Are Digital Pianos Good to Learn on?

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Digital pianos can be good to learn on, just as long as you buy a full size keyboard with weighted keys – or better yet, hammer action. The resistance provided by real piano keys is important for developing proper piano technique, and learning on an unweighted digital piano will hamper your progress in the long run.

Even though you might be able to save some money by purchasing a digital piano instead of a real one, it is important to think about the impact this might have on your ability to learn how to play the piano. There are some potential downsides, but there are some real advantages, too.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the benefits and drawbacks of learning how to play on a digital piano.

What Is a Digital Piano?

Woman's hand on a digital piano

Digital pianos have been specifically designed to imitate the sound and feel of traditional acoustic pianos. This comes across in the feel of the keys, the keyboard action, and digital sampling meant to reproduce a real piano sound.

The best digital pianos featured fully weighted keys or hammer action keys, and even come with the full range of pedals that you’ll find on a real piano. They also include cool features like being able to play silently with headphones on, mimic the tone of other instruments, built in metronomes, and recording and playback capabilities.

Buying a digital piano is not necessarily the same as buying a digital keyboard. While both are “keyboards,” true digital pianos usually come with a cabinet, pedals, built in speakers, and keys that mimic the feel of an authentic piano. Digital keyboards, on the other hand, may have some of those features, but are usually designed for stage performance, recording, or electronic synthesizing.

So, are digital pianos good to learn on? To figure out the pros and cons, let’s first take a look at learning to play on an acoustic piano.

Starting With Acoustic Pianos

White grand piano in the center of a room

The best way to figure out if digital pianos are worth it is to compare them to learning on an acoustic piano. The biggest advantage that these have for piano learning is the feel of the keys.

When you play a note, there is a physical reaction in the piano. The hammers striking the strings give your fingers a particular sensation, the strings vibrate, and they create a beautiful, rich, full, and harmonic tone (however, if the piano is a bit dull or out of tune, you might get frustrated). 

Pros of an Acoustic Piano

There are several key benefits of learning to play on an acoustic piano – no matter if it’s an upright piano or a grand piano.

Beautiful, Rich, and Authentic

If you play a high-quality acoustic piano that has been well-maintained, the sound quality simply will exceed anything else. There is no way to fully replicate the sound of acoustic pianos, and the authenticity of the sound is immediately recognizable. 

Responsive Keys

Pianos have thousands of parts that have to work together in perfect harmony. The beautiful sound you hear is the sum total of all of those moving parts. There is no delay after you strike a key, and even slight changes in the manner in which you touch a key can change the tone. That is how master musicians hone their craft. 

Unparalleled Aesthetics

Acoustic pianos are beautiful instruments, and can add a charming aesthetic appeal to your home. Even if you have just a small spinet in the corner, it can tie the room together. Grand pianos can carry an entire room on their own.

Sound Carries Naturally

If you like to play music with other people, such as in a band, chorus, or orchestra, acoustic pianos will sound beautiful as accompaniment. They can also carry sound well in small spaces. This is not something that most digital pianos can replicate nearly as well. 

Ideal for Students

Because of their responsiveness in both tone and touch, acoustic pianos are perfect for students. They have all the necessary parts, they come with pedals, they have all 88 keys, and they can bring out the details and intricacies of classical music. If you are interested in playing classical piano, then an acoustic piano is almost a necessity. It is impossible to replicate the small details on a digital piano, particularly an affordable model.

Cons of Acoustic Pianos

Even though there are a lot of benefits of learning on a real piano, there are several drawbacks to note as well.

They Require Maintenance

Closeup on hand tuning an upright piano

Acoustic pianos require a significant amount of maintenance – and the cost adds up. They need to be tuned at least once per year. From time to time, they may need to have the voicing and regulation adjusted as well. If you do not put in the maintenance to take care of an acoustic piano, it can fall out of tune quickly, severely hampering its quality. 

