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Instruments are commonly compared to the piano. What is the reason for this? Does a piano allow a broader set of music to be played than is possible with other instruments? Are there types of music that are easier to play on the piano than other instruments and vice versa? Why is the piano often considered a good first instrument?

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@Tom I think this question is too broad, ironically. You really need to define what you mean by a broader set. Theoretically the amount of music you could produce with any instrument is infinite ... Edit: I've cleaned up some of the comments following this, since there were many and they are no longer relevant. –  Matthew Read May 9 '11 at 4:18
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@Tom - definitely subjective. You will get a lot of opinions here from people in opposing camps, which can lead to argument without providing a definitive answer. For example, although you have a couple of people saying piano lends itself to more styles, I play both (more experience in guitar) and would say that guitar lets me play a much broader range of styles... –  Dr Mayhem May 9 '11 at 10:48
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Reword looks much better and much less trollish ;D. –  Jduv Jun 2 '11 at 15:03
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@neilfein @Jduv With three reopen votes, I'll allow it. :-) –  NReilingh Jun 2 '11 at 16:45
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@Neilfein, I do like the reword, however (as you stated) the answers will have to be edited to be sensical. And I don't know if there's a way to retract an answer being accepted or not, but my edit of my answer may not be as "acceptable" to the author as another answer or edit may be. I haven't edited mine yet (I will within the next few days), but maybe creating an entirely new question would have been in order? This bears very little resemblance to the original question and doesn't even mention the guitar. –  SRiss Jun 4 '11 at 3:31
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12 Answers

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Note: This answer is to the original question which was "Does the piano allow a wider set of music to be played on it than the guitar?"

Both answerers (so far) have mentioned the range restrictions of the guitar compared to the piano. Both instruments can do more then play specific pitches at different volumes. There are several techniques that lend themselves to the guitar such as drumming on the body, hammer-ons (or other non plucking techniques), bending pitch and playing harmonics to name a few. A piano also has extended technique: reaching inside of the instrument to pluck the strings or running your fingers across them, drumming on the body of the piano, prepared piano, and I'm sure there are many many others. Composers of the 20th century invested a lot of time in creating new sounds with old instruments and there are many things that may be done that haven't been discovered or used yet.

If one only examines the amount of notes available to each instrument, or the dynamic capabilities (un-amplified, of course), the choice is clear. Otherwise, both instruments play in classical music, both play in jazz, and both play in rock. They each have genres that are unique or personal to them; a Beethoven piano sonata or a Chopin nocturne/prelude would not sound the same on guitar and a flamenco guitar piece would not sound the same on piano. Their capabilities are completely different and their writing even more so. I, hesitantly, say "No, it does not lend itself to a broader set of music." I say it hesitantly because I am not sure what you mean by "set" and also because I'm not sure this is a question that can really be answered, other than to say "how can two completely different things be compared?" One might as well ask "Does the sun lend itself to poetic metaphor more than the moon?"

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This is a rather woolly answer and doesn't really address the point directly. It needs far more specifics. –  Noldorin May 9 '11 at 15:35
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It's a woolly answer to a woolly question, so of course it doesn't address "the point"... for that there should be a clearly-defined "point". –  Jürgen A. Erhard May 9 '11 at 15:41
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The piano also lends itself much more to polyphonic music. I'd like to see a guitarist play a 4-voice double fugue! –  Lotus Notes Jun 1 '11 at 22:31
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@Lotus Notes, I'm not sure if you can see just that (probably due to guitarist's tastes) but you can definitely see people like Stanley Jordan (youtube.com/watch?v=4QaWUjJkBZA) do incredible things on the guitar. I listened to this for months on the "Blue Note Plays The Beatles" album debating in my head whether it could be a single player or two. Just don't be surprised if some ambitious guitarist chooses to make you eat those words! –  SRiss Jun 4 '11 at 3:22
    
Guys like Andy McKee, Don Ross, and the rest of the CandyRat bunch have been doing similar stuff to that video for a long time. Empirical example: youtube.com/watch?v=Ddn4MGaS3N4 –  Jduv Jun 4 '11 at 3:59
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The simple answer is, yes, the piano has a far greater musical (pitch) range than the guitar - this is perhaps the most important factor. (The acoustic and electric varieties have similar ranges, the latter sometimes a bit larger.) Indeed, the sounding, written, and designated ranges are all wider for the piano than for the guitar - see the following article for an explanation of the differences.

