When beginning your piano playing journey, you may find yourself asking the question whether you should invest in a digital or acoustic piano. Many love the idea of purchasing a real acoustic piano such as an upright instrument, but perhaps have some reservations over price, noise and maintenance. Because of this, often for many players, digital pianos seem like a more cost effective option to test the waters…But are they a good idea for new learners?
Today we explore the pros and cons of acoustic and digital pianos, how learning on a digital piano may affect your playing and whether or not digital pianos are the right instrument for you.
First thing’s first, can you learn piano on a digital piano? Yes you absolutely can.
So long as they have 88 keys and a weighted action to replicate that of an acoustic piano, digital pianos can make for perfect instruments to start learning piano on. During the early stages of learning especially, a weighted digital piano has all you need to begin playing the correct notes, begin to understand the importance of music theory and also the basics in piano touch. This is exactly why we launched our kickstart portable piano rental scheme.
Where this becomes a far more interesting conversation however is for those looking to either begin their journey on the best possible front foot, or those who are looking to invest in a quality instrument that will carry them through the early, intermediate and even advanced levels of play.
Most people only buy one or two pianos during their lifetime, so it is a big decision to make and one that you want to get right.
Let’s firstly address the elephant in the room.
Generally speaking, most seasoned pianists will agree that a real acoustic piano almost always trumps that of a digital one in terms of sound and playing experience. This is because acoustic pianos offer real sound, tone, touch, materials and offer a more ‘authentic’ piano playing experience.
There is something inherently different about an acoustic and a digital. Acoustic pianos breathe personality, uniqueness and often people become incredibly emotionally attached to them over time, they feel almost more like pets than products or pieces of furniture. The same simply cannot be said for a digital piano, despite their best efforts to replicate acoustic sound and touch (which some do, do to an amazing standard), ultimately they do lack the personality that acoustic pianos inherently have and whilst you may feel strongly about your digital piano, most piano players will agree they are simply not the same as an acoustic in terms of personality and the impact they have on a room.
Most pianists, even those just beginning can feel this too and often aspire to having an acoustic piano, but end up opting for a digital instead.
This is typically because of:
- Noise concerns
- Maintenance costs (tuning)
- Value and price
When it comes to noise concerns, one of the big attractions of digital pianos is that they can be played through headphones. What many people don’t realise however is that acoustic piano technology has evolved so far that through advancements in silent piano technology, even real acoustic instruments (both old and new) can be fitted with a silent system to allow your acoustic piano to be played fully silently through headphones. Learn more about how silent piano technology works in our guide to silent pianos here.
The second concern many have around acoustic pianos is tuning and ongoing maintenance and tuning, which digital pianos simply don’t need. The easiest way to think about this is how long your piano will last. Generally speaking we recommend getting an acoustic piano tuned maybe every 6-12 months depending on how much it is played. A well maintained acoustic piano will easily last 50-60 years before needing some minor refurbishment work, after this it will again be good for another 50 or so years. Whilst a digital piano does not need tuning, generally speaking even the most well maintained digital pianos have a lifespan or around 8-15 years before they fail and will need fully replacing. In short, you will likely need around 3-4 digital pianos to every 1 acoustic. Read our guides on how long acoustic pianos last and how long digital pianos last here.
The final reason many are hesitant to purchase an acoustic piano is value. It is no secret that acoustic pianos are typically more expensive than digital ones. This is primarily due to the craftsmanship, quality material selection and care that goes into producing an acoustic piano instead of the conveyor belt style of production that digital pianos use, which is more akin to any other electronic device you may have, such as a laptop or mobile phone.
What is often overlooked here however is depreciation of value, or other purchasing options. Typically speaking a well maintained acoustic piano will hold its value incredibly well. Often only dropping by maybe 20% or so after 10 years. In comparison to this, a digital piano, as soon as it is either unboxed or a new model is released after a year or so, can easily half in value overnight, so trying to sell or part exchange a digital piano is far harder than an acoustic piano and often you will end up with very little for a digital piano. At Millers we are so confident in this process and the value of acoustic pianos, it is why we offer an investment certificate securing the value of our new upright pianos for 3-5 years.
