Keyboard vs. Acoustic Piano: My Professional Opinion

By Carol Parks

One of the questions I get asked all the time as a piano teacher is which type of instrument to play on – an acoustic piano or a digital keyboard.


Here’s my advice... it depends! (It really does.)


Read on to find out what it depends on... Discover the key factors for yourself before deciding on which option is right for you.

Because you want to make music... not buying mistakes.


Sound quality: Acoustic pianos win hands down for sound quality. No digital keyboard comes close to competing with an acoustic piano (unless it’s a very poor acoustic piano), despite technological advances.


Developing finger dexterity: Acoustic pianos win here too. Again, despite technological advances, digital keyboards have yet to truly replicate the real feel of the hammer action on acoustic pianos, although they’re a lot closer than they were ten or fifteen years ago.


Space:  Keyboards are more compact and take less space. They look more like a, well like a keyboard... instead of like a large piece of furniture. Keyboards win it for space requirements. An 88-key keyboard is still basically the same width as a piano. But the rest of it is smaller and certainly less imposing. Depending on the size of your living space, this can be a major consideration.


Weight and mobility: Keyboards easily win here. Acoustic pianos are big, bulky, heavy, and hard to move. Keyboards can go in the car on vacation with you. Or to jam with your band buddies. 😂 There’s a lot to be said for that.


Appearance: This is really a personal preference. Depends on whether you like your musical instrument to look like a large piece of quality furniture, or a basic keyboard stashed in the corner or in a spare bedroom.


Inspiration, motivation, and personal goals: Students are often far more inspired to play on a higher quality instrument such as a quality acoustic piano... and why wouldn’t they be?

The sound and touch of acoustic pianos have so far not been replicated in keyboards. And as they say, you only have one chance to make a good first impression.


In this regard, acoustic pianos are the clear winner. They are the more "authentic" choice for an outstanding playing experience.


Long-term value: Because keyboards are tech-based, they become obsolete much faster than acoustic pianos do. Acoustic pianos, properly cared for, can be passed on to your children or grandchildren. As such, they maintain their value much better. For long-term value, acoustic pianos win.


Your personality: This may strike you as weird, but if you’re a shy person you might be better suited to a keyboard, which allows you to plug in headphones for private practice sessions. If you cringe at the thought of someone listening while you work out your new piano tunes, a keyboard might be right up your ally.

Practicing on a keyboard may also be an advantage if your housemates are not on board with you learning to play, as this way you won’t disturb them and they won't tease you. (Please share your music with the world once you learn it, though.)


However, if those in your household are supportive, or you can practice when no one is home, or you already have an acoustic piano available, the acoustic will lend itself to a better overall playing experience.

How close your neighbors are: If you live in an apartment or condo with shared walls, you may be better off with a keyboard into which you can plug headphones to practice. It depends on how sensitive you and they are to noise issues, and your HOA regulations. While playing piano is a step apart from playing drums, it does make noise. 😬

And if your condo or apartment is not on first floor, a piano's weight and immobility can also be factors.

Having said that, I've had students who lived in apartments with acoustic pianos. They only practiced before 9pm. And they used the "soft pedal" (the left pedal) every time they played to minimize the noise.


Budget: There’s more than one way to look at the cost... upfront and long-term.


First there’s the initial cost of the instrument. A keyboard has a lower initial price point than an acoustic piano. But keyboards also depreciate and become obsolete faster than acoustic pianos. Put another way, acoustic pianos hold their value a lot longer. Properly cared for, they can be passed down for generations.


Therefore, you’ll be more likely to get a loan for an acoustic piano and spread the cost out over time, should you so choose.


What’s more, if you have a baby grand like I do, you’ll pay more for housing because you have to buy additional square feet for your piano. (It's like another family member. 😂)


If you move, you have to pay for your "extra family member" to be moved. (If you rarely move, that’s a moot point.)


Also, your acoustic piano should be tuned every six to twelve months, adding a bit of upkeep cost.


Finally, as with most things, both acoustic pianos and 88-key weighted keyboards have a range of price points based on quality and features. Acoustic piano costs are literally all over the board... for quality and price. Whether you’re buying pre-owned or new.


Case in point... You can buy a low end, hopefully adequate acoustic piano for a couple hundred dollars from a private party, though you'll incur moving and tuning costs. A preowned piano from a music store may cost $2,000 to about $4,000, but will include delivery and tuning. A new Steinway grand may be $50K.

So cost boils down to... it depends. Much comes down to budget.


Shopping difficulty: It's simpler to buy a keyboard because there are fewer variables. You don’t have much choice in “look.” All the 88-key weighted key keyboards I know of fall into roughly the same price range -- generally around $600 to $700.


Don't buy a smaller keyboard with less than 88 keys or without weighted action. They're not suitable for piano instruction. To learn piano, meet these criteria:


·      It must have all 88 keys. Anything less, and you’ll outgrow it too fast.

·      It must have weighted key action for the greatest similarity to a piano in touch, feel, and volume changes.


Most if not all 88-key keyboards with weighted action also use keys that are the right size, i.e., the size of those on a regular piano, not the reduced sized keys of many smaller keyboards (which you don’t want).



The bottom line


In my opinion as a three-decade piano teacher and lifetime pianist, there's really no substitute for an acoustic piano. But you do what you need to do to make it work. So much depends on your particular circumstances.

If you only have $500 to $700 to spend, get the best 88-key weighted keyboard you can find for that price.


Alternatively, find an older upright piano on Craigslist or Marketplace for a couple hundred dollars plus moving and tuning costs. I recommend you have a piano technician look at it to make sure there's no crack in the sound board, broken strings, or other problems.


By all means, if you have an acoustic piano in the family that someone’s been begging you to take, jump on it. Pianos are seriously getting hard to find, due to supply chain problems.


Again, if buying a keyboard, skip the miniature keyboards. They’re very limiting. Penny wise and pound foolish, as they say.


Students outgrow them very quickly. Plus, the size and feel of their keys is not accurate. You’re better off spending a bit more upfront and getting something that’ll last more than three or six months.


Most professional piano teachers insist on a minimum of an 88-key weighted action keyboard as a prerequisite for piano lessons... as I do.


Ideally, as you develop your piano skills, if space and budget allow, you could consider both an acoustic piano for regular at-home practice, and a keyboard that you can take on trips or to jam with others. Then you get the best of both worlds.


Work with an "A" level teacher, shorten your learning curve, and love playing piano.

Allegro Piano School - Piano lessons for adults and kids

About Carol Parks

Carol Parks is the founder of Allegro Piano School. She calls the OKC area home now, though she's lived all over the country. When she’s not teaching piano, she loves to hang out with family, watch and play sports, go for long walks, travel, or curl up with a good book.