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Deciding to learn piano is the first step on an incredibly rewarding journey

The good news is that you won’t be taking that journey alone. You will have an instrument to learn on. It will be a daily source of satisfaction, a comforting presence in your home, a companion with keys.
So let’s find you the right instrument. Even a short search can uncover a wide range of terminology and options that can be a little daunting. We’re here to help. This chapter gives you all the knowledge you need for choosing a piano or keyboard to choose the right instrument for you. If you don’t need all the information, take a look at the quick buyer’s guide at the end of this chapter.

Let’s start by splitting your options into three categories:

Digital keyboards

The cheapest, most convenient, and most versatile. Sound and feel aren’t as good as acoustic pianos, but keyboards work well as a first instrument.

Digital pianos
Larger and more expensive, but nearly as versatile while mimicking the feel of an acoustic piano well. A great alternative if budget and space allows.

Acoustic pianos
The best option for playing experience and sound quality, but by far the largest and can be extremely expensive.

Digital keyboards
A keyboard is the most minimal option, just a casing around the keys and controls. This makes it portable and usually the cheapest option. You may also see it called an “electronic” or “electric” keyboard because the sound is either synthesized or sampled. It comes from an in-built speaker with adjustable volume (or a headphone input if you don’t want to disturb).
Digital keyboards don’t need maintenance, and you can almost always choose to play with a range of instrument sounds: pianos, organs, or non-keyboard instruments like strings. The sound quality on cheaper, older keyboards isn’t great, but modern models are pretty good.
A downside of digital keyboards is that the playing experience can vary from excellent to not-so-good based on two key factors: the number of keys and the type of key action.

Number of keys
A full-size piano keyboard has 88 keys, spanning seven octaves and three extra notes. If you want the most accurate piano experience, go for this. If you’re limited by size, then the next largest is fine (76 keys: six octaves, three notes). This will serve you well, but you will find yourself hitting the lower limit on some classical pieces like Beethoven’s "Für Elise", the upper limit on much of Chopin (he loved the high notes), and many 20th century composers like Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, and Bartok.
Anything less than 76 keys and you will regularly hit the upper or lower limits. Of course, if you simply don’t have the space and it would be a choice between 61 keys and nothing at all, then 61 keys it is. Five octaves will limit you, but that’s all they had back in the 1700s when Mozart was composing music. And if it was good enough for Mozart…
Key action
This term refers to the mechanism of a piano that produces sound. Digital keyboards and pianos don’t have the same physical parts as a real piano, so they use various techniques to recreate the heavier touch and feel of a real piano’s keys. Better instruments do this by including or replicating versions of the moving parts (see Key action guide). Simulating the key responsiveness of an acoustic piano, these are more expensive and heavier than other keyboards, but still smaller, cheaper, and lighter than both digital and acoustic pianos.

Acoustic pianos
The original sound and playing experience that has shaped Western music for centuries. As you play, you can feel the notes resonate up through your fingers and around the room. This “acoustic” sound is created with entirely physical parts, so no electronics, sampling, or loudspeakers are involved.
The downside of acoustic pianos is that they are the most expensive option by far, and the expense is not limited to buying. Moving a piano is costly, and they need maintenance. The parts react to small changes in moisture or temperature, so acoustic pianos need regular tuning. This also means you need to consider where you place an acoustic piano. They can’t be kept in damp conditions or too close to a radiator as they can easily dry out and warp.
High-quality pianos hold their value well, so you might see it as an investment. The flipside is that you should be careful of cheap, used instruments, as a “bargain” is often damaged and expensive to repair. You should always get an opinion from someone with expertise before buying any instrument, but this is especially critical for used pianos. Also, if you’re set on an acoustic piano but aren’t sure whether you want to learn in the long term, there is a range of options available online for renting a piano or hiring out a practice room with a piano.
Acoustic pianos are available in two forms: grand and upright pianos.
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