What Is Polyphony?

What Is Polyphony?

When browsing the world of digital pianos, something that stumps a lot of aspiring pianists and producers is the concept of ‘polyphony’. Few people actually understand what polyphony is and how it affects your digital instrument. This guide will help break down polyphony for you step by step and help you determine whether or not it is something that you need to consider when finding the right digital piano for you.

The reason we say digital piano when talking about polyphony is because acoustic instruments make ‘real’ sound when a hammer strikes a string, so they technically have unlimited polyphony, for more information on how acoustic pianos make sound, read our guide.

What Actually Is Polyphony?

In its most simple form, polyphony is:

The number of individual notes and sounds that a digital piano can play at once.

...So what do we mean by this?

A lot of manufacturers push having a high polyphony as a great selling point of their digital pianos, with some going all the way up to 256 polyphony, meaning that the digital piano can effectively play 256 notes at the same time (...that’s a lot of noise!)

Let’s take an example, if a digital piano had a polyphony of just 1, it would mean only 1 note could be played at a time, so even when you wanted to play a chord of 3 notes, only 1 note would ring, making the piano essentially useless!

In the past, many digital pianos did have rather low polyphony levels of perhaps 32. This meant that during more complicated pieces, a lot of those notes were being ‘dropped’ by the digital piano, creating an unfulfilling and rather clunky sound.

Thankfully however, polyphony technology has become far more advanced and inexpensive for manufacturers to produce, so many digital pianos will not experience this any more and even most entry level digital pianos will have polyphony levels into the hundreds.

Why is polyphony more than 10?

You might be thinking “I’ve only got 10 fingers, so surely I can only play 10 notes at once?”...and you’d be right to an extent. However, when it comes to pianos, the real magic happens in the subtle details.

For example, when you are using a sustain pedal, you’ll want those notes to be ringing for longer than just your initial touch of a key. The computer in the piano will need to process this for as long as you tell it to sustain the note. Whilst you are using a sustain pedal, this means that by the time the first note finishes ringing, you will be able touch far more than 10 notes at once.

But how can you play more than 100 notes at once?!

Believe it or not, reaching 100+ notes on a modern digital piano is actually incredibly easy. Especially for digital pianos that use extensive sound sampling. Many digital pianos now hold entire databases of thousands upon thousands of sound samples to create the exact feel that the pianist is looking for. In order to process all of this data, the piano’s tone engine may combine the sounds of 4 or 5 sound samples to produce a desired effect...That’s a polyphony of 5 in just one key!

Combine this with various chord patterns, fast playing, sustaining and pretty soon you’ll find yourself well into the hundreds of polyphony.

Another example of this might be in synthesisers that allow for multi-instrument notes, so if you are creating a track where you want each key to play: A piano sound, a violin sound, a bass note, a drum beat and a trumpet all at once…each key would need to generate at least 5 different noises, that’s a lot of polyphony going on!

What level of polyphony do I need?

For the standard entry level digital pianos, you will typically find that polyphony levels vary immensely, for example:

192 (Casio PX-S1000)

64 (Yamaha P45)

96 (Roland FP-10)

For further comparisons of these entry level pianos, check out our Portable Piano Buyers Guide.

For the beginner pianist, if you are only looking to play along to some of your favourite songs, a polyphony of 64 will be enough for you to get by without noticing any major note loss. However, as your skills begin to develop and your ear becomes more adapted to the subtle nuances within the music that you play, you’ll likely find that on lower polyphony pianos, you do lose some notes - this is when you will perhaps be wanting to move more towards the 100-150 polyphony level.

This begin said however, if you are looking for a fully immersive sound that you can fully rely on to deliver an amazing sound quality all of the time, a polyphony of 256 is certainly not a bad thing to want!

Ultimately, the level of polyphony you need will come down to what you intend to do with your piano, it may be something that you want to consider, however for many pianists, it might not be something that you will notice until your playing ability has progressed a little farther. We hope this guide has helped shed a little more light on what polyphony actually is and whether or not it is a specification on your digital piano that you need to consider. If you would like any further assistance on polyphony or helping choose the right digital piano for you, our team of expert piano specialists are on hand to help answer your questions.

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