Digital pianos are a popular option for new students and traveling musicians alike. They’re a cost-effective solution for music departments in schools as well. As technology gets better, it gets easier and easier to find affordable digital pianos with a great selection of high-quality sounds. But for players who expect the same responsiveness that they get from the keys of an acoustic piano, weighted keys matter.
Weighted keys are created on digital pianos and other keyboards to help replicate traditional acoustic pianos’ feel and responsiveness. Some keyboards come unweighted. However, most digital piano keys will be either semi-weighted, have a graded weight along the keyboard, and/or have hammer action.
Digital pianos, like all pianos and all instruments for that matter—are channels of artistic expression. Every artist is different, which means that each one will prefer something different from the instruments they use to express themselves. Depending on what you play, why you play, where you play, and how you play—the digital piano keyboard that works best for you will probably differ from what others prefer.
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Are Weighted Keys Necessary?
Depending on how you plan to use your digital piano, weighted keys might be an unnecessary expense or an undesirable feature of the keyboard’s responsiveness. It just depends on what you want to do with it and what your personal preference as a player is.
A musician who learned to play on an organ or synthesizer might find the weighted keys of a digital or acoustic piano too different from what they are used to. Alternatively, a player who learned on an acoustic piano might struggle to get comfortable on a keyboard that doesn’t have weighted keys. Many keyboard players who play in bands have a set-up that includes some combination of the available options that suit their style of playing and the music that they make.
Just as every player will have personal preferences, every digital piano manufacturer has a different approach to making keyboards and a different idea of getting it just right. So, even though a player might play comfortably on weighted and unweighted keys, they might have trouble moving from a Korg to a Yamaha or vice versa.
To understand why that is and know what to look for before you begin shopping for your keyboard, it helps to know how weighted keys work, the benefits, the different types of weighted keys you can choose from, and the potential downsides of weighted keys are.
How Do Weighted Keys Work?
Most digital pianos aim to be as good as or better than a top-quality acoustic piano. That means that they tend to take everything about an acoustic piano and figure out how to make it work with electronics and digital formatting rather than acoustics. But what do they mean when they talk about the acoustics of a piano? Also, how do digital piano manufacturers use technology to emulate or replicate the results of quality acoustics ones?
Feels Like an Acoustic Piano
In an acoustic piano, the keys are attached to a lever system that strikes strings of various thicknesses with hammers. In most acoustic pianos, the size of the hammer’s head and the width of the rods that make up the lever system increase and decrease in correlation to the string’s gauge that it strikes. That alone is enough to give the acoustic piano keys a different degree of responsiveness at different keyboard spots.
Beyond the unavoidable differences found in every acoustic piano’s keyboard, some manufacturers add additional weight to the hammer heads and the keys themselves. They often do this by adding lead, which allows them to fine-tune the feel of the keys that make up their piano keyboard. Each manufacturer has a different approach and a different idea of what the right feel is.
With digital piano manufacturers, they will typically add weight to the keys to replicate a quality acoustic version’s responsiveness.
Sounds Like an Acoustic Piano
The way the keyboard feels to the player makes a difference in how they play it and, in turn, how the music sounds for the listener. The proper name for a piano is ‘pianoforte’ which translates to ‘soft-loud.’
The dynamics of a piece of music go a long way toward helping it convey a particular emotional feel. The keys of an acoustic piano are weighted to help players take advantage of and exercise control over the piano’s ability to make sounds that are both loud and soft and thus create expression in the playing.
Once a player gets used to playing a weighted keyboard, the feel and responsiveness become part of their approach to playing with emotion. Moving from one piano to another can mean a big difference in how the keys are weighted. Moving from an acoustic piano with naturally weighted keys to an unweighted keyboard of a synthesizer or basic electric piano can make playing a piece with emotion much more challenging.
Almost all digital pianos can translate the force that a player strikes the keys into corresponding sounds in a way that mimics an acoustic piano. But the difference in feel can affect the amount of control that a player has over the finer points that distinguish playing note-perfect from playing genuinely outstanding music.
Benefits of Weighted Keys
More emotive playing is a benefit for both players and listeners. But this playing style is not the only factor that weighted keys offer to players. One other significant advantage of weighted keys on a digital piano offer is greater consistency in switching between acoustic and digital versions. This means that things will feel the same, whether they are practicing or performing.
Pianos have stayed pretty much the same for centuries. Combine that with the fact that some of the greatest musical minds in human history have composed music specifically for the piano. You get an instrument that’s incredibly versatile, and music, which was written to encourage the player to explore its whole range. The dynamics that a piano is capable of are part and parcel of the greatest piano music ever written.
It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about classical composers or the greatest composers of the jazz age. The best of what’s been done on piano takes full advantage of the instrument’s impressive dynamic range, and weighted keys are part of what makes the instrument capable of that range. Composers who understand and appreciate that have been able to write music that is better because of how they use it.
Being able to exert emotional control over the piano also allows individual players to be more expressive through their playing. Using weighted keys’ dynamic responsiveness makes it easier for a player to change the emotional feel of a piece that they are playing or to express themselves through improvisation.
