A traditional piano allows a player to modulate, or vary, the loudness of music by pressing the keys harder or softer. In addition to this, the weighted mechanism of the piano’s keys provides force feedback to the musician’s fingers, helping her control the music. Electronic pianos also have touch sensitivity to control the loudness of notes, although not all have weighted mechanisms.
Cost and Weight
The least expensive electronic keyboards have neither touch sensitivity nor weighted mechanisms. At the time of publication these instruments tend to retail for under $200. A touch-sensitive keyboard adds about $100 to $150 to the instrument’s cost. The least expensive keyboards with weighted action start at about $550; more advanced models run well over $1,000.
The touch sensitivity of a keyboard is electronic and adds little weight to the instrument. The weighted action adds several pounds of weight to the keyboard; the instrument must have a stronger chassis, which means additional weight. This is not much of a concern for an instrument that spends all of its time in a living room, but musicians performing live must carry their keyboards to shows and need to manage the extra weight.
A weighted keyboard makes it easier to play the instrument expressively, with variations in loudness. With practice, you can play a touch-sensitive keyboard expressively, but the lack of feedback makes playing it less natural. The weighted mechanism makes the keyboard feel more like a traditional piano. A touch-sensitive keyboard feels like an electronic organ’s, offering the same small amount of feedback through the key’s entire range of travel.
In an electronic keyboard, the mechanism does not directly affect the sound; it is there only for the benefit of the musician’s fingers. Therefore, it does not go out of tune or require periodic maintenance. As a mechanism, it has moving parts, but these are sealed and have a long lifetime. As a touch-sensitive keyboard is simpler than a weighted one, it also has little need for maintenance.
Comparison to Piano
An electronic instrument is typically less expensive, more compact and has a greater range of sounds and effects than a piano. The piano, however, has a more natural tone and feel than an electronic keyboard. A weighted action brings the experience closer to that of a piano, though it, too, is a tactile simulation of what the piano does. The subtle differences in the action between an electronic keyboard with weighted keys and a piano can cause neck and shoulder tension in experienced piano players. For students and casual musicians, the electronic keyboard with weighted keys is a good compromise of playability, low cost and easy maintenance. Stage musicians who are well practiced on many keyboards may opt for an easy-to-carry, touch-sensitive model.
Chicago native John Papiewski has a physics degree and has been writing since 1991. He has contributed to "Foresight Update," a nanotechnology newsletter from the Foresight Institute. He also contributed to the book, "Nanotechnology: Molecular Speculations on Global Abundance."