Keyboard vs Piano - What's the Big Deal?

Written by: Leslie Carmichael

As a piano teacher, one of the questions I get asked the most is: Do I need a piano? Is a keyboard good enough for piano lessons? Is it a big deal if I get one or the other? 

These are great questions to ask, of course. And in my case, as a classically trained pianist, I am certainly a bit biased towards a good old-fashioned piano. There are benefits to a keyboard, too, and understanding both will help you pick the one that is best for you. So what’s the difference between a piano and a keyboard? Let’s take a look. 

What’s the Difference Between a Keyboard and a Piano? 

Keyboards and pianos have a lot in common, they both have black and white keys after all, but their differences could affect how and what you play. If you’re considering purchasing a piano or a keyboard, understanding the differences will help you make the best choice. 

A Piano and a Keyboard Work Differently

A piano is considered an acoustic instrument, while a keyboard is an electronic instrument.

An acoustic piano creates sound mechanically – you don’t have to turn it on. Instead, you press a key, which activates a hammer that strikes a coordinating string. The string vibrates, producing a sound. The piano case, which is usually wood, helps the sound to reverberate so you can hear it. You don’t need any electricity to play an acoustic piano.

A keyboard, on the other hand, is all electric. When you press a key, it doesn’t strike a string. Instead, it activates a sensor, which ‘turns on’ the note that you hear from electric speakers. You’ll need electricity to turn on a keyboard and play it. 

A Piano and a Keyboard Produce Different Types of Sounds

An acoustic piano has just one sound – acoustic piano. You can adjust the sound depending on how you play and the pedals you use, but it is still the same sound. 

A digital piano will have around 10 to 20 different sounds to choose from, and a keyboard can have hundreds of different sounds, such as electric guitars, string instruments, drums, and more. 

Check out our guide to learn about the different types of pianos

Keyboards Have Additional Volume Controls

The volume of a piano depends on how hard you press down the keys. The same goes for most keyboards, as well. However, you also have speakers with a keyboard that you can turn up to magnify how loud you are playing. On the other hand, you could use headphones with a keyboard so no one else can hear you but you can’t with a piano. 

Pianos and Keyboards Don’t Have the Same Type of Key Action

When we play a key, the ‘action’ describes how the key works and feels when it is pressed.

In an upright acoustic piano, the key will naturally be heavier because it is made of wood. The amount of force you use to push down activates a mechanism that strikes the string to make the sound. 

You can see a video about how that works here. 

In a keyboard, the keys can be made of plastic or wood. When you press the key down, it activates a sensor to electronically turn the note on and off. 

Many good-quality keyboards are designed to replicate the feel of an acoustic piano, so the keys will be weighted or have some kind of spring resistance on them to give you more tactile feedback when you are playing. 

Keyboards Are a Lot Smaller than a Piano

One of the significant differences between keyboards and pianos is their size. An acoustic piano, especially a grand piano, is like a large piece of furniture. It will take up a lot of room! And while they generally have wheels, they are very heavy to move, so that you won’t be moving them around your home very often. If you move it to another home, you’ll probably have to hire a professional to help. 

Keyboards, on the other hand, come in all shapes and sizes. You can get them small enough to fit on a desk or as big as a small acoustic piano. In addition, they are considerably lighter and much more portable, so you can move them around your home and even take them with you when you travel. 

Pianos Have 88 Keys, But Keyboards Might Not

Most acoustic pianos have 88 keys, covering the spectrum of notes that sound good to our ears. A few pianos have a couple of extra low notes, but that’s pretty rare. Keyboards have anywhere from 61 to 88 keys, making them smaller and more portable. If you’re starting music lessons, though, a full 88 keys works the best. 

Keyboards Are Often Less Expensive than Pianos

Acoustic pianos can be costly, especially if you purchase a new one. Sometimes, though, people will give away old, free pianos because they need help moving them.

Keyboards have a wide range of costs, depending on quality and features. The more realistic the feel and the sound of a keyboard, the more expensive they tend to be. 

You can purchase a quality beginner keyboard for a few hundred dollars new, but a quality beginner piano will cost at least a few thousand new. 

Pianos Need More Maintenance then Keyboards 

Keyboards are very low maintenance. Of course, you need to keep them clean and dry, but they are always in tune, and they will generally last for years without breaking if you take good care of them.

A piano, on the other hand, needs regular maintenance. To keep your piano in good working order, it’ll need to be tuned by a professional once or twice a year. In addition, the piano mechanics can wear out over time and may need to be replaced. Sometimes, a piano will need a humidity system to keep the keys from sticking or rattling. 

So What’s the Big Deal About Pianos and Keyboards? Some Final Thoughts

There are a lot of similarities and differences between pianos and keyboards. And ultimately, it is up to you to choose what works best for your family, budget, and preferences. To highlight the most important differences between pianos and keyboards: 

  • Pianos are acoustic and keyboards are electronic 
  • Keyboards can offer a lot more sound choices than a piano
  • Keyboards are smaller than a piano but can still have 88 keys
  • Keyboards have a lot more volume control than a piano. 
  • Keyboards Are Less Expensive than Pianos 
  • Pianos Need More Maintenance than Keyboards 

To be completely honest, as a piano teacher, nothing beats the technique, musicality, and hand strength that you get from practicing on an old-fashioned acoustic piano. But there is much to be gained in the flexibility, size, cost, and capabilities that you can find in a good quality keyboard, as well. The big deal is to find the instrument that most inspires you to make great music. 

If you're interested in buying a new piano please check out our buying guide and reviews: Best Upright Piano For Your Home

Written By:
If anyone knows a thing or two about pianos, it's Leslie. Having played piano for the past 25 years and teaching for the past 15 years, she has vast experience compared to most. She loves to share her honest opinions about the brands and manufacturers in the industry. In her free time, Leslie loves to play with her dogs and go on hikes.

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