The Wikipedia page on musical range has a very nice diagram (horizontal bar chart of sorts) of the musical ranges of virtually all common instruments. Clearly, the single instrument with by far the greatest range is the organ, with other keyboard instruments (notably the piano) following close behind.

Specifically, modern pianos have a range from about A0 to C8 (7 1/2 octaves), while the classical guitar only has a range of E2 to E5 typically. (The electric guitar can sometimes have a slightly wider range, as shown on this page.) Even considering the bass guitar too, the lower and upper bounds of the range still fall short of the piano's.

Of course, there are other factors too differentiating what sorts of music each instrument can be used to play. One might argue that as a keyboard instrument, controlled directly by the hands, one has finer control than using a bow, but this is somewhat subjective. I would tend to believe that one has more control over volume and sustenance of notes played on the piano, though I've never properly learnt the guitar, so don't take my word as final...

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this just addresses pitch range which I think is only part of the answer –  James Tauber May 9 '11 at 3:16
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@James: Yes, possibly. It would help if the OP could add details to the question though... it's a bit vague at present. –  Noldorin May 9 '11 at 3:35
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The range of music possible with a piano is considerably more than that of a guitar. While there are some impressive guitar transcriptions of pieces for piano, there is a lot of piano music that would be impossible to play on guitar without considerable change. There are most certainly guitar pieces that would be difficult to transcribe for piano but their number would be considerably smaller.

As well as a much larger range of pitch, a piano has a higher dynamic range. It is also possible to play more notes at once on a piano than a guitar.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that either instrument is better or worse or easier or harder to play.

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However, IME piano composers are far more common... –  Michael May 9 '11 at 15:07
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This questions is similar to the following:

Can a numbering system in base 10 cover more numbers than a system in base 2?

Numbers, like music, are limited by nothing more than one's imagination. Any number in base 10 can be transposed to base 2 and visa versa. There's always something you can add to both sets as well.

The answer is a resounding "No". No instrument can "allow a broader set of music".

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-1 So you would argue a triangle can play as diverse and complex music as a piano? Utter hogwash. If you wish to justify your point, please offer evidence. –  Noldorin May 9 '11 at 22:08
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+1. Base 2 is not particularly diverse or complex (it's only zeroes and ones after all) but, like with base 10, the possibilities are infinite. A triangle may not be able to play diverse music if you look at it from various angles such as, for example, range (it only covers a note or two). But you can play it with any rhythm in the world! An infinite set of rhythms. And an infinite set of note sequences. The question needs to be narrowed, explained, and justified; this answer is not the problem. –  Matthew Read May 10 '11 at 1:38
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Thank you Matthew, I'm glad someone got my point. Sigurd Rascher, arguably the father of the saxophone, once said, "The seeming upper limit of the saxophone is the fault of the performer." While he spoke then of altissimo, I think it can expand as follows: "The seeming limit of an instrument is the fault of the performer" –  DexterW May 10 '11 at 2:33
    
If you insist on being mathsy, there must be a higher cardinality of infinite possibilities with a piano than with a triangle. But I don't think this analogy is good. You can express any number in either base 2 or 10 and it is the same number. Try playing the Moonlight Sonata on a triangle, you might become a world famous youtube star if you do it well, but it will not be remotely equivalent to the original! –  Sideshow Bob Apr 12 at 14:22
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I agree with @SRiss fully its hard to compare when considering the differing sonic capabilities, and styles of some instruments, however taken at face value - Yes the piano does allow a broader set of music to be played than other instruments. For the following reasons:

  1. Its possible to play 10 finger chords on the piano
  2. Its possible to play full extended chords with one hand and melody with the other
  3. Its possible to compose for the full orchestral range with a piano
  4. Its possible to play duets on the piano
  5. You can play things on a single piano which may require two or more none-piano instruments to play fully

For the most part, other instruments do not have this kind of flexibility.

