Electronic Keyboards & Pianos: Various Types

So you understand what electronic-keyboards are, and want to buy one, but are not sure what the various terms like arranger keyboards, synthesizers, workstations, and midi-keyboards mean? Is an electronic piano different from an electric or digital piano keyboard? May be it is a good idea to understand their basic differences before you step out to look for an electronic-keyboard for yourself. Here is an electronic keyboard review of the various types. Learn about the various types of electric keyboards & all the jargon associated with digital keyboards.

Various Types for Varied Skills & Abilities

I would definitely agree that the range of music keyboards available in the market, and the different terms that are used to describe them can really be unnerving, especially when you are a newbie looking out for his first keyboard.

It does take time to get to the bottom of this and figure out what is the use of each of those types.

The fact that the users of digital keyboards could fall in various categories like learners, performers, arrangers & composers, the various keyboard manufacturers have a product line-up that caters to the tastes of the users in each of these categories.

Electronic Piano Keyboard, Electronic Pianos

Different types of pianos came into existence based on the various demands and needs of musicians, both professionals as well as amateurs. In most cases, it was just that a practical design made more sense, and became popular (the digital ones for example).

Things like transportation, space available, cost are some of the factors that most buyers look into, and to cater to their needs you have various types of pianos. And because of these factors, acoustic pianos started becoming less popular (or widely used), and instead electronic keyboards, electric pianos/even digital pianos started becoming more popular (the better ones can produce virtually indistinguishable sounds from an actual piano).

As a beginner who is just starting out learning music, unless you take a conscious effort to find out the differences between the various types, it does take a few months to a couple of years to figure out why the manufacturers have so many different types of keyboards.

Another thing to note is that the word Digital is used mostly to refer to Pianos and not as much while referencing keyboards.

Various Types of Electronic Keyboards & Pianos

Thinking of buying a Digital Piano Keyboard Instrument?

What are you looking for?

  • An Electronic Keyboard, a Digital Piano or an Electronic Piano?
  • A Synthesizer, Music Workstation or a MIDI controller Keyboard (Do you understand the difference?)
  • Not Sure?

Maybe you know to some extent what digital keyboard instrument you want to buy…but need help to decide what brand to buy, what features to look for?

It can be a bit unnerving, since you can have keyboards just for fun playing, or you can use it for complete music production or for creating fireworks onstage as a music performer.

Moreover people can them by different names electric pianos, electronic pianos, digital piano keyboards and so on. They all basically mean the same, though several years back some distinction did exist, today there is a lot of similarities between these various electronic piano instruments.

Okay so let’s get started understanding electronic pianos!

  • Arranger Electronic Keyboards
    This is your normal electronic keyboard which everybody knows about.

    The term Arranger is used because of the various Rhythms / Accompaniment Patterns available in the keyboard which can be used to play along with the melody. The various Fill-In buttons and the Intro/Ending buttons available on the keyboard mean you have all the necessary tools to perfectly arrange your melody.

    To begin with, you need to know that pianos that come with built-in rhythms are known as arrangers. These piano keyboards have several accompaniments based on all the popular music genres. In addition to the various rhythms, these music keyboards also have several voices, effects, built-in sequencer to record your music, and several output options for connecting to the computer, amps or to storage devices.

  • Synthesizer Keyboards & Pianos
    Synthesizers are usually used by users who have been into music for some time and are involved with Music Production / Recording. Also known as a Synth, it is a sound generating machine which provides you tools to alter all the parameters associated with sound so that you can produce some mind-blowing sounds. Naturally, they are expensive than Arrangers! Read more on Keyboard Synthesizer here.

    Besides the above mentioned piano keyboards which contain more of the bread and butter sounds, you also have piano keyboards that come with synthesizer like features. These electric pianos have more than 61 keys (weighted and semi-weighted) that will appeal to piano players, and also helps you to create unique sounds for music creation.

  • Music Workstations
    This is the most powerful keyboard; it is your portable studio! You get all the tools to create a song right from scratch; it is a synthesizer, sequencer, sampler and a musical keyboard, all rolled into one.

    You have tools for editing/quantizing and you can even burn your final product on a CD. An expensive product and definitely not for the beginner! Read more on Music keyboard workstation here

  • MIDI Controllers
    If you want to compose/create your own music, you can go either the hardware or the software way i.e. you can use either a music workstation to create your music or you can use software which can do the same stuff for you on a computer.

    If you choose a computer to do all you music production work, you really do not need a keyboard with all those rhythms, effects, editing features, and CD burning features.

    You just need a plain keyboard which can copy/send the notes that you play on to the computer. MIDI controllers are keyboards which have the capability to send your notes via MIDI.

    They do not have the capability to produce any sound from within; they just inform the computer what note needs to be played/recorded and the computer generates the sounds.

    Read more on midi controllers here.

    You get MIDI Controllers in smaller-sizes as well; perfect for the mobile composer who just need his laptop, soundcard and MIDI controller. Just put them in a bag and carry along to the studio. Read more on MIDI Controller keyboard here

  • MIDI Keyboards
    The various types mentioned above are the only types of keyboards that are available.

    A MIDI keyboard is actually not another type of electronic keyboard; it only means that it supports MIDI, which is the ability to communicate to your Computer / Digital device.

    All the keyboards that we have discussed above support this feature and as such they all are MIDI piano keyboards. Read more on MIDI Keyboard here

  • Digital / Electronic Pianos
    These are meant for those who want to buy a piano but for some reason cannot afford a real piano. These are interchangeably called as digital pianos, electronic pianos, and electric pianos. Though when it comes to pianos, digital piano is the more commonly used term. Here you have options of pianos with arranger type features or just simple piano without all the bells and whistles that comes in an arranger. You also have options of semi-weighted keys or the proper piano like graded weighted keys.

