Should You Buy a Real or Digital Piano?

This article concerns the relative merits of owning either a real or a digital piano. I am in a good position to comment on this, having owned both.

I have played the piano for very many years. I had my first lesson when I was eight years old and played a lot through my school years (until 18). Typically I was doing 3 or 4 hours practice a day whilst at secondary school. I stopped playing for a while after university until I bought my first house, but a piano was one of my first purchases for the house and for the last 20 years I have continuously owned a piano.

Real Piano

A real piano can cost anything from a few pounds second hand (or might even be free if you are prepared to arrange transport) or around £1000 for the cheapest new instrument, to around £20,000 for the best uprights or considerably more for a top quality grand piano. To a large extent the quality of what you get is reflected in the price, although certain top brands such as Steinway 1) , Bechstein 2) and Bosendorfer 3) command a premium on the price which perhaps cannot be justified simply in terms of the quality of the instrument (although there is no doubt that these are very good manufacturers of pianos).

A second hand purchase can be a very good idea if you know what you are looking for. However in most cases you should budget several hundred pounds for a professional restoration to be carried out. Whether you are buying new or second hand there are a few basic things to think about

  • The piano frame. An iron frame is far preferable to a wooden frame. I am not talking about the cabinet that houses the piano structure, which in almost all cases is wooden. I am referring to the frame onto which the strings are attached. In old, or poor quality pianos, the frame itself may be wooden. Wooden frames are prone to splitting, and the piano will not stay in tune well. A wooden framed piano will not last, and I could not recommend buying one second hand.
  • Is the piano overstrung? This relates to the way the strings are connected to the frame. In an overstrung piano you will see the strings running diagonally with the treble and bass strings crossing each other. This is important for the quality of the sound. Overstrung pianos will have longer strings for the size of frame than straight strung pianos, and as a rule of thumb the longer the strings, the better the sound. The crossing of the strings also gives rise to the production of certain harmonics because of resonances generated by the strings crossing each other. This makes the piano sound better than a straight strung piano.
  • Upright or grand piano. Obviously one of the main considerations you will have is where you can locate the piano – and for many people that might necessitate purchasing an upright rather than a grand piano. Be aware that upright pianos come in different sizes, and the biggest upright pianos will have a larger frame than a baby grand piano. The size of the frame and the quality of sound go hand in hand, so a large upright is likely to sound better than a baby grand. However, you will find the baby grand is a much more expensive purchase. I think this is because for many people, buying a piano is an aspirational purchase, and grand pianos are better than uprights, right? Well, from a pure quality of sound perspective this is not always the case. But if you are planning on playing a lot of chamber music with other people (rather than solo playing) then a grand piano is a better choice if you have the space for it. It is not so easy to play in a group of you are facing a wall.
  • Size of instrument. As mentioned above, by and large, the bigger the piano frame the better the sound. But hand in hand with this comes the volume of the instrument. A big instrument will also be a loud instrument. More of this later.
  • 88 keys. A full size piano has 88 keys. Unless your available space to house the piano is extremely limited, do not be tempted by a piano with less keys than this (they do exist). One day you would be bound to regret not having a full sized instrument.
  • In the case of buying a second hand instrument check to see if there any splits or cracks in the frame (even if it is an iron frame) or the soundboard? If so, I wouldn’t touch it.

My experience of owning a real piano

When I bought a piano for my first home, some 20 years ago, I was very clear about what I wanted. I wanted a new instrument because I was not confident in selecting a good quality second hand instrument, nor did I have the time or patience to seek one out. It also had to be an upright due to space constraints, but I wanted the best sound possible, which meant buying the biggest framed upright available. Although I would have loved to have purchased a Bechstein, Bosendorfer or Steinway, these makes were out of my price bracket. I did try out a Yamaha upright 4) but I found the treble a little too bright for my taste. However, the next dealer I went to showed me a Reid-Sohn , which is apparently sold as brand name Sammick in other countries 5). These pianos are manufactured in Indonesia which I suppose is what keeps the price down, but are well made and have a great tone. A couple of weeks later my Reid-Sohn SU-131 6) (their largest upright) was delivered. It is a big, heavy instrument and required 3 strong looking men to get it into position.

Although I was very happy with the sound and tone of the instrument, I immediately discovered that really the piano was too loud for the room it was in. This was a semi-detached house, and although the piano was not located on the party wall, it was still sufficiently loud to be easily audible next door. But when I knew the neighbours were out and could play freely, I found the sound was too much for the room it was in. As a result I developed the habit of playing with the soft pedal down at all times. These pianos are equipped with a damper activated by the middle pedal. This pedal simply lowers a piece of felt between the hammers and the strings to muffle the sound. But muffling the sound is exactly what it does – sure, it becomes much quieter but the sound becomes woolly, and the touch is also adversely affected. As a result I could not bear to use it.

My problem with the power of the instrument was made even worse when I moved house. Again it was to a semi-detached house, but in this case the only sensible place to locate the piano was along the party wall. I also suspect that the party wall was not that thick. So with the soundboard of my large piano up against the neighbour’s wall, they were treated to the full impact – and understandably were not too happy about it. As a consequence of this, I had to restrict my use of the piano to times when I knew the neighbours were not in.

There are a couple of other practical considerations of owning a piano, as follows.


