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I'm an adult just starting to learn music from scratch. The piano I have been using is sometimes not available for me to use, so I would like to buy a keyboard/MIDI controller so I can practice whenever I want and use headphones so I don't disturb neighbors with my racket.

Since I am space/budget limited, I was hoping to purchase a smaller keyboard - I've seen MIDI controllers with 25 keys (some even smaller) online and keyboards with as few as 44 keys (most seem to have 61/76). I realize it limits the range of music I can play, but I'll worry about that later, when I have more experience.

Is a keyboard or MIDI controller better to learn with? What is the fewest number of keys that I could still get a decent learning experience with (at least to learn basic notes/fingering/etc) and play basic pieces (like stuff children learn with)? If I transition to 88-key piano later, will the transition be tough (in terms of having more keys or the keys feeling different)? Thanks

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Bear in mind that with a MIDI controller, you'll also need a sound module or you won't hear anything. –  luser droog May 21 '12 at 0:30
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Look for features like weighted keys should you go with a MIDI-keyboard. Simple on-off buttons that look somewhat like piano keys are useless for the purpose of teaching. –  Mischa Arefiev May 21 '12 at 9:06
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4 Answers 4

Let's be very precise about what we're talking about:

A MIDI controller is anything that can send MIDI commands to another MIDI device. Keyboard type MIDI controllers are only one kind. But, for the purposes of this answer, let's assume that whenever we say "MIDI controller" we mean the piano keyboard type.

A MIDI sound module is a device which accepts MIDI commands, and produces a sound. Those sounds could be artificial sounding beeps, realistic sounding simulations of a real instrument, or drums. Let's forget about the other types of sounds, and assume you're interested only in piano sounds.

What you refer to as a "keyboard", I will call a digital piano. It's the MIDI controller, and the MIDI sound module, all in one unit. (It's possible that internally, it's not using MIDI, but that's a detail that's not important). It's common for these to also have MIDI connections, so you can use them standalone, or as a controller, or as a sound module.

MIDI commands can be carried over traditional 5-pin MIDI cables, but nowadays they can also be carried over USB. This is important, because it means that a PC or a Mac can become a MIDI sound module. For example, Macs come with GarageBand, which has perfectly acceptable piano sounds that you can play with MIDI. MIDI controllers often have some PC/Mac software bundled.

So:

  • You need a controller
  • You need a sound module
  • You might already own a sound module (your computer)
  • You might prefer to have everything in one unit, for convenience

The reason I stress you should think of a digital piano as a sound module and a controller in the same box, is that everything I am about to say about controllers, applies equally whether it is part of a digital piano or separate.

The very simplest controllers are just a row of on/off switches. You hold down a key, and a note plays. You release it, the note stops. You have no control over the loudness of the note. This is OK if you want to sound like early Kraftwerk; it's bad if you want to sound like a pianist.

More sophisticated controllers are velocity sensitive -- the harder (or actually, faster) you hit the key, the louder the note, just like a real piano. To have anything like the control a pianist has, you need velocity sensitivity.

There is also a feature called aftertouch. This lets you change the pressure on the key after the initial strike, to affect the sound. This is not something a real piano has, so if you are only interested in piano sounds, ignore aftertouch.

High end controllers have weighted keys. This is weight in the construction of they key, so it most closely simulates the feel of a real piano keyboard. Cheaper keyboards either abandon all effort to feel like a piano keyboard, or simulate weight using springs.

I think any ambitious learner needs a wide enough keyboard to play two-handed parts, and I think 61 keys is a minimum for that. 88 keys is the width of a real piano keyboard. With 61 keys, you will encounter pieces where you run out of notes and have to compromise somehow.

Some controllers have smaller keys. You want full-size keys.

My own choice: I have a 61 key USB/MIDI keyboard that is "semi-weighted". I think this is a good compromise between cost and realism (I previously played on my family's poorly maintained upright piano). You will notice a difference in feel between this and the piano you are using. The difference probably doesn't matter too much at first. In any case, you will want to learn to be able to play on different pianos. Real pianos vary in feel too.

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Would you mind digging up some links to the products you have tried and would recommend? I'm particularly interested in the 61-key semi-weighted USB/MIDI keyboard you mention liking for your own purposes. –  Abby T. Miller Dec 17 '13 at 19:07
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Mine is an M-Audio Keystation. –  slim Dec 18 '13 at 8:09
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I'd say a keyboard is better to learn with. It is desgined for playing music as a MIDI controller is designed for synthesizing music. However, most keyboards have basic MIDI functionality.

The fewest number of keys you can learn to play with is subjective. You can learn to play on one octave. However, this won't be enough for long. The number of keys is always a limiting factor, more so with fewer keys. For a beginner playing children's pieces, 44 keys is probably sufficient. However, many pieces use more keys. For these, you can probably get by with 72 or even a 61 key keyboard (unless you're hard set on playing pieces that require all 88 keys.) Although you could get by with a 61-key keyboard, it is somewhat stretching it. 44 keys is probably the absolute minimum you can go for learning. Anything less most likely won't be worth your money. My advice would be an 88-key, or a 72-key keyboard.

As far as the transition to an 88-key piano, having more keys to work with shouldn't be difficult. However, the keys are very likely too feel different. The weighting can vary between different keyboards, but this shouldn't be a major issue.

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I find that the challenges in using a new piano keyboard are similar to using a new computer keyboard - the keys may feel a little different, and you may have access to new keys that you need to reach or jump a little farther to get to. You may have to change your technique if you're going to, say, and organ-style keyboard where the notes stop resonating almost immediately. But you listen, experiment, and adjust, and you get used to it. –  Hannele Jul 12 '13 at 18:38
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you need at least 76 keys. The teeny keyboards are for synth heads who just want to record a riff into their midi sequencer. if you wish to be able to transfer your skills to a REAL piano (and you really should:), you'll want a weighted keyboard. All the digital pianos feel different (as do acoustics) - so be sure to TRY it before you buy. Here's some more info: http://pianocheetah.com/piano

If you really want to learn to play piano, get a teacher or you'll be WASTING your time.

good luck to ya.

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Smallest possible kb is ABSOLUTELY best choise. Look for something which works with batteries and have sounds included (not just plain MIDI kb) and headphone connector.

Reason is that biggest reason why beginners won't learn to play is that they are away from their keyboards. They don't usually have strong enough routines to go in front of that gigantic and expensive piano / keyboard, which easily leads to that they NEVER actually do those practices.

Portable mini-kb goes easily where you go - and you can start practicing everywhere when you have time. In bus, train etc... Just keep headphones with you. You might wanna use that kind of headphones which isolates external audio well, so that other noises wont disturb you (read: you don't disturb other ppl. around you in public places... ;) )

You don't have to think keyboard feel, hammer actions etc. in phase where you are to learn very first basics.

Play always you can, so that you start to live with your keys! That's gonna bring you some results. Of course you have to memorize few useful practices before going anywhere with that portable kb. Otherways you will have "blank paper fear" because you can't do anything but gibberish with it. And hitting random keys wont help in learning process. :)

I would start from scales.

Good luck!

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