Digital or acoustic pianos

A discussion popped up somewhere regarding my recent article about buying pianos for a church. Someone asked whether it makes sense for a church to just buy a keyboard rather than an expensive piano. Today, I want to talk about that.

I am a pianist. I love great pianos. I will take a great piano any day over a great keyboard/digital piano (I use these terms interchangeably). I am convinced that I get better quality music out of a piano. Most pianists are like me and if you tell your church pianist you want to buy a keyboard rather than a Steinway, you should probably invest in a bulletproof vest first. But if I am being very honest, the decision is not so clear cut.

It would be nice if we did not have to have this kind of pragmatic discussion. It would be nice if all of our churches could be ornate like the OT temple or even an European cathedral where every furnishing is the best of the best. But the truth is that we just don’t have that kind of money. Some of you pianists will not like what I am about to say but I write from that perspective.

Let’s go through the factors that should be considered.

Purchase Price

A church piano probably will cost at least $10K. A professional grade keyboard with limited functionality but good quality costs $1K today. Truthfully, if you already have a sound system, you can get a great quality piano sound out of a $1K keyboard investment.

Depreciation is a small factor here. Pianos over time hold their value fairly well because the price of new pianos goes up so fast, but used keyboards quickly depreciate. That being said, if you only have $1,000 invested in the keyboard, the depreciation does not matter anyway if you get 10 years of use out of it. (Depreciation of $100/year is just not a significant expense in any church.)


Good pianos and keyboards will come with warranties. However, the piano will require maintenance outside the warranty. For example, it needs to be tuned. To me, it makes little sense to pay a premium for a piano if you are not going to take advantage of its quality by keeping it in tune. I will take a $1,000 keyboard over an untuned $200,000 Steinway any day. There is other maintenance as well such as regulation and voicing that will be outside the warranty.

There is a hidden cost in owning a piano and that is in the fact that the auditorium really needs to be conditioned differently. Think about a typical church auditorium where A/C and heat might be turned off for large portions of the week. That creates a huge fluctuation in both temperature and humidity and over time, wrecks a piano. Even in the short term, it will cause the piano to go out of tune quickly. In some situations, a piano might not hold a tune for a week if the auditorium is not conditioned. That is why in concert halls, pianos are rolled off the platform between uses and put in a small room that is meticulously conditioned.

Many churches can’t really afford the luxury of spending a lot of money annually to condition a huge room just to keep a piano happy. So they don’t. And as a result, they never get the full benefit of their investment.


I would like to say the sound is what ultimately matters but I am a realist. Those first two factors really matter a lot too. But let’s talk about sound.

First, I will tell you that concert pianists prefer pianos to keyboards. Some of their reasons are easy to understand and some are not. For example, the touch is a big issue for me. It throws me; it doesn’t feel right. We can all understand that. But on a less tangible level, there is something emotionally missing from a keyboard. Digital sound lacks a level of complexity that acoustic sound has. We sometimes talk about that concept in terms of “roundness.” When you try to reduce complex sound to bits and bytes, tiny little things get lost. It is the same concept as why digital photography will never be an exact reproduction of real life regardless of how tiny the pixels get. (You can research the idea online if you want to know more.)

But here is where I have to get very honest. The church is not a concert hall. Typically, your piano will not even be the solo instrument. It is more of a workhorse actually that provides a set of functions such as accompanying. The truth is that when considering the functionality that you need, the same level of pickiness about the piano you need in a concert hall is not necessary in church.

Some will say at this point that keyboard samples are not realistic enough. Five years ago, I would have agreed. Today though, they are incredible. Almost no one (and that includes the pianists) can tell the difference any more in blind tests. And even if the keyboard itself does not have good samples, it is fairly easy to output midi to a device that DOES have great samples which is then sent to the sound system.

And let’s not forget that in a typical church, many people are not hearing pure piano anyway even if you have a Steinway on stage. They are rather hearing piano through the PA system. That is a huge downgrade in sound quality. In fact, that in itself is a acoustic to digital conversion.


Here is sort of how I would bottom line this. If you are in a church that values music highly and can afford it, get an acoustic piano and then pay the price to keep it in great condition. You won’t regret it. But if you are not swimming in money and don’t have budding concert pianists in your pews, don’t feel bad about getting a great digital piano. Assuming you have a decent sound system, the truth is that it will probably work for you just fine. Your pianists may not want to tell you that but it is true. It would be far better to go that route rather than buying a piano and then not having enough money to tune and maintain it regularly.