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?

  • The simple answer is yes, significantly more. Keyboard instruments generally have a reputation for encompassing a pretty large range of pitxhes and musical styles. Are you looking for more detail?
    – Noldorin
    May 9, 2011 at 0:31
  • @Noldorin: Feel free to remove your comment and place it as an answer instead. More detail is always welcome, it would make your answer more convincing. I would suggest to use a picture that compares the range of a piano and the guitar, and elaborate on the musical styles. I've also got one more question: Is the piano itself still limited? If so, only limited by genres that are specific to an instrument (drum 'n bass) or limited by more? Thank you for your quick response... May 9, 2011 at 0:35
  • @MatthewRead: I was referring to different styles of music, that should be clear out of the context. If I'm using the word music then I'm not at all talking about pitches... May 9, 2011 at 9:24
  • I think this is interesting. Have edited the question in an attempt to make it more answerable. (Please revert my edit if I've changed this too much; the existing answers would need to be modified as well.) Jun 2, 2011 at 14:38
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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, 2011 at 3:31

14 Answers 14


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, 2011 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". May 9, 2011 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! Jun 1, 2011 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, 2011 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, 2011 at 3:59

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...

  • this just addresses pitch range which I think is only part of the answer May 9, 2011 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, 2011 at 3:35

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).

  • The knee swells on a reed organ can be used to achieve a pretty significant dynamic contrast, especially if one of them can enable all the stops and the octave coupler. Not quite as great a contrast as a piano, but pretty substantial.
    – supercat
    Jun 17, 2015 at 2:58
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    Sure, but that is both a later development, and also it's not as immediately responsive as just whacking harder on the keys. Jun 17, 2015 at 5:36
  • My 1895 Smith American has knee swells; while it's not super-early as organs go, it's hardly the end of the line either; they're not as percussive as banging harder on the keys, but they respond as fast as one pushes them, and release in under 200ms, even while sustaining notes.
    – supercat
    Jun 17, 2015 at 15:16
  • None of this contradicts anything I said, sorry. Jun 17, 2015 at 16:29

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.

  • However, IME piano composers are far more common...
    – Michael
    May 9, 2011 at 15:07

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.

  • 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, 2011 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.
    – Bella
    Jun 5, 2011 at 0:37
  • @SRiss - That said, there are certainly things you can do with other instruments that you cant with a piano.
    – Bella
    Jun 5, 2011 at 0:50
  • I believe the Chapman Stick has the range of the piano, but it's hardly a common instrument. Jun 7, 2011 at 5:17
  • @neilfein - Awesome hadn't see one of those before.
    – Bella
    Jun 7, 2011 at 12:07

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.


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.


Most of the other answers address the instruments' ranges. While it is true that the piano has an exceptional range, that by itself is only a very small part of a piano's value. Most music, especially pop and folk music, doesn't use the piano's full range. Neither does beginner music, or most intermediate music.

Instead, the piano's biggest value is that it allows melodies, harmonies, and rhythms to be played with equal ease, and at the same time. On most instruments, even when multiple notes can be played at once, as on strings, it is extremely difficult to play a background rhythm while making the melody crystal clear.

Historically, recorded music is a very new invention. Before that the only music was live music, and a musician often played alone for a group out of necessity: a small community might only have one or two musicians skilled enough and willing enough to play for a local party. If a community wanted a dance, you needed a driving rhythm. A string musician could provide this with a stomp board, but a piano player could do it with their left hand.

Another new invention is amplification. A cheap guitar is quiet, and has no chance of being heard unamplified in a loud, crowded room. A piano, even a fairly cheap piano, is loud. Between acoustic piano and acoustic guitar, the piano at top volume easily beats the guitar. The piano also beats the fiddle, which in turn beats the guitar. This is for instruments at top volume - good musicians know how to balance their instrument's volume when playing together

Also historically, having a piano was a sign of status, and once you have an expensive piano, you really need to have someone to play it, so parents had motivation to get their kids piano lessons.

