Is it Damaging to Start Lessons
on an Electronic Keyboard?

Short answer: No. Not to -start-. Not for 6 months or so (up to about a year for a student aged 5 and below).

Differences in Sound Production

There are three kinds of keyboard instruments in use today for piano study: a real piano, a digital piano, and a snythesizer.

How are the three instruments different?

In a piano, the sound is produced by a felt-padded hammer hitting a string under tension. The piano really is a percussion instrument! The harder you hit it, the louder it plays.

A digital piano is an instrument in which real piano sounds have been "sampled" (captured electronically) and used to create the digital piano sounds. The digital piano sounds better than a synth, but it still sounds artificial - - and not like a real piano - - no matter what the salespeople tell you.

In a synth, the sound is produced artificially by manipulating sine waveforms.

The problem with a digital piano or a synth is the student can not learn how a piano feels (the "touch") on an instrument other than a real piano! This is why teachers recommend students start with a real piano.

Why People Buy Something Other Than a Real Piano

Ok, I know there are reasons people want to buy something other than a real piano.

The prime reason not to purchase a real piano is cost. A real piano is most expensive. A digital piano is in the middle range, and a synthesizer is quite a bit less.

Space is a second consideration. Let's face it: a piano is not a small thing! And it needs to be put in a protected place. A digital piano generally takes more floor space than a synth (but less than an upright piano).

Third, some families don't want to buy a piano until they are sure that piano lessons are going to "take" on the child. An electronic may be easier to sell, they say, if things don't work out. If it's not possible to sell it, then the child can still fiddle around on it and perhaps rekindle interest in lessons at a later date.

A fourth reason to purchase a synth - - or a digital - - is the MIDI port. If you want to be able to hook up your computer to this keyboard, you need a MIDI port.

Fifth, salespeople tend to lean on you pretty heavily to purchase a synth since a cheaper item is easier to sell, which means they're more likely to make the sale (and commission) if they tout something less expensive than a real piano. People make decisions based on what they know and what criteria are important to them. Since price is an important factor for almost everyone, the salesperson has the best shot at success with a synth.

And, last, increasingly, some people want to buy an electronic instrument because of the "earphone" option: they live in an apartment building, they can practice only late at night or before dawn, they can't practice when the rest of the family is sleeping, etc.

As noted, of all these reasons to not buy a real piano, 90% of the time cost is the overriding factor.

Differences in Price

A good-quality synth (Yamaha) can be had for $150, brand new from Yamaha (2013). You can get cheaper synths, but since you can get an excellent one for so little, buy the Yamaha. If nothing else, it will have a high resale value! See this file for information on must-have (and forget-about) features for a synth. I also give model numbers for specific Yamahas I recommend.

A digital piano (a Roland or Korg) will run about $1000 (Korg) -$2500 and up (Roland). Many dealers do not carry digital pianos, so call around first if you want to see one. Almost always, it has an earphone jack. (A MIDI plug is not standard, so if you want one, ask and expect to pay extra for it.)

An upright piano will cost $5,000-$7,000 (Yamaha).

A "baby grand" will be in the range of $40,000 (Yamaha).

These are all new instruments. If you can find something used, you'll likely get a better price, of course.

Yamaha Clavinova

Let me speak specifically about this highly-marketed, high-priced keyboard.

The Clavinova is a synth. It's a fancy synth, but a synth, nonetheless. The Clavinova has a lot of bells and whistles, including a recording feature. It comes as a "grand piano-shaped" instrument, as well as the familiar rectangular shape.

Please do not be fooled into thinking a Clavinova is a digital piano! It is not, no matter what the salespeople say.

The price is about $6000-$9000. (That's more than a decent new upright piano!) If you're set on a Clavinova, shop around. Dealer prices are notoriously inflated. I've seen them at Costco. A used one is something to consider.

Keyboard Touch on a Synth

Ok, so, yes, a synth to start on is fine. It will serve the beginner well in learning where the notes are located vis--vis the printed page and a host of other tasks the beginner must complete.

For a child beginner 5 years old and younger, you need to make the investment in a piano after about a year; about six months for an older child or an adult.

What a synth will not teach is piano touch - even a synth with "weighted keys" or keys that "feel just like a piano" (per the salesperson). There just isn't a substitute for a "real" piano. I'm sorry to tell you this, but it's true.

Even a digital piano won't do the job of simulating true piano touch, although it will be light years closer than a synth.

Solution: rent a piano. Honest!

You're better off doing this until the time you're ready to buy a real piano, rather than buying a synth or a digital piano.

If you absolutely want to go electronic, buy a synth (but not a Clavinova) rather than a digital piano because you'll have less invested, and I know you're going to want a piano in pretty short order. (I say "not a Clavinova" because for the same money you can get a good piano!)

If it helps you make a decision: every student I've ever had who started with a a synth bought a real piano within a year - - often within three months.

If you possibly can, buy a real piano for the beginner or rent one.

There is further discussion of this topic regarding a digital piano vs. electronic keyboard on my page of questions and answers for students and parents. Search on "real piano".

I also have a file about piano brands and costs. The first part of the file is a discussion of pianos by brand names. Price averages for comparisons' sake, as well as some recommendations by my tech, are given directly afterwards.

copyright 1998-2013, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.


Pedagogy | marbeth@marthabeth.com