While visiting an elderly friend recently, I observed that her family heirloom piano had been replaced by a sleek, compact electronic instrument. I was surprised at her decision. After inquiring as to why, she stated,  My old piano was too stiff to play at my age and took up too much room; now I can play with ease and have more space in my living room.  What is the difference between the traditional piano and the plug-in type of instrument? How do you decide which is right for you?

First, there are two main categories to divide pianos into   acoustic and electric. Acoustic pianos are the traditional type most people associate with the term piano. Like the acoustic guitar, the sound is produced with metal strings; in the case of the piano, when you play a key a felt-tipped hammer strikes the appropriate strings.

Electronic pianos actually fall into three categories: digital pianos, electric pianos and electronic pianos (aka electronic keyboards). Digital pianos produce sounds digitally through sound samples from quality acoustic pianos using amplifiers and speakers. The action often replicates the weighted keys found on an acoustic piano. An electric piano is similar in concept to an electric guitar. Vibrating strings and striking components are amplified to produce sound. The third, the electronic piano is commonly referred to as an electronic keyboard. They offer sampled sound or synthesized sounds to produce music. The keys can be weighted like the traditional piano but often are not. This third type is the most popular of the three and the most widely used; however, most people group all types together with the common moniker of electronic keyboard.

Electronic pianos usually have more components than an acousitic piano, including speakers and headphone jacks. One factor in their favor, loved by parents all around, is the ability to practice in silence by using headphones to listen to the music. Many brands offer the ability to record and then play back what you have played. Fun and innovative synthesized sounds, including percussion, are often available as accompaniment tracks on these models.

Now that you understand the difference, what factors usually account for the decision to choose one over the other? Price is a key ingredient. Electronic pianos can start as low as a couple hundred dollars (these are usually smaller types without stands and contain fewer than the standard 88 keys) and as high as $5,000 and up if customized. This is significantly less than an acoustic piano where most reputable brands sell new consoles at the low-end price of $5000, and if you move into the grand piano range the price can surpass the cost of a luxury automobile. Size and portability are also factors to be considered in your decision between the two piano types. Many electronic pianos are portable and easy to move around as needed. This factor is definitely not the case for acoustic pianos, no matter whether they are a console or a grand. Probably the biggest drawback for most people when considering an electronic keyboard is the sound quality. It is almost impossible to replicate the rich tone of a well-made acoustic piano with that of the plug-in kind.

Once you have made a decision based on your unique needs, look for our other articles in are Learning Center detailing what to look for in a quality acoustic piano or electronic keyboard (Dec. 2010). Whatever your decision   acoustic or electronic   the products reviewed on our Piano Software or Learn Piano Online pages will help you master the keyboard.

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