Robert Conrad, Registered Piano Tuner/Technician, Tucson, AZ

Acoustic Piano vs. Electric Piano

Acoustic vs. Electric Pianos

There is really no excuse these days for someone who wants to learn to play the piano, to not be able to get an instrument, take some lessons, and learn to play at least to some degree.   The availability of teachers and the wide range of available piano choices provides  a very affordable,  healthy, and enjoyable activity that can be experienced by all who have the desire.

“What kind of piano should I get?”

One of the first questions many teachers are asked by their students is ‘What kind of piano should I get?”   As a piano technician (and x-pianist),  I  am asked this question from time to time as well.   I hope my thoughts here are helpful to those who are trying to investigate what the differences are between the acoustic and electric pianos.   There are many reasons piano teachers recommend a real acoustic piano for their students.

First of all, an acoustic piano is a stand alone acoustic instrument.    It is a mechanical instrument made basically of wood and felt and metal and does require regular service and tuning.   A qualified piano tuner/technicians will be needed for regular servicing and the occasional repairs and adjustments that will be needed, due to basic wear and tear and humidity fluctuations.

Acoustic pianos contain strings and a sounding board, and a very mechanical action that is all activated and controlled by the keys.   The sound is “3 dimensional” and is a result of a (piano) hammer hitting a string and causing that string to vibrate.   The string’s vibrations are transferred to the soundboard and the whole piano becomes an acoustic instrument,  again, the sound is “3 dimensional”.

An electric piano requires electricity and speakers to produce its sound.  (There have been some electric pianos made in the past that did have strings and somewhat of a semblance of a real piano action, but they are mostly outdated now,  and are not the type that you will generally see in the dealers stores as an alternative to an acoustic piano).  The electric piano either has it’s own speakers  build into it, or it must be connected to some kind of an amplifier/speaker/sound system to make any sound.

Electric pianos do not need regular tuning like an acoustic piano does.  Electric piano repair and maintenance is generally done by electronics technicians.   Electric pianos do contain some mechanical aspects (keys, pedals, etc) but the rest is switches, wires, circuit boards, chips, hard drives, computer stuff, etc.   I equate the guys who service the electric pianos as the guys who used to service electric organs.  Your dealer should be able to refer you to a qualified service person for any repairs and adjustments that may need to be done on your electric piano.

The sound of the electric piano is basically “2 dimensional”.   The keys are connected to a ‘switch’ that turns the sound on and off, and the speed of the key is electronically measured to determine the volume.   The faster the key moves the louder the sound.  The keys are also weighted to approximate the ‘feel’ of a real acoustic piano.

The electronic pianos have gotten better and better over the years in a number of ways.   Most of them are now stereo, which helps them sound more ‘attractive”, and the types of weighting and spring systems used in the keys to help the to approximate the feel of a real piano has gotten better as well.

Piano Sound:  “3 Dimensional” vs. “2 Dimensional”

I wish I could remember who I first heard describe the differences of the sound of an electric vs. acoustic piano as “2 dimensional” vs. “3 dimensional”.  A “2 dimensional” sound is similar to a graph that has an ” x-axis” and a “y-axis”.

Think of the speaker in your car radio.  This speaker works by moving air in a “2 dimensional” way, the speaker vibrates forward and backward  moving air and thereby producing whatever sound is fed into it from it’s sound source – in this case whatever “sound’ is selected and modified on the keyboard by the various buttons, and options available on that particular keyboard.

A “3 dimensional” sound is one that not only has an “x-axis” and a “y-axis”, but it also has a “z-axis”.  The piano hammer striking the string creates a sound that is a true acoustic phenomena vibrating in all 3 dimensions.   An acoustic piano, like all other acoustic instruments, does not require any amplification to be heard and played and (hopefully) enjoyed.

Piano Action Differences:  Acoustic vs. Electric

The pianist controls the sound by how he controls the movement of the keys.   In an acoustic piano, the keys actually move the piano hammer to strike the strings thus producing the sound.   The speed of the keys is infinitely variable and potentially responsive to all the aspects of a pianists ‘touch’ and skill.  The pianist is controlling how the hammer strikes the string, because how the hammer strikes the string, determines the sound.

