Learn to play as an adult - piano or guitar?
October 23, 2007 2:37 PM   Subscribe

Assuming no musical talent, which would be better for a n00b to try to learn - piano or guitar?

I'm doing the "I should learn to play a musical instrument before I die" thing.

In my dreams, I am one day able to play:

Guitar - (Acoustic) the occasional folk song, working my way up to classical and/or flamenco style.


Piano - Cole Porter type stuff, working my way up to classical.

I'm leaning toward piano, as I think it might be more soothing to vent by aggressively attacking a keyboard.

Also, I'm easily embarrassed by lack of skill, and thus discouraged from practicing. But a keyboard/electric piano would allow me to practice silently, right?

Advice, please, mefi musicians.
posted by penciltopper to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (38 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
But a keyboard/electric piano would allow me to practice silently, right?

Yep. Late at night I use headphones plugged into mine.

One thing about learning guitar is that it is much more portable than a keyboard. You can serenade and entertain in most any environment. With a keyboard, not so much.
posted by ericb at 2:44 PM on October 23, 2007

Do you want to start playing something recognizable right away? - If yes, then start with guitar.

Do you want to learn to read music and understand keys etc. most easily? - If yes, then start with piano.
posted by caddis at 2:46 PM on October 23, 2007

More venting is to be had with a guitar. (See: Rock & Roll)

But if you want to read music and learn music theory and all that, piano is probably the better way to go.
posted by Reggie Digest at 2:46 PM on October 23, 2007

One good thing about learning piano is that you will probably have to learn to read music to play, which can help you with the basic foundations of music theory. Which would be good if you find that interesting (like I did).
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:47 PM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

As a guitarist, I sometimes wish I had learned piano first. Why, I don't know but every time I hear a good piano player I think about that.

If you get an electric piano (I'm assuming you're not about to purchase a grand piano) yes - you can put some headphones on and not disturb anyone. Same with an electric guitar as you can purchase some pretty awesome headphone amps and practice in silence.

I guess it would all come down to what you eventually want to do with this skill. Do you want to play out and/or in front of people? The guitar lends itself well to this situation due to it's portability. You can pretty much drag a guitar around anywhere and have a little impromptu concert or jam with others.

Personal enjoyment? I'd say stick with the piano.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 2:50 PM on October 23, 2007

I have a soft spot in my heart for guitar, but the fact of the matter is that everybody and their mother plays it. Understand that if you play guitar then you are in a boat with about 3/4 of the western world. Not all bad, just saying.

Piano players, however, are a rarer bird. You will probably come to know music more formally, but you will also generally be one of only a couple of guys in a crowded room that plays the instrument.

Which do you have ready access to? Which is the instrument you listen to most frequently?
posted by Pecinpah at 2:52 PM on October 23, 2007

Piano was, at least for me, extremely difficult to pick up after having already been a string player (violinist). Thinking on a keyboard is completely different from thinking on strings.

Everyone who's suggested that you go for piano if you want music theory and go for guitar if you want more pedestrian fun is absolutely right.
posted by bubukaba at 2:54 PM on October 23, 2007

BTW -- you might enjoy NPR's 'All Things Considered' host Noah Adam's book 'Piano Lessons: Music, Love, and True Adventures' about learning to play the piano at age 51.
posted by ericb at 2:55 PM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't play piano or guitar.

But I used to.

I studied piano for about ten years, and learned guitar on my own some years later. I still find helpful thirty years later what I learned playing piano. General, well rounded knowledge about music, reading music, knowing the language and vocabulary of music.

Guitar is a lot of fun. A LOT of fun.

Depends on what you're after.
posted by nedpwolf at 2:58 PM on October 23, 2007

I have a soft spot in my heart for guitar, but the fact of the matter is that everybody and their mother plays it. Understand that if you play guitar then you are in a boat with about 3/4 of the western world. Not all bad, just saying.

