Have you ever thought; How about the piano and keyboard, and which one to choose to play? I would prefer to say the so-called keyboard because “keyboard” is used as a common term on many instruments played with keys. In the music, terminology keyboard means the range of the black and white keys on a piano-like instrument. It can, therefore, be quite misleading to just call one particular musical instrument a “keyboard”. For this reason, I will take a closer look at what are keyboard instruments and perhaps clarify some aspects that most people are unaware of.
I will break down the subject in the following sections:
- The characteristics of the piano
- The keyboard’s features
- Various instrument groups played with keys
- Variations on the same theme
The Characteristics Of The Piano
The piano is one of the few instruments in which the name of the inventor is known. It was invented by the Italian instrument repairer Bartolomeo Cristofori when his revolutionary hammer-action mechanism made it possible to play both soft and strong. The pianos that existed in the early 1700s were mostly spinets and cembalos where the tones are produced by a pitcher climbing the strings, or a metal tongue that strikes. This technique makes it difficult to play with dynamics, that is, alternately strong and soft. Cristofori managed to make this happen in 1709, when he designed the instrument he called “un cimbalo piano et forte” meaning a soft and strong playing cembalo. The trick was to let a hammer with felt stumble against the strings when the keys are pressed down. Thus, the strength of the tone depends on the force that strikes the key and enabled the piano player to add more dynamism and variation in the musical expression than previously possible. Bartolomeo Cristofori’s hammer action piano was first called pianoforte but later shortened to just piano.
The Keyboard’s Features
A keyboard is a wide term used for various electronic keyboards, such as synthesizers, digital pianos, and MIDI keyboards. Common to these instruments is that they have some type of keyboard or keys. The sound can be generated by different methods, which defines the different groups. There are keyboards with weighted keys, found on pianos and there are unweighted keys, found on most old organs. Semi-weighted keys also exist and are usually plastic keys with a little resistance. Although the keyboard term is used for most electronic keyboard instruments, the word is used in many contexts of “home synths”, meaning synthesizers that have many prerecorded sounds, rhythms and built-in speakers. These synthesizers typically have 61 unweighted keys. Those who play a keyboard are called keyboardists or keyboard players.
Various instrument groups played with keys
Below are four of the most common and well-known instrument groups within the big keyboard family. Besides, a brief presentation of each group’s characteristics and technical features follows, and it is noted that the descriptions are derived from publicly available information and are purely informative.
- The piano group
- The organ group
- Electronic instruments
- The accordion group
The Piano Group
The piano group includes instruments with strings, which are either napped or slammed directly by the keys or by transmissions from the keys. Most famous in this group is the piano, with a standing frame for the strings, and the grand piano, with lying and a somewhat larger frame for the strings. Included in the group are many older versions such as cembalo, spinet, clavichord and hammer piano (or pianoforte).
The Organ Group
The organ group consists of instruments where the sound is generated using air blowing in the organ pipes in the same way as when playing the recorder. Through a hole in the pipe’s foot, the air flows in and splits against the opening in the pipe. Then the air goes out of the pipe and a tone is formed. Pipe organs are found in almost any size, and the vast majority are fixed and place-built, like church organs. These can have many hundred different pipes, each of which can have their specific tone and sound. Some newer church organs are powered by compressed air, while older and smaller church organs are driven by foot pedals pumping air through the system. The water organ was the first precursor to the pipe organs, where the air was regulated by the pressure of a water column. Smaller house organs, sometimes called harmoniums, were used in small churches and chapels, at schools and the thousands of homes. These were always driven by blowing belts operated by foot pedals.
This group is constantly increasing as new types are added. The group is very extensive in terms of technical solutions, brands, models, and sizes as the first instruments were invented in the interwar period, and have evolved in many directions since then. The Hammond organ launched in 1934 had great success as an alternative to house organs, and the spread became so great that “Hammond organ” was used as a common term for similar instruments for a long time. From the 1960s and beyond, increasingly developed instruments were on the market. Synthesizers, chamberlins, and mellotrons became very popular among groups playing pop music. This has evolved into the music form electronica, which is a main ingredient in the 2000s pop music. Even more instruments and models of what often gets the collective term keyboards can be found in the category electrodes and synthesizers.
The Accordion Group
The accordion group is often seen as a half-brother of the “proper” key instruments. The reason they can be considered as keyboards is that they are served by air currents from a bell, like pipe organs, and either has a keyboard like organs and piano, or rows of corresponding buttons. The accordion has developed from simple types such as bandoneon, button box or diatonic accordion, and simple musette accordions, but today they are developed almost as much as electronic instruments.
Variations On The Same Theme
All the instruments discussed above may for one or more reasons be called keyboards or keyboard instruments. For most of us, the piano, the organ and the electronic keyboard are the ones we know best, besides we also have some knowledge of the accordion. In my opinion, all the instruments have their distinctive qualities and everyone is recommended to choose to play.
In a previous post on this blog, I referred to the electronic keyboard as the most playful instrument of all, and I still think so. An electronic keyboard, if you choose a slightly more expensive model, you get so much fun for your money in addition to the instrument itself, whether used as a piano or any organ or synthesizer. Today’s electronic keyboards feature built-in high-quality speakers, sizes from 61 to 88 weighted keys, hundreds of quality sounds combined with lots of rhythm styles in all music genres. Also, you get the MIDI technology that allows the keyboard to be connected to your computer or other electronic music equipment to utilize multi-platform technologies.
No matter how authentic the modern electronic keyboards are, they will probably never compete with the true acoustic piano when it comes to tone quality and sound. The keyboard, on the other hand, has other qualities that the piano does not hold; It is smaller and more portable and can be played with headphones on. It can also be connected to computers, tablets, and other electronic devices, and it never needs to be tuned.
So how great the keyboards are made in the future, I think the piano remains the king of the key instruments. I also believe that the keyboards must be considered close relatives of Bartolomeo Cristofori’s piano from the 18th century. Which instrument you choose or like best will always be subjective depending on your taste and needs.
I hereby conclude this simple discussion of how about the piano and keyboard that all keyboard instruments have their characteristics and should be discussed with respect in all contexts. They are all variations on the same theme, ie the piano, and will provide great musical experiences no matter which one you fall in love with.
I hope you have enjoyed my post on the subject and if you have any questions, please leave them below and I will be more than happy to help you.