The piano will need tuning every 6 months. It is not hard to find a piano tuner, but expect it to cost around £40 for the tuning. Motivated by wanting the piano in tune at all times, rather than the cost of tuning, I decided to learn how to tune the piano myself. The necessary kit is not expensive, but the tuning procedure is not easy. Pianos are tuned according to the system of “Equal Temperament” which was devised in the 17th Century 7) . In essence this is a system of tuning every note slightly out of tune. The results, although slightly out of tune are acceptable to the ear irrespective of which key you are playing in. The process of tuning the piano according to the equal temperament system is not at all easy.

I found the tuning kit to be most useful for adjusting a single string here or there if it had slipped, rather than for attempting a full tune of the instrument. Bear in mind that more than half the notes will have 3 strings (the exact number of notes will depend on the manufacturer) so if one string slips it is not that difficult to tune it back to match the other two. In the lower register there will be 2 strings for most notes, so you will have to decide which string has slipped. Only the very lowest notes will have 1 string only (probably only the bottom octave). Interestingly, these lowest strings should all be tuned slightly flat. I cannot explain why, but this was a tip I got from my piano tuner.

General Maintenance

The felts on the hammers will become compressed over time resulting in a harsher tone. Also the action may become slightly uneven (meaning you need to press certain keys slightly harder, or further, to get the same sound). Depending on how much you use the piano, expect to have to get a piano workshop to overhaul the piano from time to time – between every 3 and 5 years, say. This is likely to cost around £500. Depending on the level of work required, they may be able to perform the servicing in your own house, or it may necessitate them removing the action and taking it to their workshop, returning it after several days.

Digital Piano

I never really considered getting a digital piano until recently. At the time that I bought my Reid-Sohn, digital pianos were in their infancy and did not have a very good reputation. It never occurred to me to look into purchasing one.

The advantages of a digital piano are clear

  • The volume can be controlled via a sliding adjustment, or you can even play with a pair of headphones. This has no impact on the touch of the piano when playing or on the quality of the sound.
  • The piano will never go out of tune.
  • There are zero ongoing maintenance costs (mind you if the thing breaks then it may be easier or more cost effective to replace than repair).
  • Most digital pianos offer a variety of sounds other than piano - if you ever fancied playing the organ or harpsichord, here is your chance (these settings are very convincing). Plus there are numerous other sounds that are supposed to be voice, strings or brass but are in reality nothing like – although nonetheless interesting sounds.
  • With most digital pianos you can record what you have played.
  • Price. It is difficult to spend more than £5000 on a digital piano.
  • There are other features such as metronome, and tempo adjustment (on recordings).
  • They are relatively lightweight and portable (at least compared to a real piano). If you are playing with a group of people, the instrument can easily be turned away from the wall and you will have visibility the same as you would have playing a grand piano.

The perceived disadvantages of a digital piano (at least in my mind were)

  • The sound and tone will not be up to scratch.
  • The feel will not be realistic.

Although I never tried one out at the time, I think it is probable that at the time I bought my Reid-Sohn, my perceived disadvantages of a digital piano were probably real. I did consider swapping for a digital when I moved to the house where I had to place the piano against the party wall with the neighbour, but this would have meant arranging the sale of the piano I already had and apathy got in the way.

But a couple of years ago I was forced into the sale. We had decided to relocate to Bournemouth, and were going to have to spend some time in temporary accommodation. The piano was an obvious issue. In theory it could have gone into storage, but I decided that the easiest thing was to sell it.

We have now moved to a detached house and so it would be feasible to own a real piano. But I have learnt from my past experiences. I don’t want an instrument that will overpower the room it is in. I would like to use it in the evening without waking up my daughter, and I would like my daughter to learn to play at a controlled volume! The final clincher was cost, as this relocation exercise was expensive and did not leave a lot of cash for luxuries.

I decided to look for a cheap digital piano as a short term solution. I am very glad I did not look for an expensive one. The model I selected was an Axus D2 8), and this costs only around £400. I am very impressed with the instrument.

  • The sound is very convincing, particularly the bass. Digital pianos sample the sound that is made by the best grand pianos and have sufficiently good amplification and speakers to render that sound (at a controlled volume) to your living room.
  • The touch is not perfect, but very good. It does not get in the way of anything but the hardest of pieces, which I no longer really attempt these days. Any piece up to say around Grade 8 standard can be comfortably played on this instrument.

On the negative side

  • The keys do rattle a bit while you are playing. This is most noticeable when you have the volume turned down.
  • The sustain is not fully realistic. The notes will not sustain for as long as they would with a real piano. Ironically, this can be a positive thing. One of the commonest faults of amateur pianists is excessive use of the sustaining pedal. The sustaining pedal on this instrument goes some way to correcting that fault for you.
  • Although the bass sound is very convincing, the high treble is a little harsh although it is by no means bad.


I bought my digital as a short term measure for purely financial reasons. I bought the cheapest instrument going and have been very impressed with it. When finances permit I may be looking for a better instrument, and I will certainly be considering digital pianos for all the reasons I have listed above. The most expensive digital pianos are comparable in price to the cheapest grand pianos. When the time comes I shall certainly be investigating what these top of the range digital pianos are really like.

Recreation | Hobbies | Instruments

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