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Acoustic Or Digital?

The term 'acoustic' piano is used to describe a piano which relies on making its sound purely from the natural acoustics of felt covered hammers hitting high-tensile steel wire strings. A 'digital' or 'electronic' piano has no strings or hammers, but instead utilises electronics in one form or another to produce the sound.

That in a nutshell is the difference between an acoustic and a digital piano. So which one should you buy, is one type better than the other? There exists a market for both acoustic and digital pianos. As to which one is better for you, read on to discover the pros and cons between the two types. You will then be better informed to make a choice which will ultimately suit you better, rather than relying on what other people have said, or what you've heard. This is a subjective issue, so an informed decision looking at all of the facts is really the only way to go.

Buying An Acoustic Piano
New or Second Hand?

If the budget allows, go for a new piano. Source this from a reputable piano retailer, where you can go and play the piano prior to purchasing it. No two pianos are ever the same, even if they are from the same manufacturer and are the same model. All pianos differ in terms of touch and tone. The choice of piano from here is yours.

If a new acoustic piano falls outside your budget you may consider a second hand one. Again your local reputable piano retailer will probably have some good examples to show you. However, be careful when chosing a second hand piano. Many are very old and will be more susceptible to tuning issues. The action may we worn, hammers and dampers may need attention. Whilst these pianos may claim to have been 'restored', invariably corners are sometimes cut, which will be at your cost. Avoid imports, as these pianos are not manufactured and acclimatised for this country. There are many pitfalls to be wary of if you are purchasing second hand. It is therefore advisable to take someone knowledgeable on such matters along with you. At this stage, also consider a digital piano.

Where In The Home?

Your new piano has to go somewhere in your home. But just where is the best place? Realistically there will only be a couple of options for the average sized house. Where this space is, what type of home you have and your living circumstances will all play a part in your decision.

An acoustic piano needs to be located in a room where the temperature doesn't fluctuate too much, as this may cause tuning issues. The room should be acoustically separated from neighbours and other living areas, so that there is limited restriction on practising due to external factors. If there is no suitable location for an acoustic piano, then you should turn your attention to a digital piano.

A digital piano occupies much less space than an acoustic piano and doesn't require tuning, therefore they can be placed in most rooms regardless of temperature and humidity. Whilst their footprint is similar to an acoustic upright piano, their height is approximately half that of an acoustic piano, allowing placement under windows etc. A digital piano can be played through headphones, therefore eliminating the necessity to locate it in a room where it will not disturb others.

Upright or Grand Piano?

An upright piano has strings running vertically, whilst the grand piano has strings running horizontally. Generally, due to space limitations, there is a maximum height that upright pianos can go to. Grand pianos on the other hand face no real restriction in this sense and can therefore produce a much longer string length, a great desirability factor in an acoustic piano. The choice for you is simply down to a matter of space and budget. If you have both, then a grand piano will make a superb investment.

The action (complex system of levers and links connecting the keyboard to the hammers) in an upright piano is above the keyboard, whilst on a grand piano the action is behind the keyboard. Both types of action are mechanically different due to this placement and string direction difference, giving quite a different feel to the piano, so again make sure you play any piano prior to purchasing it.

Differences Between Acoustic & Digital Pianos

Whilst a digital piano may seem to offer everything an acoustic piano can whilst having the benefit of easier placement within the home, it must be bore in mind that the sound reproduced by a digital piano does not recreate many acoustic nuances of an acoustic piano, which is why some purists will always dismiss the digital piano. Music however should be readily available to everyone, regardless of their circumstances. It is injudicious in my opinion to say that a digital piano is not good enough, if that is the only option presently available for a potential student. I know of many music professionals who have worked with less than the best during their early years. Remember the instrument is second to the musician. A good musician can make even the poorest of instruments 'sing'.

Overstrung or Straight Strung?
Overdamped or Underdamped?

In an overstrung piano, the strings run diagonally in two sections across the piano. The bass string section crosses over the treble strings, which are in turn running diagonally behind the bass strings. A straight strung piano on the other hand simply has all of the strings running parallel to one another, in a vertical line, with no crossing over. Due to the increased string length, it is desirable to have an overstrung piano. All new piano designs now incorporate overstrung strings.

An overdamped piano has the string dampers placed above the hammers, whereas an underdamped piano places the dampers beneath the hammers. Due to their more centralised position on the strings, an underdamper action is usually the more effective system and is indeed the system used on all new upright pianos manufactured today.

Pros and Cons

So where do digital pianos presently lose out against their acoustic counterpart? The sustain pedal on some digital pianos is a discrete on/off action, whereas on an acoustic piano it is a gradual process.

The action of the keys synthetically mimics the complex action of an acoustic piano, which can make for a different feel and response. The digitally reproduced sound may imitate individual notes very well, but when played in harmony, subtle overtones formed by sympathetic string resonance is often not reproduced, generating a sound which is artificial in colour and not true to a living breathing acoustic instrument.