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I would like to know that I have seen guitarists do (or know guitarists can do) #2 and #4 and I believe (but am uncertain) #1 depending on the set up of the guitar and number of strings. #5 appears to be a rewording of points 2 and 4, but maybe I'm missing something. THat leaves range, which piano is the clear winner, but I feel is still insufficient to rule it as being able to play a broader set of music. Also, are you sure a piano can play the entire range of the orchestra? I believed there were instruments outside that range. Good observations of piano's ability! –  SRiss Jun 4 '11 at 4:48
    
@SRiss - #2: One can play extended chords and intersperse a melodic line on the guitar, its not the same as independently playing melody and rhythm #4: its possible to play some duets on the guitar, but its limited compared to the piano (by ergonomics and the fact that only 6 notes can be played at any one time no matter how many hands there are). #1: I have never seen a 10 string guitar, maybe a lapsteel one perhaps? #3: I dont know of any orchestral instrument out of the pianos range, can you point me to one?- Its more than just range - im a guitarist btw. –  DRL Jun 5 '11 at 0:37
    
@SRiss - That said, there are certainly things you can do with other instruments that you cant with a piano. –  DRL Jun 5 '11 at 0:50
    
I believe the Chapman Stick has the range of the piano, but it's hardly a common instrument. –  neilfein Jun 7 '11 at 5:17
    
@neilfein - Awesome hadn't see one of those before. –  DRL Jun 7 '11 at 12:07
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Before the advent of the gramophone, people who could not attend concerts or operas often only had access to this music through piano transcriptions. This is one of the reasons the piano gained a lot of prominence in the 19th century. With its pitch range and possibility to emulate an orchestra, as well as its "pianoforte" quality, it was the instrument of choice for introducing a broader scala of music into the home for a music-loving family. The piano has really been instrumental into disseminating opera arias and famous symphony themes to the wider public.

Once radio, gramophones, etc took over, this importance has of course a bit diminished, but the piano still has a central place in music education for instance.

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Most other answers forget a very important part, and indeed the purpose of the piano. The name comes from "Pianoforte" or "Fortepiano" which means "Softlyloudly", and therein lies it's invention.

Instruments with a wide pitch range existed before, like organs and harpsichords. But these and other keyboard instruments had a very limited range in volume. Small organs could be controlled by how hard you pumped, but you couldn't play first loudly and then immediately softly, or "fortepiano". The invention of the Piano resulted in an instrument that had both a huge pitch range and a huge dynamic range.

This made it a uniquely flexible instrument suited to a wide range of music, and wasn't topped until you got velocity sensitive polyphonic synthesizers in the 1980's (although electric pianos arguably is an equal to it's acoustic counterpart). And it is therefore this combination of both range and dynamics that has made piano such a common instrument.

(It's probably seen as a good starter instrument as it's also relatively simple to play basic things with, although a Recorder is also very simple and has the benefit of being dirt cheap, so that's often what you start with in Sweden, at least).

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To the question about it being a good first instrument, that is obvious to me. It is the only one where you can easily see what is being played. Therefore a teacher can show you what she's talking about, to reinforce what you hear.

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It's also a lot easier on a piano to visualize the relationship between notes than it is on most other instruments. –  wadesworld Jul 13 '11 at 23:58
    
Yes, precisely! –  jbm Jul 19 '11 at 22:47
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To elaborate on some of the points already mentioned -

  1. Visualization - the piano is the only color coded instrument (black keys and white keys) so the relationship of the notes is contrasted.

