Throughout the history of the world, we have never lived in a time where it has been so easy to get a professional-quality sound.
With the numerous pianos, keyboard and MIDI controllers available on the market (and some of them being quite expensive), you may be looking to save some cash by opting for fewer keys.
Or, you may want something that takes us less space, and is easier to carry around.
Whatever led you to this article, we want to help you answer the questions – is 61 keys enough?
It turns out, that it depends entirely on your use case, the type of music you’ll be playing, and what you’re looking to get out of your playing experience.
If You’re Becoming A Pianist
What keys are missing from a 61-key piano, and are they even all that important?
Here are the facts.
Going from 88 to 61 keys removes two full octaves from the piano – one from the top, and one from the bottom.
If you are planning to become an actual pianist – playing the piano itself (and not using the keyboard as a synthesizer for example), then 88 keys is a non-negotiable requirement.
While the majority of the music that you play won’t use these extra keys at first, there will quickly come a time when the pieces that you play will require them.
This is especially true if you intend to play classical music. While sections of some songs can be brought up or down an octave to compensate for less keys, it often won’t sound as good as the original, as it was not the way the piece was intended to be played.
Another factor is the visual development and muscle memory of the piano, that is built with practice. When you’re used to the piano looking a certain way and you switch to a larger version later, it will take some time for your brain to relearn where everything is at.
Unless you’re brand new and you aren’t sure whether or not you’ll stick to the instrument, or you don’t intend on learning to read music, it makes sense to shell out the extra money for a full 88 keys. You will want them, and you’ll end up having to purchase a larger keyboard down the line anyway, which will take your total cost even higher.
If You’re Using Virtual Instruments
If you’re planning on using your keyboard as a MIDI controller and your sole use is to play VST instruments, you may not need to be so strict. This is particularly true for electronic music, which often doesn’t use the full range available on the piano.
Actually, most modern music in general doesn’t use the full range of the piano – pop, rock, EDM… you probably don’t need 88-keys for any of these. There are exceptions (video game or cinematic music for example), but strictly for composition and not performance, 61-keys may be more than enough.
In fact, there are a lot of professional producers that use only a 25-key controller to compose their music. This is small enough to fit in a backpack and well, I think it’s pretty incredible that we can now compose professional sounding music with only a tiny controller and a laptop.
How can a producer get by with so few keys?
It isn’t easy, and I wouldn’t recommend it, but it is possible! This is all thanks to the octave transpose function available on many MIDI controllers.
This allows you to shift the entire keyboard up and down by entire octaves, granting you access to the full range of the piano – though not at one time.
If you are playing single-note instruments, such as strings, brass, mono synths, etc, then this can be done without too much trouble.
While you run into issues playing chords and a melody at the same time, 61 keys is more than enough for a composer to do their job.
The only exception to this is if you’ll be playing a virtual piano – and you don’t want to take the time to manually record extra parts requiring the notes you’d be missing. Additionally, using the transpose button in real time is quite difficult, unless you have periods in the song where you’re not playing.
Plus, it’s one more thing to keep track of, or may be off, which can hurt you if you want to transition to a real piano later.
For example, if you find out that you never use the high notes and permanently leave your keyboard transposed an octave down, it’s going to be difficult when you switch to 88-keys later. The notes that were previously directly in front of you are now an octave to your left, and it may not ‘feel’ right until you relearn with 88 keys.
If This Is Your First Keyboard
Most 61-key keyboards are cheaper than most 88-key keyboards. This is a reality, and it makes sense. As a general rule of thumb, you can expect to save about 1/3rd the price by opting for less keys, which may make a 61-key keyboard a good choice for beginners.
If you’re new to playing piano or this is your first instrument, it is important to take a realistic look at yourself, your ambitions, and think about whether or not this is something you’re going to stick with.
As with anything, you’ll likely take a loss if you need to resell the keyboard later, to trade up for a full 88-key keyboard. Therefore, if you know you’re actually going to stick with it, it does make sense to get something that will serve you for the long-term straight from the beginning.
