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Pianos vs. Digital Pianos vs. Keyboards: How to Choose the Right Instrument For You

August 6, 2014

Pianos-Digital-Pianos-vs-KeyboardsAs a piano teacher of beginning students, one of the most common questions from my new students is: “Should I get a piano or a keyboard?” This is a great question since the answer not only helps the student determine what type of instrument they should buy, but also the correct recommendation can affect the student’s technique, motivation levels, and how much effort and money they invest into their music learning.

The answer to this question depends on many factors, including the student’s budget, goals (casual vs. serious learner), space in the home, and other factors.  To help the student assess which choice is correct for them, I put together a brief compilation of the advantages and disadvantages of each of the following types of keyboard instruments: grand piano (acoustic), upright piano (acoustic), digital piano, and electronic keyboard.


Grand Piano (Acoustic)

About $10,000 and up

The goods:

  • Can help develop a student’s technique the correct way from the very start
  • Allows for more musical expression – full, balanced tone, range of dynamics, and three pedals help produce a full range of sounds
  • Weighted keys are sensitive to the pianist’s touch
  • Adds ambiance in the home and can act as a piece of furniture or art
  • Retains their value longer than upright pianos or digital keyboards

The bads:

  • Most expensive option
  • Difficult to move (requires at least 2 professional movers)
  • Takes up the most space out of all options
  • Costs money to maintain and tune

Recommended for those who:

  • Can afford a grand piano
  • Wish to take piano study seriously
  • Are willing to make a long-term investment
  • Have space in their home for a grand piano

Upright Piano (Acoustic)

About $2,000 – $10,000

The goods:

  • Less expensive than a grand piano
  • Still has an acoustic piano action (hammers and strings), so allows for varied tone and touch (although to a lesser extent than a grand piano)
  • Takes up less space than a grand piano
  • Some offer “mute” or “practice-rail” pedals so as not to disturb roommates/neighbors

The bads:

  • Slower action than a grand piano (since the strings are vertical and gravity does not work in its favor)
  • Can lose their value quicker than grand pianos
  • Difficult to move (requires professional movers)
  • Costs money to maintain and tune

Recommended for those who:

  • Do not have space for a grand piano
  • Wish to take piano study seriously
  • Desire an acoustic piano action but something more affordable than a grand piano

Digital Piano

About $1,000 – $5,000

The goods:

  • Less expensive than acoustic pianos
  • Looks like an upright piano (with a base and bench) and sounds like a real piano
  • Has full range of keys (88 keys) and a damper pedal
  • Lighter and easier to move
  • Does not need to be tuned
  • Recording/MIDI capability and some have various instrument sounds
  • Can use earphones

The bads:

  • Lose their value fairly quickly
  • Can be difficult to repair
  • Although keys are weighted, it still does not feel exactly like a acoustic piano
  • Students who learn on digital pianos sometimes do not develop as strong technique as those who learned on acoustic pianos

Recommended for those who:

  • Wish to have a key action similar to an acoustic piano
  • Want a more affordable option than an acoustic piano
  • Have small living quarters
  • Are casual learners (beginner or intermediate)

Electronic Keyboard

About $200 – $1,000

The goods:

  • Least expensive
  • Light, portable, and easy to transport
  • Takes up less space
  • Does not need to be tuned
  • Recording/MIDI capability and most come with various instrument sounds and accompanying beats
  • Can use earphones

The bads:

  • Keyboard, stand, bench and pedal need to be purchased separately
  • Can be difficult to repair
  • Some have less than 88 keys (smaller keyboards with 61 or 76 keys are common since they are more affordable)
  • Some have smaller size keys
  • Not recommended for intermediate or advanced students
  • Students who learn on keyboards often do not develop as strong technique as those who learned on acoustic pianos

Recommended for those who:

  • Wish to “test” out learning the piano without breaking the bank
  • Want a more affordable option than a digital or acoustic piano
  • Have small living quarters
  • Are casual learners (beginners)


In the end, the best choice is to get the highest option that is still within your budget and learning needs.  A piano teacher will usually prefer an acoustic piano as this allows the student to start on an acoustic instrument from the very start, which will help develop the most ideal technique from the very beginning.  However, it is understood that a grand or upright piano is not always within the budget of the student.

A digital piano or electronic keyboard is certainly still acceptable, but if you go this route, I would recommend to ensure:

  • Keys are touch sensitive and weighted.  This means that a pressing a key with more strength will produce a louder sound, and pressing a key with lighter strength will produce a softer sound.  (Keyboards with “graded hammer-action,” also known as “scaled hammer-action,” take the realistic feel a step further by giving the bass octaves a heavier touch than treble notes.)
  • There are 88 keys.
  • The keys are standard size.

Hopefully with these recommendations, you will be on your way to choosing the right instrument for you.  By considering your budget, learning goals, space constraints, and other factors mentioned above, you will be informed in your instrument purchase.


To download a free handy comparison chart, please click below.







Download Pianos vs. Digital Pianos vs. Keyboards Comparison Chart PDF file.


