Understanding Instrument Families: Piano and Keyboard

The popularity of the piano is unmatched, both in performance versatility and in its application in music education. Widely considered the most popular and prolific instrument in recent history, the piano’s voluminous repertoire can be found in all time periods of traditional classical music from Renaissance through 20th Century music, and today’s contemporary styles as well.

It’s helpful to understand the history of the piano and it’s closely related familial instruments, how technology has changed how we think of pianos and keyboards, and ultimately their vast (and growing) capabilities.

What type of instrument is a piano? 

inside view of a pianoThis is a hot topic of debate. An argument can be made that the piano is part of the percussion family and the string family. Both. The piano is made up of strings stretched from one end to the other, and produces sound when the strings vibrate. This is common for all types of instruments in the strings family from violins, violas, and cellos, to guitars, basses, and harps. 

How do pianos produce sound? 

The differentiating point from strings, however, is that on the piano, the strings produce the vibration by a hammer striking the strings, rather than being plucked like a harp or bowed like a violin. Because the sound is initiated by a hammer striking the strings,many argue this qualifies it as a percussion instrument rather than part of the string family.

What type of instrument is a keyboard? 

girl playing the keyboardA question remains whether the keyboard is part of a unique family of keyboard instruments that include digital pianos, celeste, harpsichords, and organs. A family of instruments has historically been defined by the way in which the sound is actually produced, not the method by which the instrument is played. Some argue the organ is part of the woodwind family because sound is produced by forcing air through pipes. By extension, many believe the keyboard is part of a family of electric instruments because the sound is produced by electronics. And some feel the keyboard is part of a keyboard family, due to the method by which the instrument is played. 

What is the difference between a keyboard and a digital piano? 

There are more similarities than differences between digital pianos and keyboards. In fact, many keyboards are now built with sophisticated technology that used to be reserved for digital pianos. Traditionally, digital pianos are designed to feel and sound like an acoustic piano. From the size and touch, to the mechanics, pedals, and graded hammer action (weighted keys), digital pianos feel very much like a real acoustic piano. 

girl playing a small electric keyboardKeyboards come in many shapes and sizes. Some keyboards have as few as 60 keys, and as many as 88, like a full size piano. Many keyboards lack the graded hammer action, so the keys have a very soft, non-responsive touch. MIDI synthesizers may have even fewer keys and are built to function more as a computer input, rather than a performance instrument. Further, keyboards often lack the foot pedals one would typically find on an acoustic and digital piano.

The Verdict on Pianos vs Keyboards

While there may be ongoing debate as to how to classify instruments in the piano and keyboard families, the benefits of learning how to play them are clear. Studies have shown that learning to play the piano can increase happiness, build self-esteem and self confidence, improve school and work performance, and delay cognitive decline. Learning music sharpens mental acuity and children that learn the piano score higher on standardized testing than those without a background in music learning. 

Playing the piano can unlock a multitude of feelings, emotions, and positive energy. It can act as both exercise for the mind and the ultimate form of relaxation. Regardless of which family your piano or keyboard belongs to, the reasons to start pressing the keys are endless.