Kato Music Studio
Synthesizers Versus Acoustic Pianos
Grand Piano
Can I Learn On A Synthesizer?

I have had beginning students or parents of beginning students ask if they need an actual piano, or would a synthesizer suffice for practicing. Often, people are thinking of those extremely cheap synthesizers in the $100 range.

I urge you not to. You can learn to play acoustic piano and then later switch to a synthesizer, but not the other way around. (See The Low-Down on "Cheap" Synthesizers in the next column for reasons why.)

What Do Professional Musicians Use?

The synthesizers and electronic keyboards that professional musicians play in performance are in a different class than the cheap toy synths that are being peddled to consumers in electronics stores.

There are a new breed of fully-weighted, 88-key synthesizers which sound and feel incredibly realistic. These tend to cost in the $2,800 range and up -- well over what you would pay if you shopped around for a used upright piano in reasonable condition.

A professional-grade synthesizer is still a compromise in place of (a) hiring more musicians, (b) hiring giant roadies and renting huge truck with a ramp to haul a grand piano to the gig, (c) hauling the Hammond B-3 organ, the Mood synth, and a litany of other instruments to every gig.

Musicians (myself included) who play these synthesizers have to adapt our technique away from the heavier action of real pianos in order to do performances on electronic keyboards. Whenever we switch back to piano after playing electronic keyboards after a while, we have to adapt our technique again.

It's true that knowledgeable keyboardists can get a lot of sound out of just one synthesizer. But when they want to work on their technique, they always go back to playing an acoustic piano. No keyboardist got to where they did by being limited to just a synthesizer.

As much as technology has improved, synthesizers and their features have yet to produce the harmonic overtone series, the warmth, depth, and breadth of sound that a good acoustic grand or upright piano can produce.


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Eletronic piano "keyboards" common in consumer electronics stores are nothing more than cheap toys designed to get you to buy them, not to help you become a musician.

Think about the kids that walk into stores and pound on these things for hours. Do any of them sound like musicians?


The Low-Down on
"Cheap" Synthesizers:
  1. Limited Range
  2. Pianos and professional performance synthesizer keyboards will have eighty-eight keys. Cheap synthesizers invariably have much less than eighty-eight keys (otherwise they wouldn't be so cheap). Students become confused about the octave ranges, and find that they cannot practice lesson material.

  3. Misleading Touch-Sensitivity
  4. Even the cheapest synthesizers now have simulated touch-sensitivity. However, the "touch" that a student develops playing a cheap synthesizer is completely misleading. The touch awareness, dexterity and strength that the student must have in order to have command over an acoustic piano (or even a professional level synthesizer) is much greater.

    Transfer students who have come to me having only practiced on synthesizers have come with flimsy, weak fingers, a totally unclear sense of which octave/register they are playing in, and no sense of musical dynamics, style, articulation, or phrasing.

  5. Gimmicks - Not Real Features
  6. These keyboards don't come with the damper, sostenuto, or una corda pedals. They do, however, all seem to have buttons and doodads that you can press in the store to get different sound settings. These features are fun to play around with for maybe a few hours, annoying everyone in the music store as you do so.

Find out more:

--> Shopping For A Piano
--> Lessons at the Studio
--> Finding the Right Teacher: A Few Tips from the Music Teacher's Association
--> Performance Anxiety: How To Overcome It



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