 About the Author

Theresa Chen is based in the Los Angeles, CA area and is the owner of one of California’s premiere music schools, Opus Music School.  She has a full studio of private piano students and also trains new piano teachers.  Theresa has a Masters degree in Piano Pedagogy from California State University Fullerton and a Bachelors degree from UCLA.


How Do I Get Perfect Pitch?

February 5, 2012

As a music teacher, I have had music students ask me: “how do I get perfect pitch?”  This is a tough question to answer, because there is little definitive medical guidance on perfect pitch, such as whether it is genetic or if it is a skill that can be learned.  Growing up, I had perfect pitch but I don’t remember how I obtained it – I just don’t recall ever not having it.  In this article, I will explore what perfect pitch is, why certain people have it, and recommendations on how you can obtain perfect pitch.

What is Perfect Pitch?

According to Wikipedia, the definite of perfect pitch (also known as absolute pitch), is:

“Absolute pitch (AP), or perfect pitch, is the ability to name or reproduce a tone without reference to an external standard.”

People with perfect pitch possess the ability to perform all or a majority of the following:

  • Identify individual pitches by name (e.g. A, B-flat, C-sharp) without an external reference
  • Listen and name the key of a given piece of music
  • Identify all the notes of a given chord
  • Accurately sing a given pitch without reference to an external tone
  • Name the pitches of common everyday noises such as electronic devices or car horns

In everyday terms, individuals with perfect pitch can name musical pitches accurately without having any reference point.  For example, if someone plays a random note on a piano, a person with perfect pitch would be able to listen and name the correct note instantly without looking.  When a piece of music is played on the radio, a person with perfect pitch would be able to identify the notes being played, including the notes of the chords and bass line.

Relative pitch is similar but more limited.  People with relative pitch can hear one identified original pitch, then identify other pitches relative to the stored memory of the original pitch.

Why Do Certain People Have Perfect Pitch?

Perfect pitch is rare among the general population.  It is more prevalent among professional top level musicians that started music study at a young age, but even still it is quite rare.  Most people with perfect pitch do not recall when they obtained it.

In 2010, a study called University of California Genetics of Absolute Pitch Study was conducted by Dr. Jane Gitschier at the University of California, San Francisco.  Although still in progress, the study had the following preliminary findings:

  • Start at an early age – The majority of individuals with absolute pitch began formal musical training before age 7.
  • Genetics – A sibling (with early musical training) of an absolute pitch possessor is about 15 times more likely to possess absolute pitch than is another individual with early musical training but with no family history of absolute pitch.
  • Fades with time – Pitch perception tends to go sharp as subjects age.  None of the subjects past the age of 51 identified all of the tones perfectly, unlike their younger counterparts.
  • Distortion – Absolute pitch possessors tend to err on G# far more than any other tone (hypothesized given the use of A as the universal tuning pitch in Western music and there being varying frequency standards for A, i.e. A440).

Research is still ongoing to find if there are genetic variants (i.e., DNA changes) that are enriched in individuals with absolute pitch.  This study is a fascinating one, and one that we will surely keep our eyes on to see how it unfolds.

How Can I Learn Perfect Pitch?

People with perfect pitch appear to fall into two categories: one group who have always had the ability, and the other group who have acquired the ability at a later age.

If one is not born with perfect pitch, the following are some ear training exercises I would recommend to help improve your ability:

  • Interval identification – To help develop perfect pitch, you must first be adept at relative pitch ability.  This involves learning to identify intervals accurately and instantaneously.  Practice listening to random note intervals and recognizing patterns to identify them.  My childhood piano teacher taught me the following mnemonic tools.  For example, to identify a 4th interval, think of the Here Comes the Bride.  To identify a 5th interval, think of the Star Wars theme.  To identify a 6th interval, think of My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean.  To identify a 7th interval, think of Somewhere Over the Rainbow (the 1st to 2nd note is an octave, then the 3rd note is the major 7th).
  • Practice playing by ear – Try playing songs from ear as often as you can, without the help of any sheet music.  This will train your ear to listen carefully and help identify relative pitches.  Don’t worry if it is frustrating at first – part of ear training is trial and error until you can recognize patterns.
  • Ear training exercises – There are numerous ear training software available, even free ones online, that one can access to practice developing your ear.  This will include practicing the identification of notes, scales, chords, intervals, cadences, and others.  Student enrollment in music exams such as ABRSM music exam or Certificate of Merit will train and test students in ear training.
  • Keep playing music – The more you play, the more your ear listens to the instrument you’re playing.  After many years of continuous practice, you will begin to be familiar with the timbre and frequency of certain notes, thus making them easier to identify.
  • Try testing your perfect pitch periodically – Periodically, you may wish to have a friend or music teacher play random notes on your instrument and practice naming them instantaneously and as accurate as you can.

Even if one is not born with perfect pitch, with patience and continuous practice, you can learn techniques to help develop the ability to obtain perfect pitch.  If you intend to acquire perfect pitch, just be reminded that it often takes years to obtain.  But don’t be discouraged – it is possible!  Good luck in your journey, and happy listening!