  • Electric Pianos
    So now what is an electric piano, and how different is it from a digital or an electronic piano? Technically speaking, it is different, and the electric pianos produce sounds similar to how an electric guitar would produce, and that is using pickups. These electro-mechanical instruments do produce sound mechanically, but then the sounds are converted into electric signals using pickups, which is then fed to the amplifier to produce the sound. These are bulkier compared to the modern keyboard instruments, but these were introduced several decades back, and back then size did not matter as most acoustic instruments were anyways huge.

    What is an Electric Piano?

    The first electric pianos were made around 1940-1950s, which was then further modified by and his Leo Fender. The company Fender Rhodes, that makes cutting edge synths and electric pianos, is named after them. In the 1970s, they built an 88-key electric piano which went on to become quite popular. Most of these electro-mechanical instruments have been replaced by the modern day digital keyboard instruments & synthesizers, primarily because of the size. Rhodes Music Corporation does produce a small number of electro-mechanical pianos though, catering to a small crowd. Now that you know what is an Electric Piano, check out this video showing the New Rhodes Mark 7.

    Summary – Electronic Keyboards / Pianos

    I hope this article provides you with all the information to understand the various types of electronic keyboards! The description provided here should help you to grasp the various jargons thrown at you, when you set out to buy a electronic keyboard.

    Read: Best electronic keyboards for beginners


    Does The Keyboard Sound Very Different to a Piano?

    This is a common question that most beginners have when they set out to buy a new piano. So does a music keyboard sound very different to a Piano? Here’s some basic differences between the two (though there are more similarities between these two music instruments).

    keyboard vs piano

    • An acoustic piano is built differently than a digital piano, the acoustic one has a mechanism where hammers strike strings to create sounds.
    • Digital pianos & keyboards are similar, where the sounds are created using the electronics inside.
    • A music keyboard is usually smaller (fewer octaves) than a digital piano.

    So if you buy a digital piano, it may or may not sound a lot different from an acoustic one, depending on the quality of the digital piano (which impacts its price). A good music keyboard can also have good piano sounds (in addition to many more instrument sounds & rhythms/backing tracks). These instruments are usually used as a one-man band or as part of a musical group.

    However, if you intend to play a lot of piano on a keyboard, you need one with weighted keys and preferably a keyboard with more than 61 keys. Most arrangers / digital pianos (with styles) have an amazing collection of sounds & styles. They usually have hundreds of voices to choose from, they have drum kits then there are acoustic instruments such as the piano, guitars, brass and other synth sounds. In such musical instruments, you need to make sure that the polyphony is sufficient so that the notes don’t drop-off when you play complex passages with chords, string different voices and accompaniments together.

    Here are some of the common features found on digital pianos / arranger keyboards.

    • Hundreds of Digitally Sampled Voices
    • Some have Virtual Drawbars
    • Microphone Input and Vocal Harmony Feature
    • Large LCD Screen Display
    • Downloadable Music data
    • One Touch Setting
    • Mixing Console Button, and more

    Yamaha PSR 2100 arranger keyboard

    Music keyboards are usually very affordable and that is why most use it, to begin with, to learn to play keyboards/piano. But then the piano sounds on a cheap keyboard are just about okay, not really close to any good quality piano. However, keyboards are a lot cheaper, serves the purpose for beginners, and that’s why they are so popular. – Peter

    Music keyboards, also known as arranger keyboards can be of various types with the better ones known as arranger workstation that are loaded with several features. Any keyboardist looking for variety in their playing experience usually go for arranger workstations. Some say that having a long list of features is actually a downside as you don’t actually use all the features. However, if you take some efforts to go through the various features, its actually quite fun to use them and they do help yo make the overall playing sound better. Fortunately, there are several forums also where you can find useful tips on how to use the music keyboard. – Ben

    I think I understand what an electronic keyboard is, but then I hear different people using different terms to refer to digital keyboard instruments. And if you go to any music shop, you will find the sales-guy there use terms like arranger keyboards, synthesizers, workstations, midi-keyboards, organs, etc. Mind you, some of these are keyboards obscenely expensive. My question is more from an academic perspective. So ignoring the sound quality aspect, what differences in terms of features exists in these digital keyboards? – David (Newcastle, UK)

    musical instruments keyboard

    Electronic and digital means the same thing, though the term “electronic” is mostly used for entry level keyboards and the word digital is used for intermediate to high end keyboards. An electronic keyboard would mean a keyboard with 61 keys and an electronic piano would mean a portable music keyboard with 88 keys.
    New to the keyboard music instrument. – Ben

    I agree that the range of Digital Pianos that are available to choose from nowadays is immense. Even after you have decided to go in for a digital piano with 88 keys, you will still be faced with various options to choose from. You can choose a make based on looks, weight, height, key actions, built-in styles and various other factors. – Eric

    Even I am facing this dilemma as I am looking for a portable digital piano. I am not able to decide over a couple of points. First is regarding the keyboard touch i.e. what sort of feel you are looking for, and second is whether you should go in for a piano with built-in rhythms and styles (as in the Yamaha DGX / YPG 88-key keyboards). I guess finally it is up to your own self to take a call. Glenn

    If you see the menu of this site, one section has pages that are categorized based on the types of keyboard. It explains the difference between the various types of digital keyboard instruments. I would definitely agree with you on this! The range of electronic keyboards that are available in the market and the different terms that are used to describe keyboards can really be unnerving and at times confusing. Besides the distinction between synthesizers, workstations, arranger workstation is getting thinner by the day. They all can do most things. So it does take time to get to the bottom of this and figure out what is the use of each of those types of digital keyboards. – Bob

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