Digital Keyboards in Teaching and Learning


by John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
Rio Rancho, NM USA


ost pianists and piano educators learned to play on an acoustic piano, a large, complicated and heavy mechanical device which was developed to overcome some of the limitations of the harpsichord, which preceded the piano. There is a large literature written for the acoustic piano and a correspondingly large history of use and training that is associated with the acoustic piano as an instrument. Our ears are "trained" to the sound and our fingers to the "touch" of the acoustic piano.

However, with the relatively recent development of powerful, light and inexpensive digital keyboards, which have many capabilities that the acoustic piano lacks, it is time to ask the question: Is a digital keyboard a suitable short or long-term alternative or adjunct to the acoustic piano for teaching and learning piano? We will investigate this question in this article. The article won't offer a "buying guide" for digital keyboards and pianos (please see our section on Digital Keyboards for more information), nor will it attempt to convince anyone of the "superiority" of either type of instrument. Rather, it will focus on what role digital keyboards might play in teaching and learning the piano.



Acoustic Pianos

The acoustic piano is well-known to most people. It has a long and distinguished history, a large literature written specifically for it, and a large number of people trained to use it. It is a truly brilliant achievement of the mechanical genius Bartolomeo Cristofori. A couple of hundred years of improvements to the original Cristofori design have made the piano the instrument that we know so well.

Because the piano is an inherently mechanical device which must hold strings in high tension, it is subject to variations in temperature, humidity and other environmental factors. That's the reason a piano must be tuned with some regularity, because the strings go out of tune relatively easily, especially with changes in temperature and room humidity. Less frequently, the piano must be reconditioned because of wear on the strings and action.

Digital Pianos

The digital keyboard or piano is a relatively new creation of electronics technology. In its early days, it didn't sound a great deal like the acoustic piano, but could be interesting to listen to in its own right. Many people may remember Walter Carlos' ground-breaking 1970's recordings of "Switched On Bach" as one of the first examples of digital keyboard music available. Those that remember the recordings probably also remember the memorable album cover, showing Carlos in a Bach-era powdered wig standing in front of a huge (but not very powerful) computer with hundreds of wires coming out of it ("patch cords") that allowed Carlos to "mix and match" sounds from the computer to get music that was reminiscent of the sound of a harpsichord. It required months of note-by-note patch cord manipulation by Carlos to produce those recordings on his "synthesizer," as the digital keyboard was then called.

Like the piano, the digital keyboard has come a long way, but in a much shorter time span. For those who would like to learn more about how a digital keyboard or a computer can produce sound, please see my article Creating Sound and Music on the PC. The forest of patch cords that Carlos had to deal with has been replaced by digital signal processor (DSP) chips that do all the manipulation of the sounds that Carlos had to do by hand.  Even the smallest, cheapest digital keyboard will have at least 64 "voices" (instruments) built in. One of these voices (still known as "patch maps", a residual term from the the early days of the synthesizer) is "acoustic grand piano" but there are many more that imitate virtually all the instruments of the modern orchestra, plus a few rarer ones like ocarina, among others. To use the various voices, you just throw a switch or, when the keyboard is connected by a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) cable to a computer, give a software command to the keyboard from the computer.

One can find digital keyboards these days at prices ranging from about a hundred dollars up to about ten thousand dollars, although a few, top-of-line models are even more. Generally the cheaper the keyboard, the fewer octaves it will have and the less closely the sound will be able to imitate the sounds of acoustic instruments, including the piano. Most keyboards these days come equipped with some sort of device(s) to allow pedaling, similar to the grand piano. Keyboard "touch" is also variable, depending on the keyboard one chooses, with some coming closer to the touch of a grand piano than others. Because the digital keyboard is fundamentally electronic in nature, it never needs to be tuned and is unaffected by humidity or temperature changes.

One factor that anyone buying a keyboard should consider is MIDI capability. Most, but not all, digital keyboards have MIDI ports that allow the keyboard to be connected via a MIDI cable to a computer. This allows the keyboard to be used with the great majority of the hundreds of music learning and writing software programs that are available. A MIDI-capable keyboard presents great opportunities for use of learning software to aid in teaching and a superb platform to teach composing, since the computer can not only insert the notes, but print the score and play the music in real-time as it is composed. Using notation software, along with the many voices of the modern digital keyboard, a student or teacher can literally compose symphonies using the keyboard, so long as he has the drive and talent to accomplish it.

Acoustic Piano or Digital Keyboard?

