Versus Digital Pianos
Which one is right for you?
By Scott E. Thile
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.
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
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.
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
to Instrument repair shop main