I think about this all the time. I played piano a bit when I was little, and played violin for years, but gave it all up because I wanted to learn some Dave Matthews songs. Now I'm a decent enough guitarist, but I've lost most of my piano and violin skills and I'm just another dude with a guitar.
posted by danb at 2:59 PM on October 23, 2007

i was in your shoes a while ago and figured piano was the way to go. struggled with it many times over the years, getting bored and frustrated.

finally got a guitar and the instant-gratification factor of being able to play something that sounds *cool* right off the bat got me hooked. so i would choose a guitar, for that reason and a number of other reasons (there's a lot of free tabs available on the internet, meaning you dont have to learn to read sheet music right away to "just play a song"... also the vent factor is a lot higher!)

also if you want to be able to practice silently, you could get an electric and use headphones. if you dont have a lot of distortion, it doesnt sound too terribly different from an acoustic - close enough for singing kumbaya anyway. anyway thats what i did (headphones) while i was still embarrassed.

bonus points in that the strings on electrics have a lot less tension than acoustics, for which your poor fingertips will thank you.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 2:59 PM on October 23, 2007

I'm 18 and began piano lessons a month or so ago. I'm enjoying it. Here are the reasons I chose it over others:

* Learning to play the piano gives you the mental and physical ability to play keyboards. Keyboards are the interface to a huge variety of interesting sound making devices. You can migrate over to organs, synthesizers, clavichords, you name it. Primarily though, I think synthesizers are awesome.
* The piano has incredible ergonomics. It allows for extremely fine control of dynamics and is the easiest instrument on which to play complex musical pieces. The guitar interface has bias built in - some things are much harder to play than others. Very few guitarists can play a bassline and lead part at the same time. This is common in piano music.
* The piano is percussive. Personally, strumming and plucking are not as conducive to rhythm for me.
* No other instrument makes theory so easy to understand. Understanding theory is what makes you a musician instead of a person who can follow instructions by rote. A solid understanding of theory will make writing for or playing other instruments much easier. This is why the piano has been used as an aid to composition since it's invention.
posted by phrontist at 3:05 PM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Another pro for the piano is that it is physically easier to play then the guitar. When starting out on guitar it is awkward to make chords and your fingers hurt until you form calluses. So the initial learning curve will be much less frustrating.

However, I think once you get over the initial bump it will take you MUCH longer to sound good on the piano than it would on the guitar, if only because guitar folk songs are nowhere near as complex as the kind of stuff Cole Porter is playing. You will need years of study to be able to play breezy light jazz since the theory is complex . But I watched my roommate figure out how to play a few Neil Young songs on his guitar over the course of one summer, starting from nothing, just by sitting on the couch and strumming for an hour every other day.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:07 PM on October 23, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all the responses so far. Lots of people are recommending guitar, and an electric with headphones for silence. But that raises a question for uninformed lil' me...

If my guitar goal is to play Bach/Villa-Lobos/Montoya, would I be able to do that on an electric?
posted by penciltopper at 3:08 PM on October 23, 2007

Consider that guitars need to be tuned, and I, for example, never got the hang of it. Electronic keyboards need no such maintenance, and can be plugged into PCs where you can use educational software.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:08 PM on October 23, 2007

I'm a guitarist/bass player with only the most rudimentary of keyboard skills.

Here are some considerations which you might take into account:

1) In the very, very beginning the guitar will be more frustrating because it will make your fingers hurt and you will have a hard time getting any kind of musical sound out of it at all. This phase may last for a few weeks or a few months, depending on how consistently you practice. In contrast, even a non-keyboardist can easily hit a nice sounding chord on a piano without straining his or her fingers.

2) Once you've gotten past the initial stage on guitar and have learned a few basic chords and strumming patterns, then you have the basic skills to accompany yourself singing a host of folk songs. I rarely see pianists using this simple approach.

3) Guitars are portable and useful for taking to parties.

4) Guitars have to tuned all the time, which can be a bit of a pain. Acoustic pianos have to be tuned periodically by a professional. Electric keyboards stay in tune automatically.

5) You can certainly vent effectively by aggressively attacking the guitar as well.

