MusicRadar basics: introduction to digital pianos

Everything you need to know to get started with digital pianos

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What is a digital piano, and how does it differ to an acoustic piano? An acoustic piano uses hammers to strike a series of strings which vibrate and generate a sound. This is the basis on which many instruments work - violins have strings which vibrate when bowed, guitars have strings which vibrate when plucked and pianos have strings which vibrate when struck. An acoustic piano comes in two styles – a grand piano which you usually see on concert hall stages and an upright or vertical piano which are most common in the home.

Digital pianos have no hammers, strings or any of the moving parts usually found in an acoustic piano. The sound of a world class acoustic piano is digitally recorded or sampled using high quality microphones and then reproduced through amplifiers and speakers each time a key is pressed.

Digital pianos are sometimes incorrectly referred to as electric pianos. Popular with bands in the 1970s, electric pianos used a combination of mechanical and electronic parts to generate their sound.

Digital pianos should also not be confused with keyboards. Often seen as a cheap alternative to a digital piano, a keyboard will have keys that are very light and springy and are often only over a limited 61 or 76 note range. Keyboards are fine for having a bit of fun but not as a serious alternative to an acoustic piano.

There are some key benefits of a digital piano over an acoustic piano. In no particular order...

The volume can be adjusted and headphones can be used. This allows practice where (and when) the sound of the instrument would disturb other people. Some pianos even have twin headphone sockets that allow a parent or teacher to listen in on the student.

An acoustic piano will usually need tuning once or twice a year. A digital piano is maintenance free – there are no hammers and strings to produce sound so there's no tuning required. This also means that they are less sensitive to room climate changes so can be placed against radiators or in basements.

Digital pianos include a huge variety of sounds suitable for playing many different genres of music.

Unlike acoustic pianos which can weigh a lot, a digital piano is significantly lighter which makes it easier to move it around. While their footprint is similar to an acoustic piano, digital pianos are also often half the height of an acoustic piano allowing placement under windows.

Digital pianos will often include features that help the learning process such as a built in metronome for keeping time or a recorder for self-evaluation of your performance. They can also be hooked up to a computer for composing.

And finally, they are generally much cheaper than acoustic pianos allowing you to buy a quality instrument for less money.