You may have heard that unweighted keyboards work just fine when starting to play. After all, developing rhythm, coordination of the fingers and note-reading do not require weighted keys.
Furthermore, the keys take less effort to push down, are lighter to carry around, and cost less.
However, the benefits of weighted keys far outweigh these advantages.
Do I really need weighted keys? Weighted keys mimic the feel and action of a real acoustic piano. Therefore, they help you develop proficient piano techniques that lead to skilled and beautiful playing.
Do I Truly Need Weighted Keys?
Yes, if you seriously want to learn the piano and play all kinds of music well, including classical.
1)Develop finger strength and dexterity
You exert more energy when moving across the keys and pushing down on them. The resistance gives you the feedback you need to learn how to play dynamically—with the varying volume required to shape a musical phrase.
As you learn the piano, your fingers get accustomed to the amount of pressure needed to achieve different volume levels. Because each finger is on a separate key, they begin to use the required muscles to work independently. This challenge is notably difficult with the ring and pinky finger.
Unweighted keys, however, make them easier to depress, so finger strength is compromised, which later undermines the agility necessary to play more intricate passages precisely and clearly.
2)Stimulate muscle memory
As you study and practice the piano, the muscles in your shoulders, hands, wrists and fingers become accustomed to the necessary amount of movement to play effectively.
Muscles naturally contract and release and form muscle memory from any regular repetition. Your fingers begin to perform the necessary functions automatically without the deliberate thinking required in the beginning.
Consequently, muscle memory helps when memorizing music. The consistent playing of the same piece causes fingers to move spontaneously and effortlessly.
Conversely, with unweighted keys, the muscles are not activated in the same way, making this phenomenon harder to achieve.
3)Make transitioning from keyboard to piano much easier
Since acoustic pianos have weighted keys, beginning with a weighted digital keyboard means you’re experiencing a closer feel to an actual piano.
In contrast, starting on a keyboard with unweighted keys makes it harder to transition to an acoustic piano. Often, budding pianists feel like they have to start all over.
Their fingers need to adjust to the extra strength required and the differing amounts of pressure necessary for expressiveness.
Students may encounter problems when playing on their teacher’s piano or the piano used for a recital. They may suddenly make mistakes while performing, thrown off by the different feel of the keys.
Depending on how long you use the unweighted keyboard, this could cause months of retraining if you decide you want to pursue music in college or professionally.
It makes sense to begin training with a keyboard or digital piano that emulates a real piano from the start.
4)Promote endurance when playing
Just like any sport, playing the piano requires the use of the entire body. Weighted keys call for more movement. Your energy increases along with your ability to play longer-lasting arrangements of music.
5)Ability to play with expression
The resistance felt by the fingers builds the sensitivity needed to control the levels of volume or dynamic range. Along with slowing and quickening the music, these nuances make it possible for you to create expressive music.
This feature becomes an essential advantage because method courses teach loud and soft playing early in training.
Preparing for Flexibility
While switching between weighted and unweighted keys helps students gain versatility and adapting skills, starting with weighted keys makes this adjustment easier.
Your fingers have the necessary strength and swiftness to express the music with greater nuance.
Therefore, the light resistance of unweighted keys may feel strange at first but more readily adapted to, much like going from using the first typewriters made to a computer keyboard. You can see that the other way around would pose more problems.
Here’s a great video showing the difference between weighted and unweighted keys:
What kind of weighted keys should I get?
There are four types of weighted keys:
These keys have a spring mechanism that makes the keys feel more solid and responsive, but they are not officially weighted. They prevent loose keys that are hard to control while feeling quicker and light and more responsive to your touch.
Although sometimes the rebound of the keys coming back up can get sluggish, semi-weighted keys work just fine for beginners. Each key looks like a little diving board made of plastic.
Most keyboards come with semi-weighted keys and touch-sensitivity. So, if this type falls closer to your budget, it is worth spending a little more to get these two crucial features.
2)Fully weighted keys
Fully-weighted keys have added weights underneath the keys and stronger return springs, giving you more resistance to develop stronger fingers and stamina. They more closely match the feel of an acoustic piano.
Every key has equal weight, and these digital keyboards usually come with all 88 keys.
3)Fully-weighted with hammer action
These keyboards create the closest touch possible to an acoustic piano. To achieve this, they attach a lever system built with hammer mechanisms installed along with the weights. They replicate the hammer action of an acoustic piano and add resistance when you play.
The keys have a protruding lip at the end that looks like the keys on an acoustic piano.
4)Fully-weighted with high-end graded weighting
Also called scaled-hammer-action, these digital pianos are the closest of all in feel to an actual acoustic piano. Resistance is higher in the lower keys and gradually gets lighter as you play the higher notes. Every key is individually weighted, so each requires nuanced differences in pressure applied.
All of the benefits you get from learning on an acoustic piano are here if you are a serious learner.
As a bonus, they manufacture keys with wood rather than plastic and add a veneer coating. This style resembles the ivory of older pianos. Newer acoustic pianos have this now, too, since obtaining ivory is now illegal.
These keyboards have the same protruding lip on the keys.
Are there better types of unweighted keyboards?
Yes. If you need to get an unweighted keyboard, you can find some that do an adequate job.
1)Touch or velocity-sensitive
This keyboard has a built-in mechanism that reads the amount of pressure applied when you hit the keys. It then generates a louder or softer tone according to how much force you used.
Though there is no resistance, it at least allows you to practice playing loudly and softly.
Without touch-sensitivity, you have no control over volume. Whatever level you set on the device, every note will have that exact amplitude no matter how hard or soft you play a key.
2)Get a keyboard with 61 to 66 keys
Though some keyboards come with as little as 44 keys or even less, you will outgrow these quickly. This sized keyboard may work for a toddler and would only be temporary. To eventually play blues and rock songs, you need at least 61 keys.
However, 66 keys allow you to play arrangements with wide ranges and many classical pieces with no problem.
Do you hope to one day excel at an advanced level with the ability to play any classical piece you want? Then getting a keyboard or digital piano with all 88 keys, just like the acoustic piano, might be the best option for you.
Additional considerations when purchasing a keyboard
- Look for how many sounds you can play simultaneously on the keyboard. For example, can you have drums and strings in the background while you play your part? Having polyphonic capabilities makes playing music more fun for the beginner and more advanced musician.
- You might appreciate having more instrument sounds and drumbeats to use. In that case, a semi-weighted keyboard over a digital piano might be a better choice since the latter often has only piano sounds and a metronome.
- Some full 88-key digital pianos have both a wide selection of instruments, polyphonic capabilities and weighted keys. However, the more frills, the more expensive. Therefore, it depends on your budget and long-term goals.
- Listen to the sound of the piano and additional instruments offered on the keyboard. Not all are created equal.
- It’s helpful to have an input and output port on the keyboard if you want to attach speakers, although MIDI capacity takes care of the input factor.
- If composing is something you may consider in the future, make sure your keyboard can connect with a computer so you can use music composition software.
You develop proper piano techniques with weighted keys, which makes you a stronger musician.
Weighted keys develop finger independence, strength, sensitivity to movement and muscle memory, making it possible to play music more expressively and eventually play more elaborate musical arrangements.
Whether it’s semi-weighted or has a more complex weighted system, weighted keys remain the best choice for you to start on.
Do you plan to buy a new keyboard at each phase of your musical journey, or do you want to invest now in a keyboard that you can use throughout your learning journey?
If you can afford to, it’s worth the extra cost because high-quality keyboards can last for years.
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Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.