That being said, you won’t take a complete loss if you decide to sell your 61-key keyboard later.
If you’re unsure if you’re going to stick with it, or you’re purchasing for a young child (who isn’t likely to develop the necessary skill to take advantage of 88-keys, or have arms that are long enough to reach all of them anyway), it may be a wise decision to save a bit of money, and opt for a 61-key piano instead.
If You’re A Live Musician
This comes down to one simple answer – will the songs you play suffer from the missing keys? Can they be played an octave higher or lower without harming the quality of the music?
61-key keyboards are a lot easier to travel with, and lug to and from shows. There is a reason so many performing musicians use a 61-key keyboard live, even if they have an 88-key keyboard available to them at home or in the studio.
It’s a heck of a lot more convenient.
Many manufacturers make identical models of their keyboards in 61 or 88-key versions, so it is simple to transition between the two. The layout and touch response are identical, allowing you to play exactly the same on stage as you would in the studio.
If You Plan On Playing Duets
This is another situation where 88-key are your only real choice.
61-keys can be enough for two-hand pieces a lot of the time. However, it is almost impossible to play duets on a keyboard smaller than 88-keys.
There simply isn’t enough space.
This is just something to keep in mind when making your decision. Even if you do not play duets now, is this something you’ll want to try out in the future?
76 Keys – A Reasonable Compromise?
76-key keyboards are interesting.
They offset a lot of the problems that are introduced by 61-key keyboards, but not all of them.
Until you reach a more advanced level of skill, you won’t often find songs that use both the extreme high and the extreme low of the piano. This means that you can comfortably transpose up or down an octave depending on the song you’re playing, and likely not need to switch mid-song.
That being said, if you’re going to be sticking with the piano, it still makes sense to opt for 88 keys.
Transposing shifts the natural layout of notes around, meaning they are not consistent. Just like with 61-keys, this can through off your natural sense of where each key actually should be, and hurt muscle memory.
Still, most people can get by on a 76-key piano for years without feeling the need to upgrade.
So, it is indeed a reasonable compromise if you can’t afford (or don’t want) an 88-key piano.
Weighted Keys Matter, Too
Regardless of the choice that you end up going with, you’ll want to opt for a keyboard that has fully weighted (not semi-weighted) keys. The only exception to this is if you intend to be using your keyboard exclusively for synthesizers.
If you won’t be using the full range of the piano anyway, this aspect of the keyboard – which aims to recreate the touch and feel of a real acoustic piano, is far more important.
I would even go as far as suggesting that it’s better to have a 61-key keyboard with realistic keys, then it is to have an 88-key keyboard without fully weighted / hammer action keys.
A large part of playing the keyboard well is dynamic expression – being able to accurately recreate the dynamics of the instrument by how hard or soft you touch the keys.
This is just as important when playing piano as it is when playing software instruments in your DAW – particularly if you want your music to sound as realistic and authentic as possible. It also helps you build strong fingers.
Yes, you can manually edit and correct dynamics later if recording MIDI, but this is a long and tedious process that can be cut down simply by playing with a more expressive keyboard. Not to mention, using fully weighted keys now ensure that you will develop this skill early, which can be transferred to other fully weighted keyboards later on.
Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of 61-key keyboards that have fully weighted keys – and the ones that exist are usually a bit more expensive than their semi-weighted counterparts. Keep this in mind as you make your purchasing decisions!
Choosing between a 61-key and an 88-key keyboard isn’t easy, and there isn’t a clear answer.
If you’re looking to have the most amount of options available to you, or you aspire to become a skilled pianist, it makes sense to opt for the full 88-keys now.
You will certainly end up needing them, and this will save you money in the long run.
However, if you plan on using the keyboard strictly for modern music or music composition, you can save some money and space by opting for fewer keys.
Ultimately, this is a personal decision. We’d love to hear what you decided on, and more importantly, what made you choose. Do us all a favor and share down below!
To your success,
– The Musical Sanctuary Team