Thoughts on composing, teaching and performing music, by Fergus Black

Picture that compares a digital piano and a portable keyboard

Keyboard or Piano?

I offer Piano lessons - not Portable Keyboard lessons. If you are considering whether an instrument at home is suitable, here is a short guide.

What is a keyboard exactly?

To many people, the words "Keyboard" (short for "Portable Keyboard") and "Piano" are the same thing, but in fact, they are different instruments, with different characteristics, and played in different ways.

The term "Piano" covers both digital and traditional (acoustic) pianos. Acoustic pianos are large items of household furniture, and have a mechanical action. Digital Pianos are electronic musical instruments which are designed as an alternative to their acoustic counterparts. I recommended acoustic pianos if they are in good condition. However, many students at all levels manage just fine with a good digital piano.

The term "Keyboard" is confusing, and has three distinct meanings: it is used for the class of all instruments that have black and white keys like a piano; also for the key-board on an actual piano; and thirdly for Portable (Electronic) Keyboard Instruments (abbreviated simply to "Keyboard", the sense in which I use it here). A Portable Keyboard is fine for a beginner piano student, but only in the short term; they will outgrow it pretty quickly.

How do Pianos and Portable Keyboards differ?

Here are the main ways in which Pianos and Portable Keyboards differ:

(1) Length - Portable Keyboards are shorter. Portable Keyboards usually have 61 notes (5 octaves), or sometimes only 49, counting both black and white notes; pianos have 85 or 88 keys (7 octaves).

(2) Width - Some Portable Keyboards (those that are half-way between a musical instrument and a toy) have non-standard, narrow keys. Whatever length, a useful instrument would have full-size keys: an octave (8 white notes) would be roughly 164-165 mm; white keys are about 23.5 mm wide at the base, disregarding space between keys.

(3) Touch Sensitivity - Many portable keyboards (especially older ones) are not touch sensitive, in other words, they make the same sound no matter how hard you hit the keys. Since the ability to play at different volumes by touch is an essential part of piano playing, keyboards of any kind which are not touch-sensitive are useless for the beginner pianist.

(4) Key weight - Acoustic pianos have weighted keys (mimicked on digital pianos: "weighted hammer action"), giving them a firm action. Portable Keyboard keys tend to have no resistance.

(5) A range of sounds - The piano makes piano sounds (A digital piano may, or may not, offer a limited range of different sounds). The Portable Keyboard has banks of many different sounds, accessible from the display panel.

(6) Playing style - On the keyboard the left hand accompanies with chords, with a rhythm section generated by the on-board software, while the right hand has the tune. On the piano the two hands are more independent.

(7) Pedals - Keyboards don't have them. Pianos should have at least one pedal (sustaining), and preferably 2 or 3.

If you own a keyboard, an alternative to piano lessons would be to have keyboard lessons instead.

Which is better value?

In general, Acoustic Pianos keep their value better: the Portable Keyboard and Digital Piano do not, since technology makes them obsolete more quickly. On the plus side digital pianos and keyboards do not need tuning, which is in the region of £60 once or twice a year. One other thing to note about digital pianos: 128-note polyphony is better than 64-note polyphony - it allows more notes to sound at a time, which allows users to make extensive use of the sustaining pedal and play sweeping chords. Like everything else, more expensive models tend to be better and last longer than cheaper ones.

Where do I buy a piano?

If you wish to buy an acoustic piano, I suggest you ask a local piano tuner. I would say it is also worth paying to have a piano inspected before purchase. A good tuner will be able to tell you if it is worth buying.

Fergus Black, 16th July 2018

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