The amount of pressure required to press down a key on a piano can be measured in grams  (28 grams = 1 ounce).  Pianists expect to ‘feel’ a certain similar ‘range’ of down weight – i.e. the amount of weight required to depress the key to the bottom -   when they press the keys on almost any piano.    This range is around 48 – 54 g. when the dampers are not (engaged) being lifted when the keys are depressed, and about 70 – 75 g. when the key is depressed and lifting the dampers off the strings.

Electric pianos have no strings, no piano hammers, and no dampers that are activated by the motion of the keys.  This causes the electric piano  to come up short in regards to giving the pianist control over the sound of the piano.  There is a difference between controlling the speed of the key movement - activating a velocity switch – and actually using the keys to control the movement of a piano hammer in how it strikes the string.

Another drawback to this is that the electronic piano actions are generally way to ‘springy’ when it comes to the key returning to its ‘up’ position.   A sensitive pianist can easily feel the key pushing UP on their fingers after playing the note or chords or whatever.  This ‘springy’ feel has a tendency to cause the sound on the release of notes and chords etc, to sound chopped off.

Pianists are supposed to be, in the end, controlling the ‘sound’ they make.  And the good ones can control their fingers and make almost whatever instrument they play sound great!  But they are the experts.  They have spent years at it.   I have never met one who would prefer playing a Beethoven Sonata or a Chopin Nocturne on an electric piano over a reasonably good acoustic piano.

Electric Pianos Do Have Their Place

Electronic pianos do have their place.  A good electric piano that has some string sounds,  some harpsichord sounds, some xylophone sounds, etc. can be a very nice addition to a church service as a ‘color’ instrument complimenting the organ and a nice grand piano.    For some small churches, or multipurpose rooms an electric piano can be a good choice.  They can also be a good choice for some school classrooms  where they are used by the teachers for accompanying.   There are many instances where their shortcomings in terms of sound and playability, are overshadowed by their portability and functionality.

Someone who already knows how to play can have some fun with one in their home too.  Some of the really advanced electric pianos are actually more computer than piano and have  built in recorders that allow the pianist to record their own performances, built in drum machines, auto-play and auto-accompany features and more sounds than most of us would ever get around to using.  They also have inputs and outputs on them for connecting to a number of other pieces of audio equipment, and they also have plug-ins for headphones.

Portability is another great feature for the electric pianos and keyboards.    Many models are light and compact, can fit in the trunk or back seat,  and can be set up very quickly for combo work.   Even though most combo piano players would probably rather play a job on a nice, in-tune, 6′ grand,   most combo situations just don’t have that luxury.   They can take their own instrument they know and are familiar with without having to deal with ‘what is there” piano wise.   So often I have felt sorry for the players that have had to play on those ‘club’ pianos.

Piano Depreciation:  Acoustic vs. Electric

Another aspect to consider when trying to decide whether to purchase an electronic piano vs. an acoustic piano is their ‘life expectancy’, i.e. depreciation.    A good acoustic piano will hold its value for years to come and can be traded in on a bigger better piano when the time comes.  The electric pianos are often replaced by newer models and therefore will depreciate rather quickly.  Many of us have had a piano for 30 years or more, but how long do we hang on to our TV or our Computers?

Many electric piano buyers start small, and then decide they want more features or basically just more instrument.  So trading up is also a possibility with the electronic pianos as well.

I hope this has been helpful in understanding some of the applications and the differences between the electric pianos and the acoustic pianos.     Your dealer should also help you in answering any questions you might have.  Buy as good a piano as you can justify – especially if it is an acoustic piano.  A good acoustic piano will hold it’s value and through proper care and maintenance will give you years of good service and enjoyment.

One Response to Acoustic Piano vs. Electric Piano

  • I’ve been using the 8th partial for a few months – since our last phone call – and really like the results; so do my customers. Nice harmonic result. Thanks for your R&D, your documentation, and especially your willingness to share, which is a PTG trait. Robert Dare Lapeer, MI

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