Types of musical keyboards can be found across way more than just a piano and an organ.
In fact, aside from the String family, the keyboard family is up there as one of the largest; you’ll probably be taken aback by the sheer number of instruments that use a keyboard setup to create sound. There’s a fair few! And as you can imagine, with the first piano being invented around 1700, all these keyboard instruments aren’t just carbon copies. Over time they’ve actually taken this keyboard concept and made it their own.
So while the most obvious keyboard instrument would of course be your typical Grand piano, you’ll also come across slightly more niche instruments that make use of it too. A clavichord for instance, as well as the Celeste and that weird keyboard that Lady Gaga had round her neck on a guitar strap. Exactly why to ensure you’re clued up on all these types of musical keyboards, we’ve dissected the entire keyboard family so you don’t have to. No worries – thank us later!
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What is a keyboard instrument? How to identify types of musical keyboards…
A keyboard instrument is much as it sounds – an instrument that produces sound using keys, which are similar to those you’ll find on a piano. But that’s not to say that all types of musical keyboard have the same 88-key layout. They don’t.
Many keyboard instruments actually feature less – substantially less in most cases, as few clock in at the size of a piano. Neither is every instrument that boasts a keyboard, played in the exact same way. Some (like a piano) are designed to be played while you’re sat down, and don’t really ask much of the rest of your body. Whereas others are a bit more ‘hands on’ (an accordion for instance).
Aside from how they’re played, there’s also how these keyboard instruments actually work. Despite them all having what looks like a similar set of keys, the actual mechanics behind their sound differs immensely. Take the Grand piano.
It uses keys to to move a set of hammers that collide with strings to produce vibrations. These vibrations are then transferred into a soundboard, which magnifies them and works in tandem with the outer casing, to sculpt them into something sweet and mellow. And yes, you read that right – even the casing on a Grand piano affects the sound! In fact, it’s the reason they have individually shaped tails.
Compare this then to how something like an accordion creates sound ,and you’ll soon realise the stark difference. Where the piano uses the mechanics of the hammer and the soundboard, the accordion relies on air pressure and the agitation of a set of steel or brass reeds. Both keyboard instruments, but two completely different ways of creating sound.
Therefore, to actually define a keyboard instrument is actually quite a task, as while they do all use keys in some form, there’s not what you’d call a set formula. Precisely why knowing all the types of keyboard instruments you can come across, is a must.
What instruments belong to the keyboard family?
When we said the keyboard family is big, we weren’t lying.
In fact, if you want to play a keyboard instrument you’re spoilt for choice. Not only are there all the various types of pianos and keyboards, but there’s also a whole host of slightly more alternative instruments too. These being those that feature a keyboard, just not perhaps in the way you’d initially think. Call them underground instruments that’re yet to worm their way into the mainstream.
And that’s exactly why you should be aware of them. They’re different – unique – quirky. All things that music today needs to be in order to stand out! So instead of running you through the members of the keyboard family that you already know, here’s 12 lesser known types of musical keyboards that we feel you should be aware of…
Examples of keyboard instruments
- Bowed clavier – This is probably one of the most unusual types of musical keyboards you’ll find, especially if you’re a vegan. From the outside, there’s very little strange about a bowed clavier. If anything, it just looks like an ancient Grand piano with a slightly less keys. It even comes with a stool too. However, open the top and you would notice a slight difference. There’d be a harp, but underneath there’d also be a collection of cylinders, which would steadily rotate, plucking the strings to create the sound. Strings that may we add, were called gut strings. Why? Because they were fashioned from fibres found in animal intestines. Nice…
- Calliope – This is hands down one of the loudest types of musical keyboards you’ll come across. Forget your grand pianos – a Calliope is louder! And that’s because while it’s played by humans (you and I), it’s actually powered by steam, or more recently compressed air! All of which is channeled through a set of whistles that have a lot in common with those you’ll find on a steam train. So it’s no wonder that it’s also known as the steam piano.
- Clavichord – This keyboard instrument stretches all the way back to the Middle Ages and if you ask us, resembles a lot of what you find in a piano. You see, a Clavichord produces sound by striking a set of strings made of either brass or iron. Something it performs using a set of small metal blades. The vibrations caused by which are then transmitted through a bridge into a soundboard. Practically the same as what happens inside a grand piano – an early source of inspiration, perhaps?
- Clavinet – Come the 60s and the Clavichord looked a bit old hat, so some bright spark from Germany decided to make a version that was electrically amplified. To look at it, the Clavinet looked nothing like the Clavichord, however it did resemble one thing – a keyboard!
