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What’s the Difference Between an Acoustic and Digital Piano? Which Is the Best to Learn On?

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When it comes to self-accompaniment as a singer, guitar and keys are your best options, with the latter providing more versatility. Particularly if you want to write and arrange your own songs.

But what is the difference between an acoustic and digital piano and which is the best to learn on? The answer may depend on your stage, budget and usage. But a hybrid digital-acoustic, combining the features of both will suit most singer-pianists.

Read on for brand and model recommendations and more detail on the exact differences between these two types of evergreen instruments.

What is the difference between an acoustic and digital piano?

The piano is an acoustic, stringed musical instrument invented in Italy by Bartolomeo Cristofori around the year 1700 (the exact year is uncertain), in which the strings are struck by wooden hammers that are coated with a softer material. Modern hammers are covered with dense wool felt; some early pianos used leather. Digital pianos may be designed to look very similar or have a sleek contemporary finish. But they don’t have strings.

Yamaha acoustic piano

Digital piano vs keyboard

An acoustic piano is as old-school as it gets. It has hammers and steel strings that are enclosed by a wooden exterior. The keys are connected to the hammers. When a key is pressed, the hammer moves and strikes the strings, causing them to vibrate and produce the sound. But there’s a significant downside to this; you can do nothing to muffle the noise. Which is a problem when you want to practise at midnight and your neighbours are complaining. A digital piano copies this hammer effect, by weighting the keys. When choosing a digital piano, the amount of weight you wish will be a consideration. Some are heavily weighted to be much closer to the traditional piano feel, others have a lighter touch.

How long do acoustic pianos last?

Around three decades is the average life for more modern versions. But they can continue on for centuries. The oldest piano in the world dates back to the 1600s, but can still be played!

And there isn’t just one type of acoustic piano. The upright is the standard one you might find in a pub or church hall. Whereas a grand, or baby grand is the more elaborate, larger-scale version. It’s not just the aesthetic that makes out the difference here. The grand’s long shape houses strings stretching backwards on a bed from the rear of the keys. On a standard piano, these strings reach directly down. This enables the grand to create a richer tone and be much louder. Unless you’re already an experienced and successful artist, an upright piano is all you need. Digital pianos come in both upright and grand styles.

Digital piano vs regular piano

If you want to control your volume, you’ll need to learn how to do this with your fingers if using an acoustic setup. Whereas, a digital piano has volume control – which is super useful is you’re trying to blend in with other instrumentalists or singers. You’ll need an electricity supply, unlike an acoustic model. Although some smaller electric versions can run off batteries.

These days, digital pianos come with a whole host of tech as standard – Bluetooth, MP3 functionality, USB ports, inbuilt sounds, tutorials, recording and playback capabilities and auto transposition.  And when it comes to gigging, they can be plugged into the PA. Whereas a piano may require a less effective mic setup.

Do digital pianos sound like real pianos?

There are differences between the sound of an acoustic piano and that of a digital piano. An acoustic piano produces sound with felt-covered hammers hitting steel-wire strings. A digital piano doesn’t use hammers; instead, it features electronic speakers to playback high-quality recordings taken from the very best acoustic pianos. But a good digital piano can, to a degree, ape the sound of a ‘real’ piano. Although it can’t provide the kind of vibration and sonics that come with a hammer effect. When a piano is played vigorously, you can feel it through the floor and your seat. The sound quality of a digital piano is more versatile than an acoustic because they typically have built-in speakers.

Acoustic piano price

Another consideration with an acoustic piano is the comparative cost. You may have access to one already, or acquire one for free (Gumtree, Freecycle and Facebook Marketplace sometimes have adverts from people giving pianos away for free). But bear in mind, if you’re responsible for the upkeep, it’s not cheap. A piano needs tuning around twice a year, at a minimum cost of £60 (it may be much more depending on your location and the model). And a full service will set you back somewhere in the region of £700.

In a short time, your piano could cost you considerably more than a high-quality digital version, which won’t need any maintenance at all – and will come with a warranty to give you peace of mind.

 

Which digital piano feels most like an acoustic?

You don’t always have to choose between the two. There are hybrid digital – acoustic pianos available, that combine the features of both.

Kawai Anytime

This brand and model comes in a variety of sizes. The Kawai Anytime range. In 1971 Kawai began introducing ABS action parts with the fine workings of the real piano action. This provides then the player with speed, control and power.

Yamaha Disklavier

One of the most respected names in the industry, Yamahas are played by everyone from amateurs to famous stars. Yamaha Disklavier Enspire allows its users to record and playback, as the piano’s keys, pedals and hammers recreating every detail. Built-in recordings come from the likes of Jamie Cullum and Sarah McLachlan, while software and apps complementing Disklavier’s tech, are available for score-writing, music production and rehearsing.

