Piano or Keyboard? Does it make a difference for learning? (Recommendations Included)

One of the most frequently asked questions I get is, "Can my child learn to play piano if we can only afford a keyboard?"

My answer is always, "Yes." I feel it is more important to start learning now than to wait around until you can afford a full Steinway&Sons grand piano for a $100,000. There are differences between learning on a piano of any kind versus a keyboard, but these differences can easily (and affordably) be mediated with some keyboards.

So what are the differences?

1. Action: We refer to the way the keys move up and down as the action. On grand pianos the keys move up and down with a combination of engineering and gravity. Upright pianos are very similar but sometimes employ the use of a small spring. 

Keyboards always use a spring but some higher quality keyboards allow gravity to do some of the work. 

2. Sonic appeal: If you talk to really good pianists they will tell you that there is no experience quite like playing on a grand piano. This is very true. The best piano I ever played was at the Weiner Konzerthaus in Vienna. It was a Bösendorfer full-concert grand. It played so well and sounded amazing. Still, the sonic appeal of grand pianos and even nice, upright pianos don't really effect how students learn the instrument. I certainly didn't need to practice on the Bösendorfer in order to be able to play it. In fact I recall practicing my parts on my University's Clavinovas (A common keyboard made by Yamaha) in the tiny, cramped practice rooms.

3. Key type: Piano keys are actually a long piece of wood that has some weight to them. Keyboards come with two types of keys: weighted and unweighted. Unweighted keyboard keys are thin, durable plastic that move on a spring. Weighted keys look just like a piano's keys but are longer than an unweighted key and work with a combination of gravity and as spring. Manufacturers design weighted keys to feel like a piano's keys as much as possible and some come very close. Yamaha gets the closest in my opinion. Unweighted keys don't feel like a piano's but that isn't the goal of these anyway. When it comes to learning, key type makes the biggest difference for students. Beginning students, especially younger students, wont experience much difference between a keyboard with weighted keys or keyboard style keys. Advanced students will, however, notice the difference as the spring on unweighted keys pulls up faster than what a good piano feels like. Weighted keys are designed to feel just like a good piano. If you are looking for a keyboard, the biggest thing to be aware of is that it has full sized keys. 

4. Variety: Pianos sound like pianos and that is all. Keyboards can produce thousands of sounds and can even layer difference voices to create unique sounds. For some students the variety a keyboard can provide may encourage and inspire him or her to play more.

Conclusion: Good learning can happen either on a keyboard or piano. 

Recommended Keyboards

If you are looking for something that your kids will grow with, here's what I recommend.  Casio makes some very good, full sized keyboards that are very reasonable and you can sometimes find a Casio Privia model at Costco with a big discount over guitar center or other retailers. One of the basic Privias is the PX-150. There are also Privia models that are more or less built into a cabinet stand that houses pedals and make the instrument look nice and like a piece of furniture. Yamaha makes a couple quality, reasonably priced pianos, too. P-45. Also, the Yamaha NP32 would be suitable, however it has 76 keys as opposed to 88, which is a full piano. With all Yamaha models, just be aware that you often have to buy what they call the "Survival Pack", too. It contains the power supply and other accessories. 

If you would like something a bit simpler (and priced around $200), I would would recommend something like the Yamaha NP12 or the Yamaha PSR E463. It is priced right and has good features to learn with, but it is limited to 61 keys. 

All together I would look for these features.

- 88 or 76 keys. (88 is a full keyboard just like an acoustic piano)

- 32 note polyphony minimum (This is how many notes can be sustained at one time)

- Sustain pedal option

Other things to be aware of.

- Not all keyboard have built in speakers. (All the ones above do, but with others you would need to provide external speakers)

- There are 2 types of keyboard keys. Weighted, which feel like the keys of an acoustic piano, and keyboard (or organ) weight which are thin and springy. My personal preference is weighted, but I know others who prefer keyboard weight.

- Not all keyboards have a built in music stand. For example, I have to use my folding stand behind my keyboard. Not a big deal but, something to be aware of in set-up. Guitar center has some for $10 - $20.

As far as used keyboards Craigslist frequently has a wide assortment of keyboards listed. GuitarCenter.com also lists used products that are certified so you can be a bit more at ease that the instrument works properly.

Next, I'll talk about guitars for beginner and kids...