As a piano teacher (as well as keyboard) I get asked this question a lot, and it’s quite easy to answer in regards to the playing style, but there is sometimes a difference in opinion when it comes to which is the better instrument to play (or the harder).
Firstly, the difference in playing styles mainly lies with the left hand along with the different sounds and beats that are used. For example, when learning and playing the keyboard you typically play chords in the left hand, rather than individual notes like a piano. The reason for this is that when you are playing a keyboard you are able to press a button so a rhythm is sounded, and then when you hit a chord at the bottom half of the keys, a song will play in the style you have chosen. So you could choose for example a rock beat, and then play the chords at the bottom with your left hand which gives you the sound of a rock band playing behind you. This then allows you to play a right hand over the top. You may decide to choose a guitar sound for your right hand, or anything you like which will fit nicely over the top of this rock beat.
Other noticeable differences are the number of keys. A full size piano has 88 weighted keys. A keyboard may typically have anything from 61 to 76 keys, and they are not usually weighted like a piano. To understand what I mean by ‘weighted keys’, here is a picture of a piano and a keyboard side by side –
You will see above that the pianos keys are larger in depth and are weighted much heavier than the keyboards keys which you can see are quite thin and are not deep at all. The keys on a keyboard are also much lighter to the touch and don’t respond as well to your fingers like a piano does. A lot of pianos these days also have something which is called ‘graded hammer effect’ which means that the notes are heavier in the bass and get lighter as they reach the top. This again helps when playing and gives a great feel and touch in comparison to a keyboard.
Now that we’ve established the difference in keys and the overall feel and touch you get with each instrument, we can look into the versatility. A piano of course doesn’t have a rhythm bank like a keyboard does, or any other different sounds other than a piano – with the exception of a digital piano which may have organ and string sounds as well. If you learn to play the keyboard, then you are learning to play mainly chords in your left hand, and also how to put different sounds together to make a song. A good example of a keyboard that excels at this is the Yamaha Tyros which is one of the most popular keyboards in the world due to it’s hundreds of different sounds, styles and rhythms. Here’s a picture below so you can see what I mean –
Anyone that owns one of these bad boys is certainly going to be able to make a huge sound! This type of keyboard is great for someone who loves to have a full orchestra, and it allows the player to create any sound and rhythm they wish. You could have a lot of fun with this at home, but you could also take it to a wedding or party and it wouldn’t sound out of place as backing music.
So it would be easy to assume that a keyboard is more versatile than a piano. But you would be wrong! Yes, you can say that a piano cannot play a guitar or flute and can’t play a samba rhythm, but what a piano lacks in sounds it more than makes up for in its huge range of notes. For example, you couldn’t play all three movements of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on a keyboard as you would run out of notes, and the light keys wouldn’t allow you to play it properly either. But if you like to have an orchestra playing along with you then a piano obviously can’t do that, so it’s all down to personal preference and what you ultimately want to learn and play.
If you want to become a pianist then you need to buy a piano, but you can get away with purchasing a keyboard for a short while to learn on. Pianos are typically much more expensive than a keyboard, so if you are strapped for cash then you can consider getting a keyboard to begin with whilst you learn the basics. But I would always advise moving onto a piano as soon as you can.
Overall it comes down to personal choice, and if you want to have fun with different sounds and rhythms, then a keyboard is for you. If you want to push yourself to the limits, then learning the piano tends to be the way to go as you have to learn to play with both hands equally, and in my opinion the pieces are much harder to play and more satisfying. I also found that I could play and teach keyboard although I’ve always played the piano. The transition from piano to keyboard is relatively easy compared with the other way around.