Throughout my time teaching and playing the piano, I’ve often come across this question. It’s usually from advanced students, who are looking to take their music-making seriously and want to progress as quickly and efficiently as possible.
They’re often concerned that the instrument, often a digital piano, that they’re practicing on might hinder them. And they’d be justified to be concerned about this – but not for the reasons you may think.
In short, a digital piano is an invaluable tool. It should never replace an acoustic piano, but it’s a godsend to many people who don’t have the budget or the space for an acoustic piano. But is it harmful to your technique?
Is the fact that it’s basically a computer with a piano keyboard going to harm your ability to make music? Are you better off making the space for an acoustic piano? Let’s find out.
What are the main differences between digital and acoustic pianos?
First off, if you don’t know, let’s explain the key differences between acoustic and digital pianos.
The acoustic piano has been around in its current form for over 100 years. Uprights and grands work in slightly different ways, but the fundamental function is the same.
When you press a key, it causes a hammer to strike a string, which transfers vibrations to the soundboard, and makes a noise. The volume of the sound is determined by how hard you press the key and how hard the hammer hits the string.
A digital piano doesn’t work like this. Digital pianos have been around since the 1980s, and the technology behind them has evolved and transformed since then, but the fundamentals are the same.
When you press a key on a digital piano, a sensor is activated at the bottom of the key bed. When the sensor is activated, it triggers the onboard computer to play the sound corresponding to that note, which is heard through speakers. How hard the sensor is pressed determines the volume of the note.
So why might a digital be better for you?
Firstly, if you need to practice late at night, most digital pianos have the ability to adjust their volume. If you’re a busy working professional, or have grumpy neighbours, this can be invaluable to get some practice time in late at night or early in the morning without disturbing anyone.
Secondly, digital pianos are often cheaper. Of course, you can get some really expensive digital pianos, but you’ll typically pay around $1500 for a really high-quality digital piano, whereas to get the same kind of quality in an upright or grand, you would spend at least $5000.
If you or your child is just learning, and you don’t know whether buying an acoustic piano is going to be a worthwhile investment, a digital piano might be a better option.
Digital pianos are also cheaper because they don’t require maintenance. An acoustic piano will require tuning and regulation, and this can often cost a few hundred dollars a year. Digitals stay in tune and won’t require any kind of maintenance.
Take a look at my recommendations for digital pianos if you're tempted to buy one.
How does a digital piano affect technique?
So, to answer the original question – is a digital piano going to ruin your technique?
Is a digital piano going to affect your technique?
A digital piano might affect your technique in a number of ways. First, you might purchase a very low-end or old digital piano without properly weighted keys.
This is a big no-no, especially to the beginner pianist. You’ll find that the muscles in your fingers won’t develop properly, because the keys on non-weighted pianos are far too light. When you come to transition to a different piano, either for practice or performance, you’ll find that you don’t have the finger strength to play properly.
A digital piano can also affect your ear. When you play an acoustic piano, you’re actually generating a sound from the piano itself. You’re dynamically creating the sound based on what the instrument is able to offer you.
When you’re playing a digital piano, you are essentially playing back a recording. Most digital pianos are “sampled,” which means an acoustic piano has been recorded at different volumes, and programmed into your digital piano so that when you press a key hard, you get a loud sound, and when you press a key soft, you get a quiet sound, as on a real piano.
But this means that your ear is sometimes not quite in tune with what’s going on, and when you transition to an acoustic piano, you might have issues with control or pedalling.
Speaking of pedalling, this is another thing that digital pianos might cause issues with. I’ve found that many digital pianos have a really short sustain. As a result, you may find that you get used to over-pedalling, or it can mislead you into practicing with more pedal because you think the sound you’re making is too dry. When you come to transition to an acoustic piano, you might then be used to pedalling too much and your music sounds terrible.
Do you see a pattern here? All of this is about transitioning to another instrument. Which you will need to do eventually, because you’re going to have to either give a performance or play on your teacher’s piano. It’s far, far easier to transition between instruments when you’re used to an acoustic piano.
But as far as ruining your technique? No. A digital won’t ruin your technique. It will affect your technique, but if you’re also used to playing acoustic pianos, you will be able to adjust very quickly if you use your ear properly.
When is an acoustic piano best?
We’ve already spoken about the merits of digital pianos, so I’d like to take a moment to discuss acoustic pianos. Acoustic pianos have been around for what seems like forever, and your teacher very probably has one. They are, in my opinion, the better option long-term.
Acoustic pianos hold their value very well. If you keep your piano in good condition, it should last you at least 30 years before it needs any major work done to it, and should sell for a significant portion of what you initially paid for it. You won’t get 30 years out of a digital because the technology is constantly advancing.
The acoustic piano is a much more worthwhile investment if you are planning to play long-term, or if money is no object. Acoustic pianos are much more pleasurable to play and learn on, and you might find that if you purchase an acoustic, you are more inclined to practice and learn than you would be if you’d bought a digital.
When is a digital piano best?
Having said that, there are some situations where an acoustic piano is not necessarily the best option. If you’re renting your house, or you live in a high-rise apartment, you will need to go for a digital.
They are much easier to move and can be dismantled and transported easily. An acoustic piano can easily weigh over 200kg and cannot be moved by three guys with a moving truck. You need a specialist. Want to know how much a digital piano weighs?
Digital pianos can be great for children who have done a few exams, and are ready to get serious about making music. However, a digital piano is not going to be suitable for a college graduate in music, or someone who is preparing for the 2020 Chopin Competition.
So what’s the answer?
The answer is that whatever your personal circumstances, a digital piano isn’t going to hurt your technique in any way. It may affect your technique slightly, but it’s going to be easy to adjust to a new instrument when you start playing it.
An acoustic piano is just not practical for everyone, and If you’re in a position where an acoustic is not an option, a good digital piano will be more than adequate for you to learn and grow your music-making.
I think it speaks for itself that I used a digital piano in college. It wasn’t my only instrument – I had a Yamaha U1 upright piano, which I think is one of the best practice pianos ever made, and also a fleet of Steinway grand pianos to practice on, but when I got the itch to practice at 3am, the digital was my go-to. If it’s good enough for a music major, it’s good enough for you too!
Decided on a digital? Check out the top digital piano brands of 2019, or why you should buy a digital piano with light-up-keys.