This is an article about what I see as the differences between keyboards and pianos, both in terms of the instruments themselves and how to play them. I am not technical at all but I do play both piano and keyboard and therefore also offer my limited insights into how smart technology can help you diversify the range of sounds you can get from your keyboard and help you perform live as a keyboard player. It may be of most use to those people who are working out exactly what they are (a keyboard player or a piano player), what they want to be, and if in fact, they can be both!
What is the difference between a keyboard player and a piano player? The terms keyboard and piano are often used interchangeably, particularly with the prevalence of high quality electric pianos and what you might call ‘hybrid’ keyboards, with fully-weighted keys designed to feel like a piano with different sounds to choose from.
If the terms are used interchangeably, it may help to start with some definitions. Let’s start with the basics. A piano is a piano. The upright or grand varieties are nothing other than pianos. They are not keyboards and can’t be played like keyboards. This is one end of the spectrum. At the other end, a keyboard with, 1000+ voices and which has fewer than 88 keys, is definitely, a keyboard. These are not pianos and can’t be played like pianos. I am a first and foremost, a pianist. On too many occasions I care to remember my heart has sunk when I have been asked to play the piano at an occasion with assurances that the appropriate equipment will be provided only to find myself presented with a keyboard that simply can’t be played as a piano. No matter how good a pianist you are, you can’t sound anything approaching decent if you’re playing a keyboard with plastic, unweighted keys.
So with those two ends of the spectrum understood, what then is in between? I have a Yamaha P515 keyboard. It is a fully-weighted electric piano and is designed to be played like a stage piano. And yet, it has a few voices which provides some flexibility for me to play it like a keyboard as well. It has clavinova, electric piano, organ, synth, string and guitar sounds which can be played individually, as a split keyboard, or layered, where two voices play at the same time. However, the range of sounds is still quite limited. A true keyboard has hundreds of different voices and tones to the point that you can make almost any sound you want. As a general rule of thumb, I find that you compromise on the quality of the piano sound and ability to play it like a piano, the more sounds there are on a keyboard.
I have come across this dilemma recently, as I have started playing the piano as a soloist at weddings, and have also joined a blues, soul and rock band. These are two different musical ventures requiring vastly different styles of playing. The question for me is, can I perform both styles (piano-playing and keyboard-playing) with the same instrument and to the required standard for both situations? The Yamaha P515 really is a piano, so it serves me well as a soloist and when I want to play it like an upright, baby grand, or grand.
When I joined my new band I was convinced that I was going to need to buy at least one additional keyboard for the gigs (Rick Wakeman style?!), as the range of voices on the P515 simply isn’t sufficient for the different sounds we wanted to give the band. However, when I looked in to my options I found that the magic of technology means this is not necessarily required. I discovered that there are different apps you can download to your smart device which contain different sounds, which you can then connect to the keyboard and effectively override the voices on the instrument itself. Effectively, you can control your keyboard from the app and by-pass the built-in sounds.
I am still learning about the different apps on offer and their functionality. Garageband is one of the most well-known pieces of audio software, which comes in-built into Apple devices and offers a huge range of voices not to mention recording and other audio facilities, which I should spend a lot more time exploring and learning about beyond the basic functionality.
Another one which I have been using lately, is Yamaha’s Smart Pianist app. It has a wider range of sounds than I have on my keyboard and also, and very helpfully, allows you to save any particular configuration of voice settings on your device, so that once it is plugged into the keyboard, at the touch of a button, you have your keyboard voices set-up for any song you have pre-programmed into the device. On Garageband and Smart Pianist (and no doubt a lot of other similar apps) you can also programme in the relative volume levels particularly if you are layering up voices or want alternative sounds at either end of the keyboard. I am still learning about the functionality of both the apps I’m dabbling with, but I know for sure that they are the answers to my challenge of being able to play true piano and keyboard on the same instrument. Something I have learnt with both of them is that I need a device larger than a smartphone to operate them smoothly and see what I’m doing, especially during a gig, so an iPad or similar is recommended.
We have covered the differences between the sounds of a keyboard and a piano, but what about the differences in how you play them? As a solo pianist, I create all the sounds and play all the notes during a performance. As an accompanist, generally I play a full sound, minus the melody, which the vocalist would sing. In both instances you simply choose your favourite piano sound, and play. Playing the keyboard is quite a different skill all together. To start with, if you are playing a keyboard it is likely that you’re playing in a band, and as such, there are many more instruments involved. This usually means you have to play less. A band will sound far too busy if the keyboard player is playing like a soloist. As a keyboard player, less is often more so you generally don’t generally play block chords, or arpeggios in your left-hand, and rarely play the melody with your right hand. You are there to perform a multitude of services to the ensemble, for example, to provide a backdrop to a song such as some subtle strings or synth sounds, to play some specific licks in a song that might usually performed by brass or woodwind instruments, or to replicate a specific sound that is synonymous with a particular song (think the unmistakable tang of the electric clavinova on Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”). Whether you are playing an original song or a cover, there is often a need for very specific sounds. Sometimes there is a need for more than one specific voice in the same song, which is where you need to be very organised in the way you have pre-set the keyboard or your app, or very nifty in your ability to change sounds half-way through a song. There is a skill to this and also, as different sounds often come with different volume levels, so you may need to adjust the volume mid-song as well.
My training from a young age was as a solo pianist, so I have had to learn how to play the keyboard as an adult. It’s definitely a different skill and someone who has spent all their life being a keyboard player would also find the shift to being a solo pianist a challenge. I really do enjoy both styles though. The full sound of a piano and being totally in control of the sounds you’re making is equally as exhilarating as being part of a bigger band, and the thrill of playing in a restaurant or a wedding ceremony / breakfast / reception is equal to that of playing rock classics to a lively and animated late night crowd. Playing as a soloist you are in control of everything, though it can be a little lonely, whilst playing in a band, you have to make more compromises, but you get the camaraderie and the energy of the your bandmates.
On that note, I fully intend to remain both a pianist and a keyboard player, enjoy the best of both styles, and look forward to forevermore continuing to perfect the art of both!
If you found this article interesting, want some advice for your / your child about whether to go down the keyboard or piano route, or what kind of instrument to buy, don’t hesitate to contact me via my web form on my Piano page or via email@example.com