Now that we have addressed the concerns of digital vs acoustic pianos, let’s move onto how each will affect your playing.
How Digital Pianos Affect Your Playing:
When it comes to improving your piano playing experience, there are predominantly two key areas to consider and that is touch and tone. Touch refers to how the piano ‘feels’ whilst ‘tone’ refers to how it sounds and meets the ear. Acoustic and digital pianos are very different in terms of both, which we will explore here. Before reading this part of the article, it is also worth reading our guide to understanding how digital pianos work in terms of action, speaker systems and sound engines.
Starting with touch, a real acoustic piano consists of thousands of interlinking wooden and metallic components to create an authentic piano touch that is incredibly sensitive and can allow the player to extract even the subtlest of nuances within their playing. This is the goal that digital pianos are always trying to achieve and whilst many do a good job of doing so, ultimately they will never be able to exceed the touch of an acoustic.
There are a number of reasons for this, but primarily it is because of the shorter key lengths within digital pianos, especially more affordable options that feature a plastic action, these often have incredibly short keys, meaning that you have less control over your playing and are not able to extract the nuances that you can on a real acoustic. This is why we primarily recommend researching digital pianos that feature wooden components, as these instruments typically have a longer key length and more realistic touch.
This being said, are digital pianos good to learn on? Yes. They still offer a relatively authentic piano playing experience that has 88 weighted keys. In the initial stages of learning, this is not a problem, however around the grade 5 or so standard, your playing will need to incorporate some of the subtleties and nuances within playing that some digital pianos simply cannot achieve.
There are those that come close, namely the likes of the Kawai Concert Artist or Casio Grand Hybrid, which use tri-sensor technology to try to enhance the touch experience, but ultimately this is an area where a well made acoustic piano will always reign supreme.
The second area of playing that is closely linked to touch is that of tone. When we speak about tone in terms of acoustic pianos, we often refer to the analogy of wines, in that there are some definitive - I.e this is a bright tone or a mellow tone, or this is red or white wine, but when it comes to what tones an individual likes, these are subjective - ‘I prefer a mellower tone’ or ‘I like dry wines’ are purely down to personal preference and opinion.
When it comes to digital pianos, this somewhat goes away as unlike the acoustic experience, every digital piano is made from a series of samples of real instruments being recorded at different levels. Whilst this is an amazing feat of technology, the playing experience is only as good as the samples, this is why again for later stages of playing, without a more sophisticated sample and processor within the piano, you will not be able to achieve certain goals from a digital piano.
This is also closely linked to the idea of polyphony - which refers to how many ‘notes’ a digital piano can play at once. If a digital piano does not have a high enough polyphony, parts of the sound are lost within the playing and you will not be able to achieve the intended tonal properties of the playing. As an incidental point, because they use real acoustic properties and natural materials, acoustic pianos technically have unlimited polyphony. Learn more about polyphony here.
So, can you learn to play the piano on a digital instrument? Yes you absolutely can. For those who are either restricted by budget, space or logistical constraints, we actively recommend that a digital piano can be the right option for you. For those looking for a more authentic playing experience but require a digital piano for one of the reasons mentioned above, we would highly recommend looking into pianos that feature wooden keys and components, such as the Kawai Concert Artist range to still achieve a more realistic piano touch.
Digital pianos are ideal for beginners and intermediate players who are just looking to learn the piano, finger placements and the basics of piano playing, however for those looking to perhaps play to a high standard, or want to commit a lot of time into the piano, you will come up against some issues with your playing rather quickly as some digital pianos simply cannot perform the functionality, response or nuance within the playing that is required and only an acoustic piano can achieve.
For those who do have the budget and ability to house a real acoustic piano we believe that a better way of viewing acoustic pianos is that they are an investment in the future. They will not lose their value as easily, they offer an incredibly rewarding playing experience and can easily become a playing partner for life that you can build a genuine emotional connection with. For those with budget concerns, but want an authentic piano experience, secondhand or rental of acoustic pianos could also be fantastic options.
If you would like more advice, our teams are more than happy to help you find the perfect piano for you. We would highly recommend visiting our Cambridge piano showroom or contacting our teams for expert advice on finding the right piano for your home.