versus two speakers or, in some cases, four speakers which are producing the sound.

Pros and Cons

Now let’s get into some pros and cons and now that we’ve discussed some critical differences between acoustic and digital pianos. So when is it totally appropriate to have somebody start on a digital instead of on an acoustic? Well, in my opinion, if you are prepared to purchase a digital piano of reasonable quality, most students will be well served for the first several years. It’s not going to be a better nor nor an equal experience to an acoustic, but I think the relevant question is, “Is this going to stop somebody from getting excited about piano or learning the basics?” Not really. Maybe you could’ve made that argument 15 years ago, 10 years ago, but in 2020 and beyond, even the digital pianos in and around the $1,000 range are providing a good enough experience that if the point is to test a student’s interest, you’ve got a piano which is going to be fun to play where the key action is close enough that they’re going to be able to develop some of the more technique required to play piano. I think there’s almost no scenario where a decent mid-range digital isn’t a great place to start.

Does that mean that a parent who’s considering an upright piano or a grand piano is making a mistake if they themselves or their child has never played before? Absolutely not. If you have the space, the budget, and perhaps if you have some other musical experience or just an appreciation for a finely-built instrument, this is definitely going to be a very great place for a student to start out as well. The main reason why digitals make a lot of sense for people starting out is because they’re typically much less expensive than acoustics. A decent mid-range digital is going start around $1,000, whereas a decent mid-range acoustic upright is going to be closer to $5,000. If you’re looking at the used market, at the very least the starting point somewhere in the $2,500 to $3,000 range, so you’re looking at 3 to 5 times the price. That’s a significant consideration for people who have six or seven different extracurricular acivities that they’re trying to fund. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t start an acoustic if you’ve got the budget and the space but digitals definitely should not be discounted simply because they’re not the real thing.

To summarize, the main benefit of starting with digital is going to be that they’re smaller, they’re portable, and obviously their cost is three to five times less that of a decent starting upright piano.

A secondary benefit on the digital-piano side that you may not think of when you’re starting out is that there is a huge potential for engagement in how they can integrate with modern apps from the Google Play Store or the Apple App Store. If you’re a parent and you know you’ve got a child who really engages well with electronics, a digital piano will allow you to essentially keep feeding your son or daughter with new challenges and new opportunities to apply their music into an area that they find highly-relevant. There’s even apps that allow you to help track whether they’re actually practicing or not, and the technology exists which allows them to exchange recordings back and forth with their teacher. That is a big thing that can’t be ignored. I should mention that those types of integrations are available on acoustic pianos as well but on an upright, those integrations are going to start at around the $10,000 mark, whereas on the digital side, you’re going to access to this technology in $1,500 to $2,000 mark.

Some benefits to consider when starting with an acoustic piano would be that you’ve got something that has substantial longevity, as even the most basic acoustic piano will give you 30 or 40 years. You’ve got that direct mechanical link between the fingers and the sound being generated, and of course, beyond about the first year and a half to 2 years of instruction, the player will be able to develop a finer, more keen sense of technique and nuance with an acoustic vs a digital.

One disadvantage to an acoustic, and everybody asks about it, is of course the maintenance requirements. An acoustic piano is a mechanical machine. It does not have a lot of modern climate-control contraptions to make sure that this is completely stable, although you can install controlled humidifiers underneath the piano, which I definitely recommend for some people. So what do you have to do if you’ve got an acoustic piano? For one, you’re going to have to tune it. That is unavoidable, and for most people, that means tuning it the absolute minimum of once a year. But if you’re playing the instrument on a daily basis, every couple of days, and the instrument is getting played with some force, you’re going to have to be tuning the piano probably twice a year. The best times to tune an acoustic piano are usually a few weeks after the heat goes on in the fall, and a few weeks after the air-conditioning turns on in the spring.

The piano also needs to be kept in a relatively stable climate environment, that means the humidity that stays within a relatively controlled band of about 35 to about 55 degrees There’s lots of wood in these instruments, so just like hardwood floors and door jams, things start to creak, expand and contract a little bit when the humidity starts fluctuating.

When is it time to upgrade?

GL-10 Grand Piano

So, let’s say you’ve started with a digital piano and you’re a year or two in. How do you know when it’s time to transition from a digital over to an acoustic? We also get this question quite a bit. So if you’ve started with a digital piano that has a fairly decent speaker strength to it or power, let’s say something that’s around between 30 to 50 watts, a good sustain pedal and something with a triple sensor in the key so it’s able to pick up quite a bit of nuance, that instrument is probably going to be able to get somebody through 4-5 years of instruction before that particular instrument starts holding them back. So if your son or daughter is going to develop towards a more advanced classical exam or it looks like they’re headed towards some type of professional application of the musical knowledge they’ve acquired, then their practice instrument should start to reflect what they’re going to be professionally performing in. If you’ve started with a high-end digital piano, this need to upgrade can be offset for a few more years in some cases.

So, thank you so much for checking out this article. I really genuinely hope that this feedback has been helpful. I know it’s a lot of information, but if you’ve been struggling with this question or if you’ve been getting conflicting advice either from the internet, friends or teachers, I hope this has helped a little bit to add some clarity to your decision.