- Claviola – What happens if you combine a melodica with an accordion and a recorder? The Claviola. In other words 2.5 octaves of piano keys that’re strapped round your neck, as well as a set of pipes too. The pipes sit to the left hand side and the piano keys to the right. Sounds complex, yet the way it produces sound is actually pretty simple. You (the player) blow into a mouthpiece, which sends pressure to the set of pipes. Then, depending on what pipes you cover and what keys you press, a note is produced. Bonkers stuff!
- Celesta – Pretty straight forward this one. A Celesta is basically an idiophone that’s operated by keys. And yet on the face of it, you’d think it was an Upright piano. The real difference comes when you open the top. Look inside and you’ll see that the keys are connected to hammers, which strike a series of metal plates and bars. Hence why the Celesta has earned itself the nickname of the Bell piano.
- Dulcitone – Quite a similar type of musical keyboard to the Celesta this. In fact, from the outside at least, it looks much the same. Perhaps a bit more squat than the Celesta, but all-in-all pretty similar. Think of it as an Upright piano with the top chopped off. The difference with the Dulcitone is how it creates its sound. Press a key and you’ll cause a hammer (covered in felt) to strike a series of tuning forks, emitting a sound that falls in-between 1 of 5 octaves.
- Harpsichord – Probably one of the most well-known on this list, a Harpsichord is also one of the types of musical keyboard that bears the most resemblance to a Grand piano. Difference being that one you open the top instead of hammers, you’ll see a row of levers. These levers turn a trigger mechanism, which plucks the strings of a harp. It does so with a plectrum that’s made of either plastic or quill. However, much like in a piano, the strings are mounted to a soundboard, which works to both amplify and sculpt the sound.
- Hurdy-Gurdy – Okay, so this is actually a string instrument. One that creates its sound by a wheel rubbing against the strings – a wheel which the player cranks by hand. The keyboard only really comes into play when playing melodies. Press a key on a Hurdy-Gurdy and a piece of wood (known as a tangent) will be pushed against a string to alter its pitch. Very clever, but dare we say it, a bit of a handful, as it’s actually shaped like a violin!
- Piano accordion – Interesting concept this. So a piano accordion is much as it sounds. A traditional accordion that has been kitted out with 3 octaves of piano-like keys, which are mounted on right hand side. Compared to a piano, the keys are lighter and smaller too. They’re also slightly rounded at the end and when pressed, flex inwards towards the middle. And what’s more, being an aerophone this keyboard instrument actually has more in common with an organ, although at first glance you wouldn’t think it.
- Pump organ – If you’re lucky, you might find one of these down your local church, as Pump Organs were very popular during the 1800s. Some well-off folk even had them installed in their homes! And that’s because while these organs weren’t exactly the loudest, they were portable. Pump organs generated their sound by channelling air past a thin piece of metal located in the frame, which musical types call a reed. But while they were popular back in the day, Pump Organs are actually somewhat of a rarity nowadays.
- Terpodion – Out of all the types of musical keyboards, this has to be one of the most intriguing, as it’s a friction instrument. What that means is that a Terpodion produces its sound in much the same way as a glass harmonica. Press a key and a hammer gets forced against a rotating wooden cylinder – a cylinder that in a Glass Harmonica is made of glass. Terpodions are also rare too. Only 25 were ever made!!
How many types of musical keyboards are there?
Now, while they keyboard family is big, if you’re after a keyboard in the conventional sense, your options are actually quite slim. And that’s because unlike pianos, keyboards are electric or battery powered, which means airflow doesn’t even enter the equation. Therefore, most types of musical keyboards are pretty much centred around functionality and being portable – there’s no Grands, Baby Grands or Uprights here.
Now of course, there will be technicalities like key weight, sound functions, speaker quality and other factors to measure, but you can’t get around the fact that when compared their piano ancestors, keyboards are a bit ‘copy and paste’. In fact, from what we can tell, there’s only 4 major types of keyboards. So to ensure you’re clued up, here’s a speedy overview on all 4…
1. Beginner keyboard
As you’d probably imagine, a beginner keyboard is the most budget-friendly you can get. In terms of build quality it won’t usually be on par with other (more pro) options, however if you’re wanting to learn how to play piano one of these will certainly do the job. And while you can get beginner keyboards with the full 88-keys (7 octaves), most commonly you’ll find them with 61 keys (5 octaves).
Also in terms of keys, when compared to more professional keyboard instruments, you’ll likely notice a substantial difference. With these types of musical keyboards, the key bed can vary. Some beginner keyboards have a really supple key bed, whereas others do lack feel. It’s much the same with keys. Some will come with weighted or semi-weighted keys (what we suggest you look for), while others, typically towards the cheaper end of the spectrum, won’t.
For those learning to play the piano, weighted keys are a must! Pianos themselves have what’s called hammer-action keys, which are heavy in comparison to a keyboard. So by getting a keyboard with weighted keys, the transition from keyboard to piano should be 10 times easier! Plus, the keypress when using weighted keys is far more intentional – all of which makes playing each note far more satisfying.
