Why the Acoustic Sound of the Piano Can Never Be Recreated Digitally

May 22, 2024

Buying a Piano - Piano Maintenance

A digital piano can sound pretty similar to a real piano, right? Unfortunately, even digital pianos that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars don’t sound exactly like a traditional acoustic piano. The sound of an acoustic piano will never be matched with digital sound. If you listen carefully, you can actually hear the difference between an acoustic and digital piano sound very clearly.

The reason that a digital piano cannot fully recreate the sound of an acoustic piano has to do with math and the laws of acoustics. The inner workings of an acoustic piano are very complicated. A simplified way of explaining the mechanics is that when played, each piano key activates a hammer, which then hits a string or strings (up to 3) that are tuned to the same pitch. Most piano keys activate 3 strings. When the hammer hits the string(s) inside of the real piano, it immediately releases and they begin to vibrate, producing the specific pitch.

But it’s not that simple! The unique timbre of the piano is mainly because other much quieter and higher sounds beyond the main pitch are also being heard when you strike a key. These sounds are called “overtones.”

This is how it works: the whole string vibrating from one end to another produces the main pitch. Then each half of the string starts vibrating by itself producing the first overtone an octave higher than the main pitch, then the string starts to vibrate by each third, then buy each quarter of the length and so fourth producing higher and higher pitches. Digital sounds don’t do that, they don’t make the overtone sounds.

You can say “OK, so we just sample the acoustic sound and program it into the keyboard, right? Problem solved.” The answer is yes, of course. Any decent modern keyboard has sounds sampled from top end grand pianos, such as Steinway or Bosendorfer; however, another factor comes into play, leaving the digital sound far inferior to acoustic. Each string vibrates from the strike of the hammer, but it also reacts to the vibrations of other strings that sound at the same time.

Wait – there’s even more! There are 88 keys on the piano. If the sustain pedal is pressed (which it is 90% of the time), it further complicates things because all strings vibrate in a reaction of ripples to the key the player is currently playing. Each key can also be pressed with different dynamics from very quiet to very loud. Any number of the keys can sound at the same time and with different dynamics creating an infinite number of the overtone ripples.

Imagine this like shuffling a deck of cards. Do you know how many card shuffles are possible with the 52 card deck? It’s 8×10^67 – that’s 8 followed by 67 zeros. If someone shuffles the cards in a new way every second, the Universe would end trillions of years before the first repeated shuffle. It’s impossible to get the hard data on such possibilities with the piano sound because instead of 52 cards the number of sounds is already impossible to count. So the number of resulting possibilities is unimaginable and can never be computed and therefore programmed into a digital piano!

Perhaps the only downfall of acoustic pianos is that they go out of tune after a time from use and with seasonal changes, temperature, and humidity. A piano that is out of tune loses the beauty of all of the acoustic sounds! To address that you simply need to call your local piano tuner and they will fix it for you usually within 2hours. Tune your piano at least twice a year – in the middle of the coldest season and the middle of the warmest season. Acoustic pianos sound amazing when they are properly tuned!

Don’t ruin the beautiful moments with your piano sounding like this:

If you are looking for a piano tuner in NYC, please contact us and we will give you the info of great and affordable piano tuners that we use at our music school!

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