Kawai Novus NV10 Hybrid Piano Concert Package

If money is no object and you’re looking for the most elegant hybrid option, this is the one for you. Designed in line with a classic ebony grand, it combines innovative Japanese technology and Millennium III Hybrid action, used in Kawai’s concert GX acoustic grand pianos. The Kawai Novus NV10 is one of the best digital models you can buy – if you have a spare 7k to splash out.

 

The best acoustic piano

If you do decide to go down the old school route, you can buy a second-hand piano locally – your local music store will also be able to point you in the right direction and they may have some in stock. But if you’d prefer a new take on the classic, take a look at Steinway’s website. The company have been making fine instruments since the 1800s, and some of their creations take up to a year to craft.

What is the best keyboard to learn piano on?

A keyboard is a common entry instrument. It differs from the acoustic and digital piano, in that its keys are not weighted at all. It has a much more electronic sound, as well as a library of beats and effects. Some pianists complain that playing a keyboard is far less satisfying though. And for ballads or classical pieces, it doesn’t quite look, or sound, the part either.

If you’re just starting lessons, you may not want to spend a fortune. And you certainly won’t need a 7k grand. Here are some of the keyboards you might like to consider.

Donner Digital Piano Keyboard

The Donner Digital Piano Keyboard is fully weighted for that piano feel, yet light and portable at 133 x 29.5 x 18.5cm and a weight of 11.6kg. Its 88 keys can come fully or semi-weighted and it comes with the following tones: Acoustic Grand Piano, Bright Acoustic Piano, Electric Grand Piano, Chorus Piano, Harpsichord, Vibrating Harp, Church Organ and Strings Ensemble. The Donner instrument brand was founded in 2012 and has its headquarters in Tennessee, USA

Yamaha YPT-260

If you’re seeking a good all-rounder to start your journey on the keys, check this one out. Affordable (retailing at just over £140), portable and easy to operate, this is a good choice for beginner players of all ages and sizes. It can also run off batteries, making it perfect for busking or outdoor events. Features include:

  • 400 instrument sounds
  • 130 auto-accompaniment styles
  • 112 songs
  • 61 Keys

Can you learn to play the piano on a keyboard?

Yes. The keyboard is a common route into piano playing, due to convenience and far cheaper prices. And while the two may feel a little different, you’ll soon learn to adapt, in much the same way you become accustomed to driving various types of car. Most budding musicians don’t have access to a full-sized piano, so learning on a keyboard is standard. Digital pianos may be better for pianists than keyboards, due to the weighted keys which make them feel more like an acoustic piano when playing. So it won’t seem like as much of a jump as it will if you learn on a lightweight keyboard.

So do grab any opportunity you get, to have a tinkle on some ivories if you’re learning on a basic electric version. The more used to them you become, the readier you’ll be to jump in and play one in a live performance setting (not the time to be acclimatising to the new sensation).

Is it better to learn piano on the keyboard?

Not necessarily. You’ll learn the same theory on an acoustic piano, digital piano or keyboard. So it really comes down to practicality. If you are interested in playing modern music at a variety of locations, then a keyboard might be the better choice, to begin with. Alternatively, if you are likely to play more traditional piano music at venues that usually have an upright or grand (such as at church) then piano lessons are the best route to take.

 

Finding the best full-size keyboard piano for beginners

If buying a full-size keyboard online, don’t forget to check whether you’ll be able to carry it (if you plan on taking it to lessons and gigs). Dimensions aren’t too obvious when viewing isolated pictures. So grab a tape measure to see if it’ll fit in your car and lift something of a similar weight to ensure you have the bicep power to cope with it! In addition to the brands we’ve already mentioned, check out Roland’s state of the art full-size digital pianos.

We always recommend that you try before you buy when it comes to something this big, and maybe take a friend who has some piano experience too. An instrument, particularly a piano, is a big investment and a very personal choice. And much of it will come down to how it feels, which isn’t something you can identify by looking at pictures.  Any good music store will be very happy to chat through the options and find a piano that suits both your budget and needs. And if you’re still unsure whether an acoustic or digital model is right for you, having a play around will undoubtedly help you to decide.

Related Questions

  • How much should I spend on a digital piano?

For a full-sized intermediate level upright digital piano, expect to pay somewhere in the region of £300 to £700. Advanced models can A decent keyboard can start from as little as £100. A digital grand will cost around £2000 to £7000.

  • Are digital pianos worth it?

An acoustic piano can last 100 years, while digital may be obsolete in 5 years and might be hard to even give away by then. Your choice will depend on your circumstances. It won’t be worth the cost of an upright piano if you can’t take it to gigs, or with you when you move home or go away to study.

  • What is the difference between keyboard and piano lessons?

The fundamental basics will be the same. But lessons taken specifically for the keyboard may include the additional functionality available on a digital device. A piano also feels different, so the tactile experience of playing will differ.

What type of keyboard did you use to learn piano? Do you prefer a digital or a traditional instrument? Let us know what – and why – in the comments below.