  2. Harmonic and Melodic ability - you can play single lines (melodic) and harmonic (chords) on a piano, and you can even do it simultaneously. There are very few instruments you can do that in an orchestra (guitar is not usually part of an orchestra). The brass and woodwind instruments (flute, bassoon, saxophones, trumpet) are all single note (melodic only) instruments for example. While you can play two or three note chords on some strings, it becomes exceedingly difficult to also play melodic phrases simultaneously when doing that, almost impossible.

  3. Pitch Range - except for harp I think, it has the widest range of any orchestral instrument.

  4. Dynamic Range - it can be both very very quiet and VERY loud.

The piano is basically the slide rule of pitch for western music, you can compose for everything from string quartet to an orchestra with a piano. The entire playing field of music so to speak, is the piano keyboard all arranged right in front of you.

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There are multiple reasons why the piano is a good first instrument:

  • More than one part: this is good for playing in ensembles later, it helps you to listen/play along to multiple parts
  • Two clefs: the piano uses both the treble and bass clef, which are the most commonly used clefs for other instruments, so if you start with the piano, you won't have to re-learn how to read music if you play, for example, the violin, and switch to, for example, the trombone
  • Simplicity: it's easy to play! all you have to do is press down keys and music comes out, unlike wind/brass instruments, which require a bit more skills to learn when your are just starting out

I'm sure there are more reasons, but those are what I can think of right now

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What about the C Clef? Going from piano to viola, you would have to learn a new clef. –  American Luke Mar 30 '12 at 22:51
    
@Luke I'm a trombonist as well, so I need to read the C clef frequently too. However, I use my knowledge of the treble clef to help in (mentally) transposing C clef music (add 2 flats and go down a 1/2 step, and you've got treble clef music) –  Nate Koppenhaver Mar 30 '12 at 22:56
    
Can you sight read in the C clef? One can mentally transpose notes from the F-Clef by raising them two steps and you've got G-clef music two octaves higher also. –  American Luke Mar 30 '12 at 23:03
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Much of it has to do with marketing. Manufacturers began to produce low-cost pianos in the late eighteenth century (led by Zumpe in England). Musical ability was an "accomplishment" for young ladies whose families could afford an instrument; by the early nineteenth century the British middle class could afford the cost of a piano. It was one of the things that made the family genteel. In the middle of the 19th century in America Joseph P. Hale became a sort of one-man WalMart of pianos, building and selling huge numbers of cheaply-made instruments. Marketers pushed the message that something was wrong with your house if it didn't have a piano in it.

Pianos really were everywhere by the early 20th century.

All the other answers here are true, and the piano really is in many ways the most versitile instrument and very nice to listen to for extended periods of time. But it was marketing that made the difference between "almost every professional musician owns a piano" and "almost every family owns a piano".

Sadly, pianos aren't found in most homes now.

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One important reason is that the piano allows the player to essentially become a one-person orchestra. Since you have free use of all 10 of your fingers, you have the option of playing multiple independent voices at the same time. You'd find it much more difficult (or even impossible) to accurately play a complex fugue or sonata on something like the guitar. (This is even more pronounced on the organ, where you can also play with your feet.) Of course, if you want, you can play much simpler accompaniment + melody, or even noodle around with one hand.

It's also a very consistent instrument, with its entire gamut spaced linearly on the keyboard. This makes it easy to play scales and chords, as well as to transpose. The range is very wide, spanning most voices and instruments.

From a pedagogical standpoint, this consistency makes it much easier to figure out music theory. You can easily see, for example, that A Minor is a minor 3rd below C Major, that their scales share the same notes, that the same scale repeats at every octave, etc. — just by looking at the keys. This is harder on an instrument like the guitar, where you have multiple strings at different intervals, or on a wind instrument, where you only have a limited scale that's tuned to a specific key. Additionally, sheet music maps directly onto the piano keyboard, so you can learn to read music while learning the piano.

So in short, the piano wins out because it's a versatile, all-inclusive, and consistent instrument. You can use it to do pretty much anything, it's great to learn from, and it's approachable by beginners while having a very high skill ceiling.

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