Can You Use a MIDI Keyboard as a Piano?


If you want to learn to play the piano but don’t want to shell out on a real one, perhaps you’ve thought of using a MIDI keyboard instead? After all, they’re much easier to transport and cost less to buy. But can you use a MIDI keyboard as a piano?

You can use a MIDI keyboard as a piano. But to get a realistic piano experience, look for MIDI keyboards with piano-like features. For example, use a MIDI keyboard that has weighted keys. You’ll also want velocity-sensitive keys to respond to variations in the force with which you press them. 

So, using a MIDI keyboard as a piano isn’t a problem. However, there are things you should look for to get the most realistic piano experience. We’ll run through some of the key things below.

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What Do We Mean by MIDI Keyboard?

Unlike piano keys, what is meant by a MIDI keyboard isn’t always black and white — there can be some gray areas. Let’s explain.

The confusion arises because you have MIDI keyboards on the one hand and MIDI controllers on the other. 

MIDI keyboards are often also MIDI controllers, and many MIDI controllers have keyboards. That’s why they’re often described as MIDI keyboard controllers. Other MIDI controllers have pads that you press like you press keys on a computer keyboard. 

Also, you can get digital pianos that are designed to emulate acoustic pianos. So, of course, you can use these as a piano. However, they often come equipped with a MIDI connection, so you could also call them MIDI keyboards.

Now you can see why it’s easy to get in a muddle. But, here’s what we’re looking at:

  • A MIDI keyboard that’s not a digital piano, so not specifically designed to replicate a piano. It may be a stand-alone type that plugs into an AC outlet and produces its own sounds through built-in or external speakers. Or, it may be a MIDI keyboard controller that you have to connect to another device, like a computer, to hear any sounds. Typically these get power from the other device’s USB port. They work with software on your computer to play virtual instruments. The software interprets the MIDI data from the keyboard to produce the relevant sounds.
  • A MIDI keyboard with a piano-style keyboard, not just buttons, pads, and knobs. Some MIDI controllers don’t have a keyboard at all, so you can’t use them like a piano.
  • Obviously, it should be able to send MIDI data to another device. This will be via a MIDI cable or a USB cable.

It’s because these MIDI keyboards aren’t designed to emulate pianos that you’ll be wondering whether you can use them for that purpose.  

Can I Use a MIDI Keyboard To Learn Piano?

It doesn’t matter which of these types of MIDI keyboard you have. You can use either to learn piano. While that may be music to your ears, there are some features you’ll need on your MIDI keyboard if you want a realistic piano experience.

We’ll look at these next. So, keep reading to find out what a MIDI keyboard needs to hit the right notes for learning to play the piano.  

How Many Keys Do You Need?

Most pianos have eighty-eight keys made up of fifty-two white and thirty-six black. The number of keys you get on a MIDI keyboard can vary from one model to another. 

Most MIDI keyboards have between twenty-five and eighty-eight keys. Thirty-two, forty-nine, sixty-one, and seventy-six are typical sizes within this range. 

Generally, the more keys, the pricier the MIDI keyboard. However, you don’t need to go for the full eighty-eight to get a decent piano playing experience. Unless you propose playing classical or jazz, sixty-one keys will do fine.

Does Your MIDI Keyboard Have Weighted Keys?

With an acoustic piano, when you press a key, you’ll feel some resistance. That’s because of the mechanical action going on under the lid.

Each piano key connects via a lever to a hammer. Pressing a key moves the hammer, which hits the strings. That gives you your note. The mechanics mean you need to apply enough pressure on the key to move the hammer. 

You can see what all this looks like in the following video.

MIDI keyboards aren’t mechanical creatures. So, the keys on many MIDI keyboards can feel very light compared to those on an acoustic piano. That makes MIDI keyboards easier to play. 

However, that’s no good for learning to play the piano. The lack of pressure needed for the keys on such a MIDI keyboard won’t help your piano technique. Nor will it help strengthen your fingers for piano playing.