Good luck. Either instrument can be a lot of fun.
posted by tdismukes at 3:16 PM on October 23, 2007

As a guitarist, my vote is for the piano. IMHO, it seems easier to understand the theory and the relationship of the notes when they are laid out linearly before you.
posted by gnutron at 3:21 PM on October 23, 2007

I haven't heard of Villa-Lobos or Montoya but I assume that's classical guitarist stuff. In that case, you're seriously talking about many years of study. Which is great, but recognize the commitment you're making. You will need to take lessons and you will need to learn how to read music and you should learn the theory of it as well.

If you have such high ambitions, I will change my recommendation to piano since it is the gateway instrument to serious study. No matter where your musical ambitions take you, being able to play piano is an invaluable skill.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:26 PM on October 23, 2007

This question is coming from someone with no musical ability? Then let me answer: guitar is easier, in my opinion. Granted, I am still horrible at it, but I failed miserably at piano.

With guitar, I can learn a few chords and strum along enough to make it sound like music. I think it's too easy to pick up misplayed notes on a piano. Anyone can tell when you suck at piano. But you can pull it off with a guitar.

I love music. Unfortunately, I can't play it well. Must be some finger/eye coordination or something. Nevertheless, I have learned enough guitar that I can play along with friends who are talented. I've even written a few lyircs that I have help with my from my friends who have talent to get the music sounding decent. They play lead because they have the skill, but I can strum along in rhythm and feel like I am contributing. Plus, I learned along time ago that Jerry Jeff only plays 3 chords so I don't feel bad that it is all I can do.

If you just want to play music, then I would go with a guitar. If you want to develop musical skills, then maybe the piano is the way to go.
posted by dios at 3:31 PM on October 23, 2007

You COULD play Bach, Villa-Lobos etc on electric, but I wouldn't recommend it. In fact I think it'd be harder to learn on electric than a classical guitar (specifically the right hand work ... I find rest strokes for example are alot harder to execute nicely on an electric/steel string than a classical). Secondly, it would not sound nearly as good. Classical pieces were written to be played on classical guitar (well ... not Bach ... those pieces are all transcribed from lute, violin etc, but Villa Lobos certainly).
posted by Tsar Pushka at 3:32 PM on October 23, 2007

First, record yourself singing along to some recorded music and listen to it carefully -- lots of people think they can sing, but a recording would show you just how awful you really are, if indeed you are an awful singer.

If it turns out you can sing in tune -- not Pavarotti, just in tune -- get a good guitar (cheap guitars suck), get a beginners' songbook with easy chords, and start learning songs that you can later play and sing anywhere you drag your guitar.

If it turns out you can't sing, maybe go directly to the piano, but get lessons and don't expect to be banging out Cole Porter or classical music without a lot of basic practice. And don't sing along.
posted by pracowity at 3:32 PM on October 23, 2007

If my guitar goal is to play Bach/Villa-Lobos/Montoya, would I be able to do that on an electric?

The answer to that is "yes, but..."

You can play any guitar music on any guitar, but if you're interested in classical guitar music you should get yourself a classical guitar. There's a whole rigorous school of guitar technique that presupposes that you're playing on an very particular type of instrument.

Truly studying classical guitar will also provide many of the benefits – learning to read music, understanding theory, even being able to play multiple parts – claimed for piano above.

On the other hand, if you just want to bash out John Henry and Nine-Pound Hammer around the campfire, this probably isn't the way to go.
posted by timeistight at 3:36 PM on October 23, 2007

This may be an odd way of approaching it, but how are you at multitasking? On piano, both hands use the same motions but in opposite ways—if you play CDEFG with your right hand you start with your thumb, but if it is bass notes with your left hand you start with your pinky. I found that very hard to do. On guitar, your hands do two completely different motions that are related in order to produce a note, which somehow always seemed easier to me.

Tuning is not an issue to worry about, electronic tuners are cheap and reliable. Nobody tunes by ear anymore. And there’s no reason you can’t play classical guitar on an electric, though it won’t have rounded tone that nylon string guitars have. Anyway, by the time you’re advanced enough to play those guys, you’ll be in the market to replace your starter guitar (probably with a nice Martin.)
posted by InfidelZombie at 3:48 PM on October 23, 2007

Guitar, man! All you need is three chords and the truth!