About the Author

Theresa Chen is based in Los Angeles, CA and runs two music education websites, Opus Music Education and Opus Music Worksheets. If you are interested in joining one of the web’s premiere music teacher directories, please check out Opus Music Education at  To download free music education worksheets, visit


Go back to Opus Music Education homepage.

Group vs. Private Piano Lessons – Which One is Better?

September 14, 2011

When parents consider starting their child in music lessons, often they wonder if private or group lessons would be better suited for their child.  In this article, I discuss the advantages and disadvantages of private lessons and group lessons, and later conclude on my assessment of which type is better.

Private Lessons



  • Personalized attention – The student gets one-on-one attention from the teacher at all times of the lesson. This means the teacher can tailor the lesson concepts, pace of learning, and progression according to the capability of the student.
  • Pace is customized – Music concepts are progressive and build upon previously learned topics.  In a private setting, the teacher can go as fast or slow as needed to ensure the student comprehends all of the necessary music concepts before learning the next topics.  Students with above-average musical aptitude can move at a much faster pace, which will reduce risk of boredom.  On the other hand, students that need extra help can spend extra time with the teacher on certain areas to ensure they understand the concept fully before moving on.
  • Faster progress – On average, students who take private lessons will progress faster in their music studies than those who take group lessons.
  • Personal connection between student and teacher – Since the teacher and student will spend a lot of time together, a deeper personal connection can be developed between the two.  Students who study for the same teacher for many years typically have a strong bond with the teacher.
  • Easier to schedule – It may be simpler to schedule lessons since there are only two parties involved in a private lesson (teacher and student), unlike multiple parties in group lessons.


  • More expensive – Private lessons can be considerably more expensive than group lessons.  If a family is on a budget, the price differential can really make a difference.
  • Solitary activity – Playing the piano is already a solitary activity, and a child may continue to feel that they are once again alone at their private lessons.

Group Lessons



  • Less expensive – The more people in the class, the less each student needs to pay.  This can be a large determining factor for some families, especially given the current economic environment.
  • Peer competition can be healthy – If a student knows that they will be performing in front of their peers, they may be more likely to practice their assigned pieces to avoid making mistakes in front of others.  Also, they may have more incentive to do their homework if they do not wish to be the only student who didn’t finish their homework.
  • Social time – Given the peer interaction of group classes, group lessons offer social time for the students. With multiple students, teachers have more flexibility to play games and hence, students may think lessons are more fun.
  • Can learn from others – When students see other students their age and level play the piano, they can learn from observation, instead of a teacher verbally telling them.
  • Ensemble skills – Playing in a group means that students are forced to listen more to their peers.  This can develop their ensemble and ear training skills.
  • Longer class time – Group classes are longer than private lessons (group lessons are typically an hour vs. 30 minute lessons for young children beginners).


  • Less personalized attention – Instead of the teacher focusing on one student, the teacher must divide his or her time among many students at once.
  • Different skill levels can be difficult – In a group setting there are lot of different types of learning styles.  It can be difficult to handle the various learning styles and pace of learning.
  • Less effective for shy students – Children who are shy or who don’t enjoy interacting in groups may be uncomfortable in group lessons.
  • Group lessons usually use keyboards, not pianos – The piano is a large instrument.  With multiple students, teachers typically do not have one piano per student.  Instead, digital pianos or keyboards are used, which is different than an acoustic piano and can be less effective when the student reaches a more advanced level.
  • Difficult to teach more advanced piano techniques – Once the level of piano study starts to involve playing with both hands and more advanced piano techniques, it may be more difficult for the teacher to work on the specific advanced details in the piece, such as phrasing, texture, balance between hands, touch, etc.

Consider the following when assessing if your child is better suited for group or private piano lessons.

Consider the following for group lessons:

  • Does your child like being in groups and work well with others?
  • Do they like team sports?
  • Do they have an extremely tight extracurricular schedule that makes it hard to find daily practice time?
  • Are they under age 6?
  • Are you under a tight budget?

If so, group lessons are probably your first choice.

Consider the following for private lessons:

  • Do they dislike team sports or shy around other peers?
  • Are they exceptional students academically and tend to progress faster than other kids?
  • Or do they tend to progress slower than other kids and sometimes require special personalized attention?
  • Do they have a burning desire to learn the piano?
  • Are they 6 or older?
  • Can you afford private lessons?

If so, private lessons are probably your first choice.

In the end, the decision for a child to begin private or group lessons depends on a number of factors, including the child’s personality, developmental progress as compared to other children their age, and parent’s ability to afford the lessons.  In my opinion, private lessons are always the preferred method since it ensures the student has a more comprehensive musical learning experience and allows the student to progress at their own pace (and often a faster pace as compared to other students).  If parents can afford the cost of private lessons, private lessons are highly recommended for piano study.


About the author

Theresa Chen runs two music education websites, Opus Music Education and Opus Music Worksheets. If you are interested in finding a music teacher in California, please check out Opus Music Education at  To download free music education worksheets, visit

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