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outdated now,  and are not the type that you will generally see in the dealers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

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
needing 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.

“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”.

Think of a “2 dimensional” sound as a graph that has an ” x-axis” and a

For instance, 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

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.

The ‘feel’ of the action:  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 hammers to strike the
strings to produce the sound.   The speed of the keys is infinitely variable
and responsive to the pianists ‘touch’ and skill.
The pianist is controlling how the hammer strikes the string, and the way
the hammer strikes the strings is what 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. with the dampers disengaged.  Adding the
weight of the dampers and the total gram weight is often 70 – 75 g.

On an acoustic piano, the pianist is controlling all the aspects of the keys
traveling to the strings and striking the strings.

Electric pianos have no strings, no piano hammers, and no dampers that
are activated by the motion of the keys.

Instead of actually controlling the movement of the hammers to the strings,
with most electric pianos,  the pianist is more controlling a switch.
There is a big difference in both feel and the resultant piano sound between
controlling basically just 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 instead of a reasonably good acoustic piano.

After having said all that,
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 t
heir 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.

For more detailed information on digital pianos you can click here.

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.