With a guitar, if you have decent rhythm and can practice your way through the pain of building up callouses, you can have a lot of fun without ever knowing how to read music. Here's why:

-Once you know the most popular chords, you can easily play in more difficult keys with a capo.

-You can just be the best rhythm guitarist possible, and be quite happy, or you can move on to arpeggios, melody, lead, classical, and flamenco.


-Availability. There are guitars everywhere.

-Ease of jamming. Once you are comfortable with some chord progressions, you can sit in with musicians and play along. Which brings us to a biggie:

-Ease of fakery. If you have good rhythm, and find yourself jamming, when all of a sudden they are playing a song with chords you have no clue about... you can keep playing a guitar as a rhythm/percussion instrument by deadening the strings. Plus you can rap on the pickguard on the downstroke. If you've got some funk in your strumming, they probably won't even notice that you aren't playing actual chords. Even some longtime pros do this. Just play with confidence, and it will look like that's what you meant to do all along. I don't think you can do this with a piano, unless you drum on the lid like a bongo.

-When I taught myself to play the guitar, I did end up jamming with other people who were way more advanced than me, including some very good lead guitarists. As long as I could get the chord progression I did fine. I was very flattered one day when a lead guitarist I admired very much (and was jealous of, since I could never play lead) wanted me to teach him how to play rhythm! I told him he was asking the wrong person, since I was a beginner. But he told me that I was the best rhythm guitarist he had heard. (He had to have been on something, but it was still gratifying.) The point is: with a guitar you can indeed make a lot of headway pretty quickly.

-If you can sing, accompanying yourself on guitar has to be one of the most gratifying things in life. (I can't sing.)

-Fast feeling of accomplishment. If you focus on rhythm guitar, you'll be learning chord progressions of songs and be able to play along, within the same time you'd be practicing scales on the piano.

-PLUS... you can always move to a piano if you want. You'll get an idea of how chords work with melody and see how you like being a musician without a lot of expense. You can always learn piano later. It doesn't have to be one or the other, but the guitar will give you a faster feeling of progress. (Obviously, not as deep, and you may not be able to read music, but that doesn't take away one bit of the fun.)

Good luck, and have fun!
posted by The Deej at 3:49 PM on October 23, 2007 [4 favorites]

do both! get a cheap nylon string guitar to bash around and get that instant gratification of belting out a simple three chord tune.

and get a nice electric keyboard to learn the fundamentals of music theory/notation.

I've played guitar (self taught) for about 10 years now and wish i had more than just a rough knowledge of music theory. piano is great for learning that.

A wise man once told me piano is easier to learn as the keys are all spread out in order, whereas guitars have the notes all over the place on the fretboard.
posted by robotot at 4:01 PM on October 23, 2007

Piano. Clearly.
posted by anaelith at 4:10 PM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

I play both, and I'd recommend piano if you really have no preference. Or rather I'd recommend keyboard as piano's are quite expensive. If you intend to take lessons, most piano teachers are relatively competent, whereas most very few guitar teachers are. Especially so for the style of music you're talking about playing, which is the default among pianists, and relatively rare among guitarists.

That said, you should really play both for a while and develop a preference, either by buying both are robotot suggested, or by testing instruments in music stores until they kick you out. Which you prefer playing will be more important than any other factor.
posted by scottreynen at 4:27 PM on October 23, 2007

I took piano lessons as a kid and wasn't terribly keen on the whole ordeal. I gave up on music for awhile, and just now decided I wanted to learn guitar. I am much happier on the guitar, partly for all the reasons mentioned above, but mostly (I think) because I'm in control. I made the decision to learn guitar, where my parents told me to learn piano.

My point, I guess, is that you will gain the most enjoyment out of the one you want to do. I would say try them both as others have said and pick one - or do both, if you have the time and ambition.

Really, though, it's which one you like more - as others have said.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:30 PM on October 23, 2007

On a guitar, as on most wind instruments, you have a lot of note control - attack, pitch, vibrato, duration - that simply doesn't exist on piano. But this comes, on guitar, at the expense of tremendous muscle training for technique, and a knowledge of the practical physics of string harmonics, and the devices/techniques with which you can manipulate them. Moreover, on guitar, because you can tune the strings, and favor them when fretting or stopping, you can play in tempered intonation, either equal or just, or various older scale and chord divisions, which favor older choral music, written for consonance, before modern tempered scales became the norm. For this reason, the guitar is the friend of singers, much more than the piano.

