The difference between digital pianos and keyboards isn’t very black and white. These similar-looking instruments have a lot in common: their black and white keys, piano voicings, and loads of buttons. But they also can be very different in their purpose, sound, and size.
If you’re looking for a new digital instrument, you might be wondering what’s the difference? If the murky waters of digital piano vs. keyboard seem confusing, don’t worry. We’ll help you wade through the differences so you can choose the one that meets your needs.
While digital pianos and keyboards may look similar, they have slightly different purposes. Of course, they both make music and have built-in piano sounds for your to play. But digital pianos were created to emulate an actual acoustic piano, and in doing so, they are bigger, heavier instruments that focus on rich piano sounds. Keyboards, on the other hand, are smaller and lighter. They’re designed to be more portable and have a lot more sound options.
A digital piano is meant to emulate an acoustic piano, so they will almost always have a full 88-key keyboard. A keyboard, on the other hand, has more options. Keyboards are designed to be portable, so they’ll often have fewer keys. Finding keyboards with 49, 61, 76, or even 88 keys isn't unusual.
If you are looking to play classical piano music, you may want to gravitate towards something with all 88 keys. But if you’re looking to stick with more contemporary music and portability is a must, you may want to go with 61.
Check out our top picks for the best weighted keyboards
Keyboards were designed to be packed in a bag and whisked off to your next gig or family vacation. Digital pianos were designed to be happily situated in your living room, where they will stay until you get back.
Digital pianos are typically large, heavy instruments. They’re smaller and lighter than an actual acoustic piano, but they’re too big to easily load into your family minivan for a camping trip. They typically have a built-in stand and matching piano bench and can easily weigh over a hundred pounds.
Digital keyboards, on the other hand, are lighter and smaller. They’ll often weigh less than 40 pounds and aren’t permanently attached to a stand. You can usually purchase a folding keyboard stand for the keyboard or just set it on a desk or table when you want to play.
A digital piano will have fewer than 20 sounds most of the time. This is because the focus of these instruments is on providing piano sounds, so you’ll usually have a couple of different piano tones to choose from and an organ and a few strings. But ideally, you won’t have lots of different sounds to bog you down, so you can focus on playing the piano.
On the other hand, a keyboard will probably come loaded with a few hundred different voicings for you to play with, including pianos, orchestral instruments, choir sounds, drums, and many more. You might also find rhythms, accompaniments, and synthesizer controls so you can edit your sounds, too.
The Yamaha PSR-EW310 is a keyboard with 76 keys, 622 different voices to play, sound effects, smart chord, arpeggiator, and built-in music lessons.
Check out our recommendations of the best Yamaha digital pianos
There is often a big difference in the quality of sounds. Since a digital piano is designed to imitate the sound of an acoustic piano, the focus will be on creating the best digital version of a piano sound possible. So often, these sounds are actual recordings of an acoustic piano that were made through a process called sound sampling.
But with a digital keyboard, the sounds are more often digitally recreated, so they simply don’t have the same depth and richness. On higher-end keyboards, sometimes called samples, you’ll find sampled sounds similar in quality to a digital piano, but these instruments will be much more expensive than a standard keyboard. Alamo music center gives an in-depth explanation of the difference between sampling and modeling.
Instrument feel might be the biggest difference between a digital piano and a digital keyboard. Keyboards use synth-action. Synth-action uses springs inside of plastic keys to return the key to its resting position. This results in a quicker, easier action. You don’t have to press the key down with as much force, and it returns to the off position more quickly. Many keyboardists prefer this type of action if they are focusing on replicating instruments other than the piano or if they are involved with more modern music. In addition, synth-action keys help make the keyboard lighter and more portable.
On the other hand, a digital piano will use either weighted keys or graded hammer standard- or both! Digital pianos may have actual wooden keys with synthetic ivory overlays to give them an authentic piano feel. They employ the graded hammer standard, which means that the lower keys are harder to press than the higher keys, just like you would find on an acoustic instrument.
Jacob from Sweetwater gives an in-depth explanation of keyboard and piano action in his video.
Yamaha’s YDP184 Arius Series Digital Piano is an exceptional example of both digital piano action and sound.
Digital pianos vary in price from around $1000, for an inexpensive model, to upwards of several thousand dollars, for more high-end models. On the other hand, keyboards can vary from just a hundred dollars for a solid beginner keyboard to thousands of dollars for professional workstations.
You’ll find fewer features, fewer available sounds, and lower quality key action and sound performance at the lower end of the scale. On the other hand, at the higher end of the price scale, you’ll find more realistic sounds and feel as well as a lot more features at your disposal.
Every instrument will have some additional features or extras that might entice you to choose it for your music-making. For example, newer models of keyboards and digital pianos may have Bluetooth connectivity, while older or less expensive models probably won’t. On the other hand, both keyboards and digital pianos will probably have headphone jacks and MIDI ports, so you can practice quietly and connect to recording devices. In addition, both types of instruments will often have a few built-in features such as metronomes, tuning, recording tracks, and speakers.
When looking at digital pianos and keyboards, ask yourself what’s more important to you: a stationary instrument dedicated to sounding and feeling like a piano, like Yamaha’s YDP184 Arius Series Digital Piano or a portable instrument that can sound like a lot of different things, like the Yamaha PSR-EW310?
For example, if you’re a musician on the go, a digital keyboard might be better for you because of its portability. On the other hand, if you’re a dedicated classical pianist, you might prefer a digital piano's rich feel and sound. Or perhaps you want something in-between to meet all of your different musical goals.
Let us know in the comment section which you prefer and why because the answer just isn’t black and white. It’s found in the subtle nuances between the two:
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