However, like acoustic pianos, the more you pay for your digital piano, the better it will be. Indeed some of the top flight digital pianos from key manufacturers such as Yamaha & Roland do have continuous sustain pedal actions (half-pedalling), they also have an action which surpasses most budget upright acoustic pianos, by incorporating the 'double escape' mechanism normally only found in grand pianos. And with advanced audio technology, even sympathetic string resonance is now recreated, generating a sound which is very difficult to distinguish from the real thing.

It is more advisable to purchase a good digital piano than a cheap acoustic piano. A cheap acoustic piano will doubtless have tuning issues, quite often being unable to tune to concert pitch. The action can be quite terrible on cheap acoustic pianos, making it near impossible for the player to inject tone and colour into the performance. The sound is usually thin and lifeless, tiring the ears easily. Countless to say, there will be numerous fixes required to keep the piano in a playable state.

Buying a Digital Piano

Your ultimate aim here is to purchase a digital piano which feels and sounds as close to an acoustic piano as possible, whilst fitting your budget.

Generally there are three types of digital piano: Digital Piano; Ensemble Piano; Stage Piano

Digital Piano

A digital piano built into a cabinet with a full 88 note keyboard, a small palette of sounds and usually a built in metronome. Some basic recording features may also be found.

Ensemble Digital Piano

A digital piano build into a cabinet with a full 88 note keyboard, a large selection of sounds with an auto accompaniment section similar to that of a keyboard. As well as a metronome, there will be a vast recording section allowing for compositions and arrangements to be undertaken.

Stage Piano

Similar to the digital piano but without the cabinet. This allows for greater portability, should the piano need to be gigged with or moved/stored around the home.

As a pure alternative to an acoustic piano, consider the digital or stage piano. Only consider the stage piano if portability is a requirement. The downside to a stage piano is that they don't look as attractive in the home and with the pedals being free standing, they tend to move around, which can be awkward for the uninitiated.

If you have a desire to explore other aspects of music rather than solo piano playing alone, then consider the ensemble digital piano. This will give you access to a vast palette of sounds and rhythms, along with auto accompaniments, allowing many varied styles of music to be played. The onboard recording is also very useful for working on compositions and arrangements.

With all types of digital piano, you also have access to MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) - allowing connection to a computer, opening up a whole new world of music technology.

The Case for an Acoustic Piano

You have a suitable place in your home for the piano to be placed in. This place is in a room where humidity and temperature are stable within reasonable tolerances. The room is free to use everyday, where the sound of a piano will not disturb other family members. The wall that the piano is placed against will not leak sound into other rooms or your neighbours house. You have a reasonable budget, of at least £1500. You have no other prerequisites for the piano other than to learn, play and enjoy piano music.

The Case for a Digital Piano

Space is limited in your home. The room you will place the piano in is often occupied by other family members or may cause disturbance to neighbours. The piano may have to go against a radiator. Whilst you have a desire to play the piano, you are also interested in other types of music. You may also want to explore composition and arrangement. Your budget is below is £1500.

More Money Buys What?

Acoustic Piano

The bigger the budget, the greater the choice. You will generally find that as you go up the range, the piano will get bigger, giving a longer string length, greatly enhancing the tonal qualities of the piano. The finish of the piano, traditional or modern, whether satin or polished and the colour, will all play a part in the price too.

Digital Piano

The greater the budget, the further up the range you will be able to purchase. This will see improvements in the following key areas:

  • Polyphony
  • Amplifier & Speakers
  • Quality of Keyboard Action
  • Main Piano Sample Memory Size

Other bells and whistles will also be encountered, but these are the key elements which you want to pay your money for.


In the real world, a pianist should be converse with playing both acoustic and digital pianos. As technology advances with digital pianos, they edge ever nearer to competing with acoustic pianos in terms of their feel and sound. As such, the pros are now far outweighing the cons, with more and more venues now utilising this technology. Indeed many venues have replaced the guts of old and defective pianos with digital replacements, giving an authentic look but with digital reliability. Digital pianos are now accepted by most music schools and music boards, including the ABRSM. If your goal is concert pianist full stop, then nothing but a quality grand piano will do. For everybody else, use the information presented here to make your own informed decision.

For Piano Evaluation & Purhasing Advice in the North East
Contact Andrew Ridgwick

Digital Piano Glossary of Terms

Acoustic Piano Glossary of Terms

Touch Sensitivity

The process whereby the piano can translate the velocity of key travel into information used to control dynamics and other parameters

LCD Display

A display used to graphically relay information to the user

LED Display

A display used to numerically relay information to the user


Usually two or three pedals which can be assigned the typical functions of an acoustic piano (una corda, sostenuto & damper)

Half Pedal

The ability to mimic the half-way position of the damper pedal on an acoustic pedal. Giving greater control to the pianist, rather than a simple on or off position

Tone Generating Technology

The system used by the manufacturer to generate the sound

Dynamic Steps

The level of degree to which various nuances can be controlled, depending on the velocity applied to the key