I play a piece with a melody entirely on string harmonics, and seperate chords and contrapuntal bass line, that has taken me 15 years of thrice weekly practice to get to the present point of imperfection. I only got to the point of getting entirely through it, about 5 years ago. I expect that, in another 10, if arthritis doesn't overtake me, I might make it sound truly musical, and not overwrought.

All of which is to say, there are millions upon millions of bad guitarists in the world.

In the piano world, where you have no control of pitch, or vibrato, and only rudimentary effect on attack, volume, decay, duration - you trade fine control of notes for the nicety of being able to play 10 or more notes at once, which is pretty much impossible on the guitar, even the 12 string variety. And, on the typical 88 note keyboard, you have a musical range 5 octaves greater than classical guitar. But, typically, you play only the tempered scales the piano is tuned to, as pianos are not easily or quickly retuned for alternate scale divisions. The complexity of sound a piano can create is probably greater than a guitar, in absolute terms, but the guitar, particular the classical guitar, wins out, in the hands of very skilled players, for musical nuance, every time. Even in the hands of the most gifted player, a piano never sounds as human as the best guitar in the hands of that instrument's most gifted player.

But I agree with those above, that you need not do one, and not the other. Learning piano informs your muscianship, in ways learning guitar does not, but in the same way, learning guitar teaches you things about music, that no one knowing only piano, may ever truly appreciate. If this is to be an avocation, do both. Maybe, start with piano.
posted by paulsc at 7:19 PM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Start with the guitar if you just want to entertain yourself.

Piano is more difficult to fake, and without proper form you won't be able to play anything beyond repetitive irritating vamps. (Trust me - I know too well whereof I speak.)

If you've got any ear at all you can pick up barre chords (major/minor chords in the same hand position, sliding up and down the neck of the guitar) and a dozen other easy chords in a matter of days. That, plus practice, will enable you to fake to drunken-revelry levels nearly every popular song written since the 50's. You won't be able to replicate complex harmonies or intonation or chord spellings - the real SOUND of it in other words - but that's not your goal at this point.

Each instrument will teach you about the other, so practice both. The key thing is just that: practice as much as you can, both reading music and playing along by ear (that's the crucial thing if you're just looking to pass the time). Overall I find that the guitar has a lower floor and ceiling for enthusiasts; the piano is the mother of all western instruments but even rudimentary piano music will challenge you in ways you might not be ready for.
posted by waxbanks at 8:13 PM on October 23, 2007

On a guitar, as on most wind instruments, you have a lot of note control - attack, pitch, vibrato, duration - that simply doesn't exist on piano.

In the piano world, where you have no control of pitch, or vibrato, and only rudimentary effect on attack, volume, decay, duration - you trade fine control of notes for the nicety of being able to play 10 or more notes at once...

paulsc, with the exception of vibrato, the above statements are flat-out wrong. (I'm assuming that you meant to say that the guitar is a string instrument, and that by "pitch" you mean "key".) Attack, decay, duration (assuming you mean length of note) are incredibly powerful and nuanced on the piano.

Even in the hands of the most gifted player, a piano never sounds as human as the best guitar in the hands of that instrument's most gifted player. I couldn't disagree more but, as you're obviously a guitar player, we'll need to agree to disagree (at least until you listen to how Horowitz can make the piano sound like a cello and listen to Gould's attack/decay/everything on Bach).
posted by sfkiddo at 10:38 PM on October 23, 2007

Start with piano, but don't work up to classical, start with it. The going will be slow at first, but you'll learn much more about theory, technique, etc. in a much shorter time-frame.