Consistency from Practice to Performance
Adding emotion and getting the right feel to the music takes time and practice. It is more than just playing the notes on the music sheet, but the benefits can make a massive difference to the listeners. Practicing on one keyboard and performing on another can disrupt all the competencies that the artist has cultivated. Performing great pieces of music well is something that everyone who loves music can appreciate.
Digital pianos that make it easier for musicians to move a piano with them as they travel from venue to venue without making them sacrifice responsiveness in the keyboard is one of the most important benefits that the instrument’s digital version can provide.
A player who travels and only plays acoustic pianos will have to take whatever is available in a venue unless they have the touring budget to allow them to take one piano with them from place to place. Alternatively, a digital keyboard with weighted keys that’s portable will enable them always to play an instrument that they are familiar with and comfortable on—even if they are driving between performances in their car or van.
Types of Weighted Keys
As mentioned earlier, not all weighted keys are created equal. Each manufacturer does things a little bit differently. Players who are sensitive to a keyboard’s responsiveness can often identify a keyboard’s manufacturer by feel without having to see a brand name on the instrument. Even so, there are at least four main categories of weighted keys that all manufacturers’ keyboards fall into. Most manufacturers offer at least one version of each. Some manufacturers offer multiple options within some categories.
If you play a digital piano long enough, you will undoubtedly develop a list of favorites and some absolute must-have preferences that you expect in the keyboards that you play.
Most budget keyboards and almost all MIDI controllers come with unweighted keys. Even though these keyboards are not weighted, the sounds they make might still be responsive to the player’s touch velocity or strength.
Many players who use a keyboard for recording purposes, such as you would with a MIDI controller, prefer unweighted keys. That makes it easier to play the keyboard to get notes and tones for various instruments that don’t share the piano’s unique characteristics.
Still, if the player considers the piano to be their primary instrument, they will likely miss the weighted keys’ comfortable and familiar feel.
When you can invest a little more in a keyboard or need it to be good enough to serve as a replacement for an acoustic piano rather than a controller for sampled sounds in the studio—you can step up to semi-weighted keys. This option gives you some of the resistance you would expect from an acoustic piano. Still, the resistance tends to be generic across the keyboard rather than graded and nuanced the way an acoustic piano’s keyboard would be.
For players who are just starting out, this option can be a great way to balance the need to find an affordable instrument to practice on with the desire to replicate the feel of the real thing. Most advanced players who are looking for a portable piano won’t settle for semi-weighted keys, but someone who learned on a keyboard like this might not know what they’re missing or might prefer this option even if they do.
Hammer Action Keyboards
Hammer action keyboards actually have a lever-action mechanism built into them. This replicates an acoustic piano feel even though the digital piano doesn’t need a hammer on a string to produce a sound. Some manufacturers do a great job of getting it right with this approach. Those that do produce instruments that players love.
One downside of this approach is that the lever-action systems built into digital pianos tend to wear out much faster than the hammer systems in an acoustic piano. This means that the instrument you purchase won’t last as long or offer as many hours of playing as a comparable acoustic would.
The most sophisticated approach to weighted keys is the graded weight keyboard. This digital piano keyboard category provides players with a feel and sound-quality responsiveness that rivals high-quality acoustic pianos. There is more resistance to keys in the lower notes and less resistance to keys at the keyboard’s higher end.
The resistance is correlated to gradations in the strength of the signal sent and the sound produced. This allows sophisticated players to speak through the digital keyboard in the same way that they would with a desirable acoustic piano.
The reason behind the difference that they are hearing might not be apparent for audiences, but the results will instantly be recognizable. A true virtuoso player should never settle for anything less as doing so would mean depriving the audience of the hard to describe but impossible to miss details of their performance.
Downsides of Weighted Keys
While a true piano player’s piano player will likely insist on the most realistic keyboard feel that they can get, not every player loves everything about weighted keyboards. The price of top-quality weighted keyboards can be prohibitive for some, and others think that it isn’t worth it even when they can afford it. Other players find that the type of music they are playing doesn’t benefit from a weighted keyboard in any way.
There can be a considerable price difference between an unweighted keyboard and a semi-weighted or graded keyboard. Even if the sound quality from each of the three instruments is equal, the keyboard type can make the graded keyboard model two or three times as expensive as the instrument with the unweighted keyboard. If you can’t afford the graded keyboard, you might have to settle for less than the best.
If you plan on using your keyboard as a MIDI controller, there are probably many things on your must-have list that will be more important than the responsiveness of the keys. You might even find that an unweighted keyboard just works better for the kind of work that you are trying to do. If that’s the case, why pay more for an option that you don’t need, won’t use, and might even wish that you could get rid of.
Finding an instrument that works for you is a personal search, and every individual needs to remember that the best instrument to choose is the one that will work best for them. Name brands, reputations, and celebrity endorsements can point us toward something that we need to check out and consider, but none of them should be the only reason we make that choice.
The instrument that you play will become a part of the art that you create. Whatever piano allows you to express yourself most effectively is the one that will do the most for you and will enable you to do the most for your audience. Keep that in mind as you search for your next digital piano.