They Age

Even though there are some acoustic pianos that still sound beautiful after a century, many pianos start to lose their sound quality after approximately sixty years. They won’t hold their tune as well, important parts could start breaking, and they may require a full (expensive) restoration. This time could be even less if the instrument isn’t well taken care of. This is an important consideration when buying a used piano. 

Don’t Respond Well to Environmental Changes

If the temperature changes significantly in the room, a piano can fall out of tune quickly. Or, if the humidity changes, this can also impact the sound quality, or even cause keys to stick. Finally, if you move the piano to a different location, you will have to tune it if you want it to sound good. This is just another maintenance issue to think about. 

They’re Expensive

A basic upright piano can cost a few thousand dollars. Acoustic grand pianos are even more expensive, costing tens of thousands of dollars, and sometimes much more. Even free pianos listed on Facebook Marketplace require you to pay to move them. Therefore, you really need to think about whether this is worth the investment before you decide to purchase an acoustic piano. 

They’re Big and Heavy

Pianos can be quite enormous, and even the smallest ones weigh hundreds of pounds. That means it can be difficult to find space for them, and if you decide to move you’ll need to hire professionals in order to bring your piano along. If you’re looking for a portable piano, then traditional pianos are not the way to go.

Taking a Closer Look at Digital Pianos

Digital piano with music stand

Digital pianos have progressed significantly, to the point of being able to acceptably mimic acoustic pianos. Because of these technological advancements, and the expense of acoustic pianos, digital pianos are becoming more and more popular.

But, are digital pianos good to learn on? Let’s consider the pros and cons. 

Pros of Digital Pianos

Digital pianos feature several benefits for beginning players: 

They’re Always in Tune

Digital pianos produce tones from sampled recordings so you don’t have to worry about tuning them once per year. This means you never have to deal with an out-of-tune piano while you wait impatiently for your tuner to have an opening. Plus, you can save a ton of money on maintenance expenses over time. 

They’re More Affordable

Digital pianos are also far more affordable than regular pianos. Basic digital pianos cost as little as a few hundred dollars, and you can get a really good one for around $1,000. Even top-of-the-line digital pianos, like the Yamaha Clavinova series, only cost a few thousand dollars – far more affordable than acoustic pianos.

You Can Practice with Headphones

Digital pianos allow for silent practice whenever and wherever you want without worrying about disturbing others. Simply plug in a set of headphones, and you can bang away at the keys in complete silence. This is great for practicing late at night, when you don’t want to bother the people around you, or if you don’t want others to hear your playing.

They Have Additional Capabilities

Digital pianos offer other features that can be a lot of fun to experiment with. For example, they typically come with organ sounds, harpsichord sounds, strings, winds, and other instruments. You can play with a metronome, or even add an orchestral accompaniment. Digital pianos often come with some light recording capabilities as well, and some even incorporate learning tools.

They’re Smaller (and lighter)

Digital pianos take up far less space than acoustic pianos. Small acoustic pianos, such as spinet or upright pianos, still take up more space than most electric pianos. And your typical grand piano could take up an entire room. In contrast, digital pianos can be slid into a corner with ease, and they are far easier to move when needed. There are even portable digital pianos that are designed to be easily transported.

Cons of Digital Pianos

Digital pianos have several drawbacks you need to note as well. 

They May Sound Artificial

Even though sampling technology has come a long way, even the best digital pianos won’t be able to fully replicate the traditional sound of their acoustic counterparts with actual wood hammers and steel strings. You can play with the knobs all you want, but because the tones are being reproduced digitally there is always going to be a major difference between a digital piano and an acoustic one. This may not be a huge deal if you’re just starting out, but advanced pianists may find that they can’t get the full range of tonal response that comes with acoustic pianos from a digital version.

The Keys Aren’t As Responsive

Fingers on piano keys

Digital pianos often lack the full keyboard responsiveness of acoustic ones. Although there a variety of key actions – weighted keys, semi-weighted keys, and hammer action – that are designed to mimic the authentic playing experience and feel of an acoustic, they still leave something to be desired. Weighted action keys are always artificially mimicking, whereas real pianos have actual hammers and levers and strings. Because of this, advanced pianists won’t be able to replicate some of the subtle nuances of touch that they may be used to with acoustic pianos.

