Piano Topics:

Traditional Acoustic Versus Digital Pianos
Which one is right for you?

By Scott E. Thile

This year marks the 300th anniversary of the invention of the piano by Bartolomeo Cristofori in his native Venice. Since then, the artistic needs of serous pianists and the consumer demands from families and amateur pianists have brought us a myriad of makers and models of traditional acoustic pianos, making it a challenge to select the best piano. In recent years technology has presented us with yet another option, the digital piano. Improvements to digital pianos, and the skyrocketing costs of traditional acoustic pianos, have made digital pianos a tempting option for many. Let's take a look at the differences between digital and acoustic pianos. The traditional acoustic piano produces sound by transferring energy from the keys, as played by the pianist, to the hammers by means of the action mechanism. The hammers then strike the strings, which cause the strings to vibrate. These vibrations are then coupled to the piano's soundboard, which amplifies the sound acoustically.

The digital piano does its best to duplicate the sound of an acoustic piano by using digitally recorded piano sounds called samples, which are then played through electronic amplifiers and speakers when a key is played. Digital pianos have a weighted key action, which unlike organs or electronic keyboards, attempts to imitate the feel of the acoustic piano action.

In response to the pianist's variation in playing, or touch, the touch sensitive digital piano will respond to differences in key velocity, but it responds with stepped, pre-programmed variations. Higher quality digital pianos contain more possible variations by using more memory to store the digital data, but always in predetermined steps of volume and tone color, and always with a limit of possible responses.

Contrast this with the traditional piano, which responds with an infinite range of volume, and tone color, reflecting every nuance of the pianist's most subtle variations in touch and artistry.

In spite of this major limitation in digital pianos, there are advantages to using them for some styles of music and situations. Digital pianos are lighter, weighing less than 200 pounds; they can be disassembled and transported in most cars. Professional piano movers are required for moving acoustic pianos, which weigh between 450 to 1000 pounds. Digital pianos do not require tuning or regular maintenance like acoustic pianos. This can be an advantage in locations where frequent changes in humidity can cause tuning instability in acoustic pianos; these same changes have no effect on digital pianos. It is important to note, however, that digital pianos can suffer mechanical or electronic failures, and these can be expensive to repair.

Digital pianos can be used for practicing privately while listening through headphones, a handy feature for practicing without disturbing those nearby. This also makes the digital piano an excellent choice for teaching keyboarding skills in a lab environment, where many students can play simultaneously without disturbing each other.

Some acoustic pianos come with an option called a practice pedal, which dramatically softens the sound, but the sounds of practice can still be annoying to anyone in the same room, and practicing on a muted instrument is difficult at best.

Digital pianos can also play sounds other than piano sounds; with some having hundreds of instrument variations to choose from, a very attractive option for rock, pop, or jazz music. Digital pianos also utilize MIDI, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface, which makes it possible to connect these pianos to other devices, such as computers, or other MIDI equipped instruments. Interfacing the digital piano with a computer opens a wealth of educational opportunities to the music student, and makes it a valuable tool for the composer, who can then use it to input musical data into the computer to generate scores, or automatically play back their compositions.

Still, at its best, the digital piano is only an imitation of a real acoustic piano. The digital piano's sound can approach an excellent recording of a great traditional instrument, as played through a great sound system. While this can be very good, it can never sound as real as the genuine article it attempts to imitate. In addition to the limitation of sound there is the problem of feel and sensitivity. Lack of infinite sensitivity makes the digital piano useless for classical piano performance; these pianists simply can not sacrifice any amount of artistic expression. This lack of infinite sensitivity also limits the digital piano's value as a practice instrument for serious classical piano students. The student pianist must learn to control every aspect of the piano's potential as an expressive instrument. This is impossible if the bulk of the student's practice time is spent on a digital piano. For this reason many piano teachers refuse to accept students unless they have access to an acoustic piano to study on.

Financial limitations and considerations will certainly have a bearing on which piano to choose, and the available options. The low-end acoustic pianos, such as those made in China, while very affordable, are so full of potential problems that they are even more problematic for serious piano study than digital pianos. Many classical pianists, who also compose, or perform rock, jazz, and pop music, choose to own both a digital and a traditional piano. Good quality new upright acoustic pianos range anywhere from $3500 to $10,000, with new acoustic grand pianos costing anywhere from $7,500 to $85,000 or more. Digital pianos cost between $1500 and $8,500, depending on their quality and options. Used pianos are also an option; it is possible to buy a good used acoustic piano for about the same price as a new, less expensive digital piano.

Digital pianos, like computers, depreciate very quickly as the technology improves. When a new model hits the sales floor, the previous model drops drastically in price. New acoustic pianos tend to depreciate in value initially, but after the first two or three years they start to appreciate, and can soon be sold for more than their initial cost. Try doing that with a computer, or a digital piano!

Digital pianos, like computers, tend to have a useful life of between 2 and 5 years before the perpetual improvements in technology necessitate buying a newer model. Acoustic pianos, especially high quality ones, tend to be a once in a lifetime purchase, and are often handed down for generations of pianists to enjoy.

Huge advancements in technology have improved digital pianos, and they will continue to improve in their ability to imitate real pianos. But that is all that they can ever be, imitations. Consider carefully the advantages and disadvantages of this new option in the 300-year-old piano marketplace before making a purchase; it might just have an impact on your great grandchildren.