(Speaking as the oldest of 6 kids, each of whom mother had in piano lessons for the grand-total of our pre-college years, 2 of whom stuck with it and are fairly accomplished, studying with some of the best in the field now. Unfortunately I'm not one of those two, but when I decided I wanted to teach myself guitar, it came fairly easily.)
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:04 AM on October 24, 2007

Plenty of good answers here, I'm going to make the case for the guitar. As others have said, it takes a little while to get comfortable with the different chord shapes, but once you do, you can build up a repertoire very quickly. This is doubly true for folk songs, since lots of them use the same chord progressions. The sheer amount of material available online, in the form of tabs and such like, make it very easy to find stuff you hear on the radio. Although others have stressed that piano is good for learning music theory (although you don't mention that as a goal in your OP), I think that you can get quite deeply into some areas of music theory (chord relationships, etc) on the guitar.

Acoustic guitars are cheap compared to (real) pianos. My piano cost £200 and is basically on it's last legs. My favourite acoustic guitar also cost £200 and is a delight to play. Also, you can learn to tweak the action of an acoustic guitar to your liking very easily - much harder to adjust anything on a piano.

Someone mentioned upthread that piano can be a "gateway instrument" to organ, synthesizer, etc. Same goes for the guitar; it only requires slight adjustment in technique to play the mandolin family, banjo, ukulele family, not to mention the different types of guitar (think of the sounds you can get from a twelve-string, a resonator, an open-tuned slide guitar). I actually do it the other way round; I use the baritone uke (four strings) to teach people to play the guitar, since it's much easier to remember chords, and the techniques are just the same.
posted by primer_dimer at 3:11 AM on October 24, 2007

I'm a (bad) piano player who recently took up the guitar. My opinion about each:

- Much easier to figure out musical theory
- Much easier to play a simple melody without practice
- More suited to classical music (I can play a few classical pieces convincingly, and believe me, I'm a very bad pianist.)

- Much easier to play pop/rock songs - there are very few purely piano-oriented songs in those genres, and playing Billy Joel songs well is HARD.
- More painful. I had the occasional cramp / CTD from piano but never anything like the fingertip and muscle pain guitar gave me.
- More "cool" depending on who your friends are.
- Lower barrier of entry. I can play several folk/rock songs convincingly already, and the few piano pieces I can play all the way through took much longer to learn.

I've found that the guitar works better for me, at least so far. I never had the coordination to play complex two-handed pieces on piano, and the guitar seems to take a different sort of coordination, as InfidelZombie said.

Since you mentioned Bach, I'd probably go with Piano - better yet, get a synthesizer that can do some piano and organ sounds. Some of Bach's fugues and Goldberg Variations are pretty easy to play on keyboard instruments, and flipping to a Church Organ patch and playing the first bit of Tocatta and Fugue in G Minor is always a cheap thrill. I'm a Bach fan and will eventually figure out how to play some of his work on guitar, but piano was much easier for that.

Other than that... try both and see what works for you.
posted by mmoncur at 3:34 AM on October 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you want to seriously study music, not learn the introduction to "Stairway to Heaven" or "Fur Elise" and then quit. Congrats!

I've read through what everyone has said, and I'll just offer my $0.02. I have played a lot of instruments, and I have found that I am actually quite limited by what I can mentally handle. I started playing the flute when I was really young and have played it ever since. For some reason, my brain is lopsided when it comes to music, and I have a serious mental block to being able to play instruments that require that your hands be doing two different things. After 15 years of doodling around on the piano, several attempts at lessons, and painstaking efforts to train myself otherwise, I still really can't do much of anything (and meanwhile, I managed to become a classically trained flutist - learned clarinet, trumpet, french horn, and the sax family!).

I think you might want to keep an open mind about what you take up, especially as an older player. You may find that neither the piano nor the guitar is suited to your style of learning.