May Lack Pedals and/or Full Keyboards

Cheap digital pianos often don’t have the full complement of 88 keys, and may not come with any pedals. Some digital pianos come with only 76 or 61 keys – which might be fine for super fresh beginners, but will quickly hamper your progress because you can’t cover the full range of tones. Some cheaper digital pianos also may not come with a sustain pedal, a soft pedal, or a sostenuto pedal, which you will need to play certain songs.

They May Become Obsolete

Technology is always progressing, and even modern digital pianos will inevitably become obsolete. As technology improves, you may feel the urge to purchase a nicer instrument. Manufacturers will come out with new digital pianos that offer better sound, or weighted keys with a more realistic touch, or even more bells and whistles. Furthermore, older models may break and no longer be supported.

You May Sacrifice Finger Strength and Proper Technique

Digital pianos make it more difficult to build finger strength and proper playing technique. Although graded hammer action weighted keys make a serviceable imitation of the action on real pianos, they still come up short compared to even a low end acoustic piano in terms of building finger strength. Starting off with proper technique is vitally important when learning the piano, and there’s nothing like acoustic pianos for building up that strength and dexterity.

When To Choose a Digital Piano

There are several situations where learning how to play on a good digital piano makes sense:

  • You are on a relatively tight budget, and don’t want to throw down for the upfront cost or ongoing maintenance
  • You are looking for a piano that will fit in small spaces and is easily moved
  • You want to learn how to play the piano, but don’t necessarily have a desire to play classical music
  • You are interested in playing modern music that requires a lot of technology, synthesizers, and editing
  • You are looking for a keyboard that will allow you to record your playing without the need for a recording studio

Ultimately, you can certainly learn piano on a digital version. You can learn the notes, how to read sheet music, the basics of scales and chords, and even play a few of your favorite songs. If you decide to buy a digital piano, you will also have access to various technological features that digital pianos offer – including recording options, instrument sounds, and other bells and whistles that might be fun  for a piano student.

At the same time, even a top notch digital piano can’t fully replicate the fullness of an acoustic version.

When To Choose an Acoustic Piano

Male pianist hands on a grand piano

Even though a  great beginner digital piano can help you learn the basics, there are also situations where you might be better off with an acoustic model instead: 

  • You want to learn classical, acoustic pianos are the way to go. Classical music requires a lot of attention to detail, and you need to have an instrument that can help you bring out these details.
  • You need to build finger strength and dexterity, acoustic pianos are the proper instrument to play. Acoustic piano keys are weighted differently, and they respond better than the keys on a digital piano. This is important for establishing proper technique
  • You want to become a professional pianist one day,  you need to learn how to play an acoustic piano
  • You want to build subtleties in your playing, then you need an acoustic piano that will respond appropriately
  • You like the aesthetic appeal of an acoustic piano
  • You are comfortable with the time, space, upfront investment, and maintenance expenses brought about by an acoustic piano

Even though they have come a long way, no manufacturer currently makes digital pianos that can fully replicate an acoustic piano. Digital pianos can do a lot, but if you want to learn how to play classical music, then you really need the acoustic version. 

So – Which Should You Get?

Ultimately this comes down to personal preferences and exactly what your needs and goals are. But at the end of the day a good digital piano is going to be better for your learning than a bad acoustic piano.

What’s more, if you’re a beginning player you may not want to throw a lot of money at your new instrument. In which case, a digital piano is a better choice because you can buy one at a more affordable price.

However, if you choose a digital piano you need to make sure that you can play an acoustic every so often, to ensure that you develop proper technique and can transition appropriately if you ever decide to upgrade.

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about the author
Andy Kovacs
Andy started playing piano as a small boy, first classical then jazz and blues. He is a classically trained concert pianist, audio geek, writer, music teacher, and frequent dive bar gigging musician.