Those of you who have read my article, Creating Sound and Music on the PC, know something of how challenging it is to exactly mimic ANY sound with a computer. The problem is not so much whether it's possible to get arbitrarily close to any acoustic instrument sound, but how much electronic "wizardry" you're willing to devote to doing it. With enough electronics, it's possible now to get a very good semblance to the sound of the piano or any other instrument, especially using hardware based on wavetable DSP's (explained in the article). My point here is that, because the piano was developed first and had a couple hundred years to become a sound we're used to hearing (not to mention one in which many people were trained to play and appreciate), it sets the standard for historical reasons. If the digital keyboard had been developed first, we might have acoustic piano manufacturers trying to mimic the digital keyboard.

The ability of modern keyboards to duplicate the sound of a piano is now well within the individual variation in the sound of acoustic pianos. For example, a Steinway acoustic piano is generally "brighter" than a Mason & Hamlin; these both differ slightly in sound from a Yamaha. When comparing a good digital keyboard's sound with that of a piano, it's very much like comparing a Yamaha to a Steinway - a matter of personal taste and of the room in which it will be housed. I'm not suggesting here that you can go out and buy a digital keyboard that will sound exactly like the acoustic piano you're used to. Rather, I am saying that a good keyboard will sound virtually identical to many acoustic pianos.

If your standard for judgment is "producing the exact sound of my acoustic piano," then an acoustic piano is probably the only option for teaching or learning.  However, if your standard takes into account the immensely greater flexibility in sounds that a digital keyboard can produce and its ability to be interfaced to a computer, both to use learning software and to do composing, then the decision may be less clear. Modern, top of the line digital keyboards can do amazing things, both in imitating the sound of an acoustic piano and producing sounds that an acoustic piano simply couldn't. It also has the considerable advantage that it can be played, using earphones, without the sound disrupting others. Of course, the portability of many digital keyboards allows them to be used just about anywhere, a claim that no piano can make.

Today's digital keyboards don't yet duplicate the "feel" of an acoustic piano keyboard. In particular, the finger strength which ones builds playing the acoustic piano, as a result of the acoustic piano's inherently mechanical nature, will not be as easily developed on most digital keyboards. While there is no reason of which I'm aware that a keyboard couldn't duplicate reasonably well the "feel" of the acoustic piano, most people who play digital keyboards find them easier to play and may not want their keyboard to play the way the acoustic piano does.

Can a Student Learn on a Digital Keyboard?

Does it really matter for the beginning student, who is trying hard just to learn to read music and develop the motor skills to play, whether he learns on an acoustic piano, a digital keyboard or both? While a good acoustic piano is probably preferable from the standpoints of learning both the sound and feel of playing the piano, a decent digital keyboard might be a good option for a beginning student whose level of interest and motivation is basically unknown. It's certainly less expensive than a decent, off-brand piano (though probably only about half the price).

I don't mean to suggest that those who argue that there is no substitute for an acoustic piano are wrong, recognizing that their standard may be the "exact" one above, but a broader standard, which takes into account the full capabilities of both the acoustic piano and the digital keyboard might lead to a different or broader choice. Indeed, in an ideal world, I think piano students would have access to both a good acoustic piano and a good digital keyboard. That's one of the things a teacher can do for a student.

I believe keyboards can play a useful role in the learning process not because I think they are "superior" (or, for that matter "inferior") to an acoustic piano, but because they open up new vistas for expression and learning. Keyboards will not replace the acoustic piano anytime soon, nor do I believe they should, necessarily. Keyboards should not be judged by the standards of an acoustic piano - any more than anybody would say that acoustic pianos should be expected to meet the same standards that a keyboard satisfies. They are different instruments which happen to have a synergistic overlap that allows them to be taught, at least at the beginning levels, in much the same way.

Since most of us learned to play on an acoustic piano, it's easy to say that is the only way to learn the instrument, through unfamiliarity with keyboards. Those relatively few teachers who take the position that one can only learn piano "properly" on an acoustic piano and refuse to teach keyboards (perhaps from lack of personal experience) may be doing themselves and and their students a disservice. Teachers who insist that only a piano will do may effectively drive away those people who want the capabilities and sounds of a good digital keyboard. Kids love them, because they have lots of capability and are reasonably portable.

A Final Note

In the end, it's probably pointless to try to convince people that a keyboard is "better" than an acoustic piano or vice versa. The question is not whether the digital keyboard can, or even should, be a better acoustic piano than an acoustic piano or whether the acoustic piano should be given all the capabilities of the digital keyboard, but rather, how best to utilize the unique qualities of each in piano training. It's simply important to recognize that the current quality and power of digital keyboards has opened up new vistas for learning, teaching, making and experiencing  music. It's far better to have people take lessons, even on a keyboard, than not to have them take them at all for lack of an acoustic piano. The piano and the digital keyboard have some things in common and some differences which can enrich our musical experiences. I think we'd be foolish to throw the synergistic opportunities afforded by those differences away, for ourselves and our students.  

Page created: 1/17/06
Last updated: 01/30/15
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1,
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