What Piano Should I Choose?

I am asked quite often by the parents of students what piano they should get so their child can practice effectively. So, I decided to write up a blog post to contain all the information in one place.

There are many different types of pianos and keyboards, and I will go through them and discuss pros and cons. These comments are not brand-specific, and while I have my favorites, there are many good brands in each category.

Digital/Electric Instruments

Many families today are looking into electric or digital instruments. While the key action and sound of good-quality digital instruments can be very close to the quality of a real acoustic piano, they still do not fully replace of an acoustic piano. However, they do serve a purpose. Digital instruments are more portable, they are a little smaller than acoustic pianos, they do not need tuning and require very little maintenance. Decent instruments can be found for a very affordable price. Most, if not all, have headphone jacks which will allow players to play without disturbing others, which can be very useful in a busy household or in an apartment setting. Digital instruments can also have a lot of sampled sounds as well as pre-recorded pieces. The number of sounds can range from just a handful to hundreds. Digital instruments can also be hooked up to the computer to aid in music composition and other electronic music applications.

The problems that can develop with digital pianos can be physical (eg. a key won’t move), electronic (eg. a speaker sounds crackly) or computer-related (eg. the information won’t show on the screen.) The cost of the problem is related to its origin and may or may not be worth the cost of fixing. Digital instruments need to be protected from changes in the electric current, like any computer.

Keyboards: Keyboards are lightweight and look like pianos because the pattern of black and white keys matches that of the piano. However, the keys of a keyboard are very lightweight and give no resistance while playing. Keyboards often are not full-size and have less than 88 keys. Many keyboards do not have their own speakers and must be connected to a sound system or amplifier. They are best suited for those playing in bands, where they need something lightweight for travel and they keyboard is used more for sound effects than solo piano playing. Keyboards are not recommended for learning to play the piano.

Digital Pianos: Digital pianos are larger and heavier than keyboards and vary in portability. Some digital pianos can look very similar to an acoustic piano, and there are even digital “baby grand” pianos. Other digital piano look more like keyboards and are set up on foldable stands for portability. The digital pianos that look more like acoustic pianos will have attached pedals, usually more than one. The more portable digital pianos will have a separate pedal that is connected by a cord.

Someone looking for a digital piano for learning piano should look for a piano that has ALL of the following characteristics:

  • 88 full-size keys
  • Hammer-action keys that are touch-sensitive allowing for dynamic playing
  • Sustain pedal – get a piano that can accept a pedal upgrade because most of the pedals that come with keyboards are garbage.
  • Self-contained speakers so a separate amplifier is not needed

In addition, the following is needed to ensure that the player can sit in proper relation to the keyboard:

  • An adjustable stand that will support the weight of the keyboard
  • An adjustable bench

Many digital pianos also come with MIDI capability and USB connectivity, but students who think they might use the piano in an electronic music setting or to compose music, these are worth looking into.

For a list of digital pianos that I recommend, visit this link.

Acoustic Instruments

If well-loved, played often, and taken care of with regular twice-a-year tuning, maintenance, and a hydration system, acoustic pianos can sound good and play well for decades. While repairs may be needed, this does not happen often and can usually be corrected.

Some acoustic pianos will not have three pedals, though they will have at least two. All pianists will use the right-most pedal, the sustain pedal. While the left-most pedal is often used when someone wants to play softer, it is not often specifically called for outside of advanced repertoire. The middle pedal is the least used, so that is the one that is usually left out on pianos that have only two pedals. The exact action of the middle and left-most pedal can vary from brand to brand.

If acquiring an acoustic piano, keep in mind that pianos need to be moved by professional piano movers. Moving a piano incorrectly, like in the back of a pick-up truck, can damage the piano and cost more in repairs than hiring a professional. Also, a piano will need to be tuned after acclimating to its new location for about a month and a half.

Depending on the brand and model, and whether the piano is new or used, some acoustic (esp. upright) pianos and digital pianos can be comparable in purchasing cost. Some people may find the regular maintenance of an acoustic piano worth the improvement in sound and feel. But a new, quality digital piano is better than an acoustic piano in rough shape!

Watch out for Spinet Pianos: A lot of people will come across these pianos being offered for free or very low cost in local “for sale” lists. For someone who wants an acoustic piano, this can seem like an affordable option. But it really is sunk money. A digital piano is a better choice than a spinet. Spinets are so small they are difficult to tune and repair. Additionally, the action of the keys is not of the same quality as other types of pianos. The sound is also muffled and does not allow for much dynamic expression. For a really good description of the difference in action, see this link.

Upright Pianos: The strings on this piano are vertical, perpendicular to the floor, so the piano can be placed against the wall, saving space. The sound board of most upright pianos is smaller than that of a grand piano, so the quality and volume of sound, as well as the dynamic range, is less than a that of a grand piano. The wall the piano is placed against also absorbs some of the sound. Upright pianos are suitable for players of all levels, but advanced players may need the greater speed of the key action of a grand piano. I personally have found that I now have trouble playing on upright pianos because the keys do not return to their position as quickly as I need them to.

Grand Pianos: Grand pianos are the “fancy” pianos that are played in concert halls. Baby grands are smaller versions of these and are nice to have if there is enough room in the house. The strings are horizontal, parallel to the floor, so they do take up much more space. However, because of this shape the key-action relies on gravity alone (not with a spring) which allows the player to play repeated notes in more rapid succession. The sound of grand pianos is much better, and the dynamic range is far greater.

If you have the space and would like a baby grand piano, don’t count it out immediately because of the cost of new pianos. Used baby grand pianos are often for sale or given away. Check local ads. If you are unsure of the quality, have your local piano tuner inspect it before purchasing. If you are patient, you may find a good deal. Piano shops also usually have used pianos for sale that have already been refurbished.

Beware of people who are trying to give away their deceased husband’s grand piano! These are scammers looking for your personal information. I don’t know how this ruse became a thing, but it’s out there. I get several of these messages a year via my website.

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