What’s the difference between a piano and a keyboard?

As a professional musician and piano teacher I have been asked this question a lot over the years – ‘What’s the difference between a keyboard and a piano?’

The answer isn’t very simple, and whilst the white and black keys look the same there are huge differences in the way they are played and the sound. Understanding the purpose of these two instruments may help you decide which one you’d like to buy and learn with.

Let’s first of all start with the physical differences.

Size and weight

An upright acoustic piano has lots of parts that are needed to create the sound – hammers, felt, strings, wood and so on. All of these parts are of course very heavy, and even an upright piano requires special transportation to move it into the home, school, or hall. So you can imagine how heavy a baby grand or full size grand piano would be.

Upright and grand pianos are much bigger than electric keyboards, and so serve a very different purpose. When it comes to comparing the size and weight of these two instruments, keyboards are very small in comparison and weigh only a few kilograms. A keyboard will typically weigh between 3-6kg, whilst an upright piano can weigh around 300-500lbs or around 200kg. A grand piano can weigh as much as 1,200lbs!

The average size of a keyboard is around 80cm-100cm long and only 25cm-30cm wide. This is very small when compared with an upright piano which is around 130cm tall and 150cm wide.

Features and functions

What makes a keyboard very different from an acoustic piano are the functions and features. To make things easier, let’s start with the features of a piano because there are not that many. First of all, an acoustic piano can only make a piano sound. It does so by striking strings with a hammer, which makes it both a percussion and string instrument.

The other main features are the three pedals at the bottom of the piano that you operate with your feet. The first piano on the right is the most common pedal to use and it’s called a sustain pedal. This allows the pianist to activate the pedal and hold down any notes they play. The notes will continue to play for as long as the pedal is held of the notes dissipate.

The other two pedals vary in their function, but are typically pedals that can either allow the player to only sustain certain individual notes (sostenuto pedal) or to quieten the entire piano sound. This can be used for really quiet passages of music or for practice.

For a more detailed guide on piano pedals – What do the pedals do on a piano?

A keyboard has lots of functions

A keyboard is an electric instrument that can be powered by both mains and battery (in some models). This sets it apart from an acoustic piano as they use strings and hammers to make the sound.

Because a keyboard is electronically powered and uses recorded samples from instruments, it will typically have hundreds of different voices/sounds – for example, piano, strings, brass, percussion, and much more. The average keyboard has around 100-200 different instrument sounds.

In addition to the keyboards capabilities of playing lots of different instruments, they also have backing tracks and styles. These can be activated at the touch of a button, and you can either have just a drum beat playing or the full band. The keyboard has the ability to split into two, so the left hand can play chords in the bottom half of the keyboard whilst the right hand can play an instrument in the top half.

The direction of the backing style is achieved by the left hand playing chords. Each time a different chord is played the entire band or orchestra sound will shift to that chord. A great example of this is the Mylek portable keyboard which is a popular choice amongst keyboard players. Watch the video below for a demonstration!

Number of keys and weight

The most common amount of keys you will find on an electric keyboard is 61. You can also get models that come with 54 (like the RockJam RJ654) and even 49 (RockJamRJ549), and you can also go to 76. But 61 keys are usually what you will find on a keyboard, unlike the piano which has 88 keys.

Such is the nature of the piano, its sound and the pieces which are written for it that 88 keys are required. 61 keys are enough for a keyboard due to the nature of how you play it with the left hand chords and right hand solos or melodies.

The weight to the keys on a piano is much heavier than those found on a keyboard. Weighted keys are standard on both digital and acoustic pianos, whilst keyboard keys are very lightweight and play much easier. Again, this is due to how these instruments are played, as well as the overall cost which can also be taken into consideration.

Finally, a common feature found on both digital and acoustic pianos is what’s known as ‘graded hammer effect’ or ‘graded hammer standard’ (GHS). This means that the keys are slightly heavier at the bottom end of the piano and get lighter towards the top. This is a very popular feature amongst professional and advanced pianists as it feels nicer underneath the fingers and aligns with how most pieces are played. A great example of this is the Yamaha P-45B which is only £320 and has GHS.

The styles and songs

Although you can play any style of music on both keyboard and piano, there are some common examples. For instance, classical music is primarily written, played and composed on the piano and not the keyboard. This is because the amount of keys, the sustain pedal, the weighted action and the sound of a piano fit perfectly for classical music – as well as many other styles.

A keyboard is more versatile and can realistically cover any style of music. This is because of the keyboard’s ability to play hundreds of different instruments and create the sound of a band or orchestra at the touch of a button.

Pop songs, movie theme tunes, funk, R & B – could possibly be more suited to keyboard in some scenarios. But this is very subjective, and whilst a keyboard has many sound advantages over the piano with its many features, a piano can still create any style the performer chooses.

Teaching features

A keyboard wins hands down when it comes to self tuition if it has in-built teaching functions. Not every keyboard does, but this is becoming more popular and you will find this feature on most keyboards. The player can follow the instructions on the screen and the keyboard may prompt or show them the next note to play. Other teaching functions include light up keys to help the user see exactly what needs to be played, which is present on the Yamaha EZ-220 keyboard.

In-built metronomes are also included on most keyboards which would have to be bought separately for an acoustic piano. Other features like transpose, volume adjustment, headphone connection, and other digital features are all usually present on most keyboards. You can also connect a keyboard to a tablet, laptop or desktop computer to record or compose music.

Recording features are also quite common on most keyboards, and at the touch of a button you can record your playing and listen back once you’ve finished. Recordings can be saved to a USB if it has that facility, and easily uploaded to the internet to share or for personal use.

The similarities of digital pianos and keyboards

Throughout this article I have been comparing an electric keyboard to an acoustic piano. It’s worth noting that a digital piano is a hybrid between the two, and offers a pianist the chance to have some of the features a keyboard would have but a real acoustic piano would not.

Depending on the model of digital piano you can also have rhythms and additional voices, like strings, organs and harpsichord. You can also have a transpose feature, record and playback, and other similar features to a keyboard – but with the added incentive of still having 88 weighted keys.

A digital piano is often the preferred choice to an acoustic due to many factors. Whilst a digital piano is heavier and larger than a keyboard, it is still far lighter and easier to transport than an acoustic. The cost of a digital piano is also much cheaper than an acoustic, but the sound doesn’t suffer and in most cases offers better quality when comparing the price. And it also doesn’t have to be tuned four times a year!

Have a listen to this awesome digital piano called the Roland FP-10.

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