So be aware that you can get different types of key action on MIDI keyboards. Broadly, there are four you’ll come across most:

  • Synth-action.  For synth-action, a spring provides some resistance and brings the key back to its starting position.
  • Semi-weighted. Semi-weighted keys are sprung, as above, but also have a small weight attached to them. This provides a bit more resistance than synth-action. 
  • Weighted. Along with sturdier springs, weighted keys have larger weights for more resistance to replicate more closely the feel of a real piano.
  • Hammer action. Hammers replicate those in a real piano, though exact mechanisms vary depending on the manufacturer. An example of such a MIDI keyboard is this Arturia KeyLab 88 MkII Hammer-Action MIDI Controller. This is a professional-grade MIDI keyboard and will give you a grand piano playing experience.
Arturia KeyLab 88 MkII Hammer-Action MIDI Controller and Software, White Version II
57 Reviews
Arturia KeyLab 88 MkII Hammer-Action MIDI Controller and Software, White Version II
  • 88 note Fatar TP/100LR keybed
  • High quality, aftertouch, velocity sensitive, hammer-action, piano feel keyboard
  • 16 RGB-backlit performance pads

If you want a more realistic playing experience when using your MIDI keyboard as a piano, hammer action is best. Otherwise, opt for a fully-weighted keyboard. 

Are the Keys Velocity-Sensitive?

You can play a note softly or loudly on a real piano, depending on how hard you hit the key. It can add nuance and expression to what you play.

It’s known as velocity, and some MIDI keyboards have velocity-sensitive keys to emulate this. The following video explains how the MIDI standard deals with velocity.

Since pianos are velocity-sensitive instruments, this is a feature you ought to look for if you want to use your MIDI keyboard as a piano. You’ll find the piano sounds will have a more natural feel to them.

Don’t confuse velocity sensitivity with pressure sensitivity or aftertouch. The following video explains what aftertouch is when it comes to electronic keyboards.

A real piano doesn’t have aftertouch, so it’s not something you need on your MIDI keyboard to use it as a piano.

Can You Connect a Sustain Pedal to Your Midi Keyboard?

Now, here’s something you do need if you want to play your MIDI keyboard as a piano. 

That is, you’ll want to be able to connect a sustain pedal to it. You’ll find such a pedal on a real piano, though it’s sometimes referred to as a damper pedal.

On a real piano, the built-in sustain pedal enables a note to continue to sound, even after you’ve stopped pressing the key. You can get the same thing with a MIDI keyboard, though they’re not built-in. It’s a separate bit of hardware that connects to a port on your MIDI keyboard.

Most piano music calls for the use of the sustain pedal. Indeed, the famous 19th-century pianist and composer Anton Rubenstein reportedly called the sustain pedal the soul of the piano.

So, who are we to argue? Just ensure your MIDI keyboard has an appropriate connection for a sustain pedal.

How To Play Piano Without a MIDI Keyboard?

No MIDI keyboard? No problem. Remember, this is the age of technology.

There are some sites where you can play an online virtual piano keyboard if you have a tablet. Even if you don’t have a tablet, you can use your mouse or your computer keyboard. Such sites include:

Now, you won’t become a virtuoso pianist using sites like these. But, you have to admit, they’re great fun.

Conclusion

As you can see, you can use a MIDI keyboard as a piano. But, if you want to get as close as possible to a real piano-like experience, look for:

  • At least sixty-one keys or up to eighty-eight if your budget allows
  • A weighted keyboard to add piano-like resistance to the keys
  • Velocity-sensitive keys so you can play soft and loud notes by varying the speed with which you hit the keys
  • A sustain pedal connection

Even with these features, using your MIDI keyboard as a piano won’t feel like the real thing. But it’ll certainly get you reasonably close and at a fraction of the cost.

Check out to see if you need a MIDI keyboard to make music.

Sources

Last update on 2021-09-24 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Vinnie

I'm Vinnie, and I'm here to support you to create your own studio at home, whether it’s for photography, recording audio, podcasts, or videos!

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