2. Arrangement keyboard
Now, for those who’re after more functionality from a keyboard instrument, an arrangement keyboard is probably the way to go. Unlike what you’ll find with a beginner model, which’ll likely feature a small bank of generic stock sounds (Organ, Piano, Harpsichord etc) and that’s pretty much it, an arrangement keyboard will actually let you incorporate your own sounds! Ideal if you’re a live musician or want to make a more organic composition.
So for instance, an arranger could support live vocals from a singer, and team these with its onboard effects. A file you could then export to midi and adjust and tweak via your DAW. What’s more, because of the tech that’s packed into one of these keyboards, as well as their more professional use, you’ll find arrangers are also built to a far better standard than the average keyboard. Their keys are also either semi or full weighted, which makes them also more realistic to play!
Where a synth differs from the usual keyboard, is that it’s not just a keyboard with some preinstalled sounds. Synths are a keyboard that allows you to create and tweak your own sounds. While some synths will allow you to upload custom sounds, the majority come with sounds preinstalled, which are usually far higher quality than those you’ll find in a keyboard. Hence why synths are often only really used by producers of music junkies, who want full control over the parameters of their sound.
What’s more, synths come in two types: creative synths and imitator synths. Creative synths allow the user to freely sculpt their own sounds using its various encoders and faders. Whereas imitator synths do virtually the same thing – the only catch being that they’re a bit less hands on. So for instance, the majority of the controls are buried within an LCD screen, opposed to being out in the open.
Plus, you can get synths that focus on one particular type of sound – a Drum synth for instance – as well as others that gives you access to a wide range of sounds from all corners of the musical spectrum. Really, which synth you go for all depends on the type of music you’re looking to create. Although, nowadays we think you can go one better…
4. Midi keyboard
That hit song you just heard on the radio – yep, that’s probably been made using a midi keyboard. In fact, midi keyboards are pretty much ‘the standard’ when it comes to producing music nowadays. Go to virtually any music studio and you’ll soon come across a couple of these. Reason being that unlike your average keyboard, midi keyboards aren’t limited to a set bank of sounds. They can play virtually any sound in existence! What’s more, they can even be used to warp and change sounds to a producer’s liking like you can with a synth.
They’re also quite an unusual keyboard to look at. Aside from their keys, which can sometimes be as few as just 25 (2 octaves), you’ll also likely spot a pair of RGB drum pads as well as various amounts of encoders and even a screen. Out of all the keyboards you can get, midi keyboards certainly look the most ‘Star Trek’! And yet, despite this flexibility, midi keyboards are some of the cheapest keyboards you can buy – even some of the best 25-key midi keyboards can be picked up for less than £100!
The main reason being down to how they work. For starters, unlike your average keyboards (above), midi keyboards don’t contain speakers. And that’s because the majority of what they do is controlled via your DAW. So while this does means that you need a computer to operate them, combine a midi keyboard with a set of VST plugins and your sound capabilities really do skyrocket. Remember the synth above? With a midi keyboard you can use sounds from 100s of synths all through one keyboard. Very clever!
Interested in a midi keyboard to control your virtual instruments? We’ve reviewed midis of all sizes – right from the Best 88 Key Midi Keyboard Controllers, to the Most Popular Mini Midi Keyboards for portable production.
How do I choose a music keyboard?
Choosing a keyboard isn’t a decision you should make ‘in the moment’.
In fact, before even looking into all these types of musical keyboards, you should have your mind made up. That being on everything from its functionality and size right down to details like what ports you’d require (if any) and even how weighted you’d like the keys. Basically, know what you want from a keyboard before looking to buy one.
However, with that being said, don’t zero in on just one keyboard and that’s that – be open minded. So for instance, while we would suggest determining what you want, we wouldn’t go as far as to say latch onto a brand. Reason being that, as good as your keyboard research may be, music specialists are almost always going to know more. Plus, they may even be able to tip you off about upcoming releases, which would actually be a better buy. But remember, that’s only because you know what you want!
Fail to do so and you risk being fed a sales pitch for a keyboard that really isn’t best for you. Or, if you shop online, paying over the odds for features that you could have got for far less by going with another brand. So, moral of the story being that when it comes to shopping for a keyboard, be sure you’re like a boy scout.
Enjoyed learning about the instruments in the keyboard family and eager for more? Be sure to check out our latest on Pianos & Keyboards, as well as the rest of our Musical Instrument Reviews. Recently we’ve also written a full guide on the different Why Steinway Pianos Are SO expensive, which may also be worth a read.
Or if you’ve still got a burning question about the types of keyboard instruments, keep reading to learn even more about the keyboard family…