What Are The Differences Between Pianos & Electric Pianos?

The keyboard family of instruments would probably not have been the same without the piano. This 17th-century invention was responsible for some of the most compelling pieces of music in our modern times. In this article, we'll focus on two types of piano: acoustic and electric.

What are the differences between pianos and electric pianos? The main difference is that the sound in an acoustic piano is projected via the vibrations in the soundboard, whereas an electric piano relies on an amplifying device that augments the electric signals sent by the acoustic contraption. Electric pianos also have better portability and additional tonal features.

In this writing, we'll be explaining in more depth the differences between pianos and electric pianos. However, let's first go over the history of the piano for further illustration.

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The Backgrounds Of Pianos And Electric Pianos

The piano is an instrument that was a byproduct of two primary instruments: The monochord and the organ.

The monochord was a 6th-century B.C. device that originated in Greece and consisted of a single string stretched over a wooden soundboard and had a movable bridge. This instrument had exclusively scientific purposes, and little was made with it in terms of music. However, it would inspire many chordophone instruments, such as the psaltery (more on this later).

Meanwhile, the first pipe organ appeared at the beginning stages of the Ptolemaic Kingdom (in Alexandria, more specifically). According to some sources, it was created by a mechanician by the name of Ctesibius and consisted of a feeder and a reservoir for storing compressed air. It operated via water pressure and keys that would trigger the mechanism.

This would give rise to the pipe organ that is known today all over the world. With time, a system of bellows was introduced, and the design would be revamped to allow for more versatile execution. The system of keys that these organs had would likewise be adapted for a wide array of instruments.

Going back to the psaltery, this was an instrument that entered Western Europe from the Middle East, possibly by the 12th century. It was a portable harp-styled instrument that contained strings embedded over a small wooden soundboard.

In the 14th century, a variant of the psaltery was made, incorporating a keyboard layout similar to that of the organ. Those would evolve into what we now know as the harpsichord, which immediately preceded the piano. In fact, it's been established that the piano was an outworking of the harpsichord in a very specific way.

The idea of the piano materialized between the end of the 17th century and the turn of the 18th. It was originally called “clavicembalo col piano e forte,” which basically meant “harpsichord with soft and hard notes”. Later, the name was shortened to “piano”.

It was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori, who was trying to improve the dynamic range of the current harpsichord. He did so by switching the plectrums with hammers that hit the strings instead of plucking them.

That last piece of historical data serves to segway us into the main distinction between pianos and electric pianos.

What Are The Differences Between Pianos And Electric Pianos?

Let's now delve into the distinctions that were laid out earlier:

Difference 1: Resonance Mechanism

As stated earlier, the main difference between pianos and electric pianos lies in the resonance mechanism.

The acoustic piano puts into motion pieces of strings in an enclosed soundboard through hammers. These hammers strike at different velocities, allowing for more volume variations. This enables instrumentalists to intertwine hard and soft notes to convey different emotions.

The vibration of the strings drives the sound production and is augmented by the interaction of air particles in the soundboard chamber.

For the longest time, the piano remained one of the loudest instruments of any ensemble, far surpassing the volume capacity of the harpsichord and, even more, of the clavichord (which was barely audible beyond small rooms).

Pianos became highly popular instruments, but there was always the portability problem. For pianos to stand out, they had to be built with a generous-sized soundboard (which is why the grand pianos are made in their typical sizes) so that their sound could fill large venues.

The upright piano was designed in the 1800s by John Isaac Hawkins as a way to tackle the portability issue and make it suitable for more austere events. Still, these pianos couldn't deliver notes with the same intensity as the grand piano.

With the invention of the first amplifiers in the 1910s, the prospect of a piano that could be electrically amplified to reach the volume of a grand piano – meanwhile retaining the portability of the upright piano – was palpable.

The first electric piano was the Neo-Bechstein grand piano in 1929, but as the name might give out, that piano model still retained the form factor of a grand piano (measuring around 1.4 meters).

Nevertheless, the mechanism was very similar to modern electric pianos, save for the presence of microphones instead of pickups. The RCA Storytone would be the first model to include electromagnetic pickups for translating vibration into electric signals.

These and further electric pianos retained the acoustic setup of the acoustic piano, with hammers hitting the underside of the strings, exciting them to produce sound waves via vibration energy. However, the energy would not interact solely with the air particles and the chamber walls but also with a pickup that would transform it into an electrical current that would then be transferred to a speaker to reproduce the notes at higher decibel levels.

Difference 2: Versatility

I already stressed how the electric pianos eventually allowed players to perform at very large locales without having to deal with the impracticalities of transporting a large grand piano.

Moreover, apart from normal piano sounds, electric pianos can emulate other instruments like the organ, spinet, music box, and even the saxophone. Even so, its ability to render the sound and feel of a grand piano is still questioned. Modern electronic keyboards (which are offsprings of the digital/electric piano) and VST plugins have come very close to achieving the feel of a true grand piano, though purists might still dispute this.

Other quality features inserted in many electric pianos are the metronome (ideal for students) and a control panel that enables players to equalize the tone far better than the pedals included in the acoustic piano.

Read How Pianos Compare To Other Instruments

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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