Sustain & Key-Off Samples

Extra sounds used to simulate subtle nuances experienced on an acoustic piano

String Resonance

The ability to calculate and generate overtones so as to simulate string resonance, as experienced on an acoustic piano


The maximum number of voices that can be sounded simultaneously

Number of Voices

The number of different sounds that the piano can imitate

Number of Styles

The number of different rhythms that the piano can generate

Recording Channels

The number of tracks that can be recorded, building up a performance


An electronic simulation of the tradition clockwork metronome


The ability for the piano to be transposed into any other key


The ability for the piano to be connected to a computer or other USB devices


Musical Instrument Digital Interface. Connection to other MIDI systems via In, Out & Thru ports

Music Rest/Desk

Part of the case that holds the printed music upright


The power available to the speakers, determining the maximum overall volume of the sound. Greater power also brings improved sound quality


The quantity and size of speakers used within the casing. Mulitple speakers are desirable, giving a better sound quality sound compared to fewer speakers doing the same work

Key Cover

What type of cover is used for the keys, if any

Headphone Sockets

The number of headphones that can be plugged into the piano simultaneously

Ensemble Piano

A digital piano with the ability to play rhythms along with an auto accompaniment section

Stage Piano

A portable digital piano without any casing. Typically they will be stood on a collapsible stand with free floating pedals which are plugged in as required

Keyboard Type

The method used to simulate the action of an acoustic piano

Compatible Data Format

The formats by which the piano adheres to for song playback/recording and style/rhythm generation


The enhancement of the sound by way of various effects. Typically including: Reverb; Chorus & EQ


The tuning method used by the piano. Defaulting to 'Equal Temperament', other tunings may also be selectable

Master Tuning

Allows the piano to be detuned away from the universal concert pitch of A4=440Hz


The ability for the LCD to display lyrics incorporated into MIDI files

Guide Lamp

Small LED's placed above the keys which can show the notes being played, either by the piano's built in song demonstration/tuition system, or via custom/MIDI recordings

Music Clips

Clips/Hooks found at the base of the music rest/desk which aid in keeping pages open

Headphone Hanger

A purpose built hanger found on the cabinet allowing convenient storage of headphones


The complex system of levers and links connecting the keyboard to the hammers

Baby Grand

A grand piano between four-feet nine-inches and five-feet four-inches in length


Wooden posts that support the interior structure of the piano


Strips of wood that transmit the vibrations of the strings to the soundboard

Bridge Pin

A metal pin driven into the top of the bridge which aligns the string as it crosses the bridge

Frame (Cast Iron)

The metal plate which the strings are held over, designed to withstand the high tension of the strings

Concert Grand

A nine to twelve foot grand piano built for the concert or performance hall


The practice of running the string diagonally, so that the bass strings cross over the treble strings


A small felt-padded block that rests on the string, stopping it from vibrating

Damper Pedal

The pedal on the right, which raises all of the dampers, allowing the sound to be sustained

Double Escapement

The process which allows the action to reset when the key is partially released, so that the hammer can quickly repeat the strike of the string

Duplex Scaling

A design which allows portions of the string that are not struck by the hammer to vibrate sympathetically with the section that has been struck


The process which allows the hammer to disengage from contact with the rest of the action, so that the hammer moves towards the string under its own inertia


The material used to cushion parts of the playing mechanism, and damp the vibrations of portions of the strings

Grand Piano

A piano in which the strings and soundboard are in a horizontal position, distinguished by its wing-shaped case, derived from the shape of the harpsichord


The part of the action which strikes the string with a felt head, causing the strings to vibrate


The part of the inner structure of the piano on which the keyframe and keyboard rest


Removable wooden blocks that hold the keyboard tightly in place


The 88 keys of the piano and the keyframe upon which they are mounted


Wooden levers which are activate by the pianist - each key controls its own action and damper assembly

Music Rest/Desk

Part of the case that holds the printed music upright

Music Shelf

Bottom portion of the music desk upon which the base of the music rests


The practice of running the string diagonally, so that the bass strings cross over the treble strings


There are usually three pedals which can be activated to affect the tone of the piano (Una Corda, Sostenuto & Damper)


A block of laminated wood which holds the tuning pins

Sostenuto Pedal

The middle pedal, which acts as a selective damper pedal


The large wooden board that is linked to the strings by the bridges - the vibrations of the strings are transferred to the soundboard, which amplifies the sound


High-tensile steel wires held at high tension across the frame

Sustain Pedal

The pedal on the right, which raises all of the dampers, allowing the sound to be sustained

Tuning Pin

A pin driven into the pinblock to which one end of the string is attached - the pin can be turned to adjust the pitch of the string

Una Corda Pedal

The left pedal, which shifts the action and keyboard to the right, so that the hammers strike fewer strings

Upright Piano

A piano in which the strings and soundboard are in a vertical position


The process of adjusting the timbre of the piano by manipulating the felt of the hammer head