In a band, at a minimum you need one player providing the melodic line, one player providing a harmony, and one player providing rhythm. You can have multiple players in any role, or a single player fulfilling multiple roles, but music that has all of these sounds fuller, and generally better, than music without. A piano supplies all of these roles at once, even for a relatively unskilled who can only play a single note melody on the right hand while playing the accompanying basic chords on the left hand. On string instruments, it takes a lot of skill to do this well.

It is also very easy to get an attractive sound from a piano. An expert hitting a single key sounds very similar to someone who is touching a piano for the first time. This is not true on many other instruments - the famous cat screech of a beginner's violin comes to mind.

Because of these advantages, pianos have a lot of music written for them. They are used in both old and new genres, so new music keeps coming out. They have major roles in classical, pop, and folk. Guitar is known best as a rock instrument, and is equally important in folk, but it is only in modern folk that its role is central. A hundred years ago, it was relatively rare. While there is plenty of classical guitar music available, it is dwarfed by the volume available for piano. My list of genres is limited to those I am very familiar with, and therefor does not include blues, jazz, or others.

In short, the reasons for the piano's popularity are partially due to the instrument's characteristics, and partially due to its history.


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, 2011 at 23:58

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

  • What about the C Clef? Going from piano to viola, you would have to learn a new clef.
    – Luke_0
    Mar 30, 2012 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) Mar 30, 2012 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.
    – Luke_0
    Mar 30, 2012 at 23:03

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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    What factors do you think caused pianos to win out so totally over reed organs? Was it mainly their response to key velocity allowing a nicer range of dynamics than the swell pedals and stops of a reed organ? Or the fact that reed organs were generally tuned to high pitch and did not have standardized features (my instrument has split point at middle C, a 13-note sub-bass, a celeste stop above the split, and two full sets of reeds in addition to the above, but I don't know of any literature designed for that particular combination).
    – supercat
    Jun 15, 2015 at 17:24
  • Reed organs sound "churchy" and are associated with little old ladies and hymn-singing. They are OK for some of the maudlin songs of the late 19th century like "In The Baggage Coach Ahead" and "She's More To Be Pitied Than Censured" but those songs went out of style. Ragtime and fast dance music just don't work on a reed organ. (Mine is a 1906 Estey, about as standard as they come.) Jun 16, 2015 at 1:48
  • I tend to play the Blue Danube Waltz on mine, sometimes switching into parallel minor for the fun of it. I think it works pretty well for a fair variety of music, but you have a point that the reeds don't speak as quickly as piano hammers. Still, nice to know I'm not the only guy with a reed organ.
    – supercat
    Jun 16, 2015 at 13:01
  • BTW, I wonder to what extent parlor organs were thought of as "churchy" back before mass-produced pianos took off around 1900? Parlor organs used to be much more common than pianos, and I recall that electrically-operated reed organs were widely sold in the 1970s and probably before that (though the latter would have been much cheaper than the parlor organs sold in the 1890s).
    – supercat
    Jun 17, 2015 at 2:56

If the matter is the range piano is absolutely the best but in the world of today`s classical music there are some rare guitarist composers can compose the pieces on the guitar which there is no pianist is able to play.Of course there is no market for these guys yet. So, piano can remain as the best instrument for the moment.


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.


the piano is the result of instrument evolution since the first string went twang. the harp ...to the harp-si-cord ... a mechanical way of playing the harp from a 'key' or note board. the harpsichord was very popular. save for one problem: it only had one volume.

then the hammer was fashioned and integrated ... merging to great areas of music the string and the percussion. since the horns and harp evolved in 'harmony' for thousands of years, it is only logical that there is an inherent compatibility between the two groups that also had a subgroup of winds on the horn side. so... there is a huge compatiablily and harmony between the piano and all the other instruments. and the piano is a superset of the voice of the language music.

then enter MIDI and MOOG.

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