On another note, many wind instruments (mostly brass) have newfangled contraptions that will silence your instrument and pump the sound into headphones so that you can practice at all hours without disturbing anyone. I haven't ever used those systems, but they seemed pretty interesting.
posted by greekphilosophy at 6:13 AM on October 24, 2007

One thing may impact how much you will actually practice: It's easy and natural to sit on the couch and watch TV while noodling around with the guitar, practicing scales, chord progressions, experimenting with new techniques -- especially with an electric turned down low. That's pretty much impossible with a piano.
posted by LordSludge at 9:41 AM on October 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Agreed with LordSludge - casual practice is a definite advantage of the guitar. I practice chords while watching TV. Even with a synthesizer it's hard to do that.
posted by mmoncur at 2:38 PM on October 24, 2007

"paulsc, with the exception of vibrato, the above statements are flat-out wrong. (I'm assuming that you meant to say that the guitar is a string instrument, and that by "pitch" you mean "key".) Attack, decay, duration (assuming you mean length of note) are incredibly powerful and nuanced on the piano."
posted by sfkiddo at 1:38 AM on October 24

Nope, I meant what I said above, as written, and I don't think my statements are "wrong."

Pitch doesn't mean key, it means pitch and all the complexity and richness that a fundamental and this overtone series, or that different overtone series can imply. As in, you can't conveniently "bend" a note on a piano, without reaching into the mechanism, and even then, it's not a particularly musical or broadly useful effect. You can't chose any overtone series other than those you can finger on semi-tone distanced black and white keys. And, you can't get the really extended, fuzzy note attacks a jazz saxophone or flute player can produce through soft tonguing, or that a guitarist can produce fluidly by left hand hammering with finger roll. On the piano, you can't really blast a chord's attack, and then partially and differentially mute it, killing the highs more, and faster, than you do the bass, as is common for blues guitarists. The only way you can "sustain" a note on a piano past its natural resonance decay is to try re-exciting the undamped strings harmonically, or replay it repeatedly (much as Keith Jarrett would like to just camp on a single piano note, sometimes for 5 minutes), whereas on sax (through circular breathing), or an electric guitar, you can play a note as long as takes to empty an auditorium, if you like. These things all sound very different, and they sure look a lot different on oscilloscopes and spectrum analyzers, when done on piano and then on guitar or wind instruments.

In comparison to a lot of instruments, the piano is a pretty limited thing. For its day of invention, the mechanism was as complex as anything ever devised, but its big innovation was "soft - loud." As I've written, in terms of range and ability of a single player to play lots of simultaneous notes, the piano has unique advantages for an acoustic instrument, and if you strike enough keys hard enough and fast enough on a full concert grand, it plays louder than any other single acoustic instrument. The keyboard is clearly a great way of thinking about later Western music, but while the piano only shares that interface with other instruments, the piano's hammer mechanism gave it the fluidity to exploit the potential of the keyboard, more than any other keyboard instrument, except the organ. The piano's pitch sensibilities are only those of the compromise of equal temperment, but there are 88 pitches to choose, every instant, as fast as your fingers can fly. So, I'm not so much mentioning all this to argue that this instrument or that is superior to the piano, as to say that, in my experience, over time, the piano's limitations can become as ingrained in the approach many pianist's take to their music, as can any other instrument's exclusive devotees.

More than once, I've played and demonstrated the difference between a pitch vibrato, an intensity tremelo and a trill to a pianist, who admitted not hearing much difference, although pianists generally play trills anywhere any of these techniques might be wanted, because that's all the mechanism really permits. I've seen a lot of jazz pianists hint at less than semi-tone intervals, by "slipping" adjacent half-note intervals on the "way" to melody or chord notes, but the notes aren't really "bent," the "bent" notes are only suggested. There are a lot of technique tricks to playing piano, that try to overcome the limits of the mechanism, to produce the "real" effects of other instruments, and I'm all for learning and using them, so long as the limits of the machine don't become the thought patterns of its players. While I heard the amazing Horowitz twice (in 1976 and again in 1981), I can't say I ever thought for an instant he was playing cello :-) That you think so, troubles me.

But as I say, this needn't, and probably shouldn't, be an "either/or" decision, for anyone learning music, except to the degree that time and money limit choice. I recommended the OP start with piano, simply because it can be a bit easier for a beginner to produce musical sound and get some satisfaction of making music quickly, and because, for many people, the keyboard helps them to quickly visualize chords and melodies in harmonic relationship. But learning both guitar and piano, will inform a larger musical sensibility, than learning either, alone.
posted by paulsc at 1:58 AM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

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