Buying a Piano: How to Choose the Right Model for You

Buying a Piano: How to Choose the Right Model for You

The piano is a beautiful instrument with a long history. First developed in Italy by inventor Bartolomeo Cristofori in the early 18th century, the pianoforte was a keyboard instrument based on the older harpsichord. The pianoforte was unique for its ability to play notes at different volumes, something earlier keyboard instruments could not do - hence its name, from the Italian words for "soft" (piano) and "strong" (forte.)

None of this history is very interesting, though, if you're looking for a piano to buy in the modern world. Acoustic pianos produce beautiful sounds, but they're also expensive - in the thousands at the very lowest. If you're planning on buying a piano for yourself or your child to play, you should understand every option available to you so that you can find you best fit.

Types of piano keyboards

You've probably seen and heard a wide variety of keyboard instruments, from Steinway grand pianos to cheap electronic keyboards. Each of these instruments is technically a piano. Clearly, though, they're completely different in sound, quality and scope. Below are some of the most important practical differences between these different piano keyboard types.

Acoustic vs. electric

The original 18th century piano was naturally an acoustic instrument. An acoustic piano produces the classic piano sound and nothing else. Each key generates a tone by operating a small cushioned "hammer" that hits a string in the body of the instrument. After years of use, the strings stretch out and the notes start to buzz and fall out of tune, at which point a piano tuner must be called to readjust the strings and manually "reset" the piano.

Electronic pianos have no strings. As entirely digital instruments, they can produce many different sounds, including an imitation of the "classic" piano sound. Some of the most popular makers of electronic pianos include Casio, Yamaha and Roland. These companies build various models that range from the very cheap and basic keyboard to the deluxe synthesizer.

Buying a Piano: How to Choose the Right Model for You

You might be wondering what the true difference is between an electronic piano and an acoustic. The primary difference is sound - while even the cheapest keyboard can imitate a piano's tone, it's an unquestionably pale imitation. To get the full, rich sounds of a Mozart, Beethoven or Chopin piece, you'll want an acoustic, but if you're planning on plugging your piano into your computer to use it in conjunction with music composition software, you'll probably want an electronic model. Electronic pianos are also highly portable, whereas even the smallest acoustic pianos are too large and bulky to move outside of the house.

Weighted vs. non-weighted

Another important difference lies in the weighting of the piano's keys. An acoustic piano's keys are fully weighted. When you play a note, the key exerts some resistance to your touch. This is completely intentional - it allows the pianist to adjust the volume of his playing by adjusting his "touch". The lower a key is on the keyboard, the greater its resistance.

Most inexpensive electronic keyboard models are non-weighted. The keys of a low-end Casio or Yamaha model exert no such resistance on the fingers, and each key feels the same when hit. Many top-line electronic keyboards have fully weighted keyboards that are very close in feel to an acoustic piano's keyboard, but fully weighted keyboards tend to be much more expensive than non-weighted models.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with a non-weighted keyboard. It simply doesn't have the feel of an acoustic piano. If you plan on learning how to play a piano with weighted keys, don't start on a non-weighted keyboard.

In your search for a keyboard, you might come across some semi-weighted models. These keyboards have keys that combine the light, weightless touch of a non-weighted keyboard with the resistance of an acoustic piano's keys. Semi-weighted keyboards are generally priced between non-weighted and weighted models. If the organ is your instrument of choice, a semi-weighted model might be just for you. Players who want to eventually move on to an acoustic shouldn't settle for anything but fully weighted keys.

The size of the keyboard

A full piano keyboard has 88 keys, including both the black and the white keys. However, not all pianos have full keyboards. Pianos and keyboards typically come in 61-, 76- and 88-key varieties. As you might have guessed, 61-key pianos are the cheapest, while full keyboards are the most expensive.

Does size matter when it comes to piano keyboards? The answer to that question depends upon what you plan to play with your piano. If you want to learn how to play the classics, there's no substitute for a full 88-key piano. If you skimp and go for a 61-key model, you'll quickly find your hands running off one end of the keyboard or the other, trying to play the low and high octaves that are only present on a full keyboard.

If, however, you're buying a model just to learn the basics and to see if you enjoy playing the piano, there's nothing wrong with a 61-key model. Just don't expect it to last very long: as you improve in skill, you'll almost certainly want the range that only an 88-key model can provide.

Upright vs. grand

If you have your heart set on an acoustic, you'll have yet another question to answer: upright or grand? An upright piano is so named because it "stands" upright - it's taller than it is broad. The body of an upright essentially sits sideways: its strings run from top to bottom, and its case is always closed.

The grand piano is the larger type. Its body lies parallel to the floor and its case is usually kept open, held up by an arm. This is the classic “concert piano” model. If you've ever watched a live professional piano performance, it was probably being played on a grand piano.

Grand pianos produce a fuller and more reverberant sound than do uprights. For most people, however, buying a grand is a difficult proposition. Firstly, they're extremely expensive. While a quality upright might cost around five thousand dollars, a grand piano will cost three times that at the very least. Another issue is space. An upright is narrow and takes up very little space, while a grand will dominate any room it sits in. If you don't have a massive house and a lot of money in your pocket, go for an upright.

Pianos for children

Some manufacturers produce miniature acoustic pianos made specially for children. These tiny upright pianos usually have only 37 or 49 keys.

If you're shopping for a piano for your small child, you might be considering one of these models. A piano that only plays three or four octaves isn't much more than a toy, however. Many miniature pianos are very beautiful and excellently crafted, but they won't help your child learn how to play the piano like a true piano will. In truth, there's no such thing as a "child's piano" or an "adult's piano" - most four and five year-old children start their piano studies on an 88-key piano without any trouble at all.

Which model is right for me?

When shopping for a piano, you should consider what you're going to need out of it. If you're just starting out with the piano and aren't sure whether you're going to stick with it, a cheap 61-key electronic keyboard is probably right for you. If you ultimately decide that the piano isn't for you, you're only out seventy or eighty dollars, and you can probably sell your keyboard to make most of that amount back. If, however, you stick with the piano, you're eventually going to want the range and fullness of sound that only a quality 88-key keyboard or an acoustic piano can provide.

If you're planning on recording music on your computer, look for a good synthesizer. A typical mid-range Roland or Yamaha with fully weighted keys should cost around five or six hundred dollars.

Whichever model you choose, make sure it suits your needs. Don't skimp on a cheap keyboard if you want to get a full appreciation for the range and sound of the piano, and don't splurge on an expensive upright or grand piano if you're not going to bother learning how to play it. As long as you keep your own personal requirements in mind, you should be able to find the piano or keyboard that perfectly suits your needs.

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