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Semi-Weighted vs. Weighted Keys – Which Key Action is Right for You?

05/04/2024

A digital piano’s key action can drastically change your playing experience, enabling you to play quickly and seamlessly with an experience that’s similar to that of an acoustic. But how do you know which is right for you? The key action that’s best for your playing style depends on the type of resistance and response you want from your keys. The one you choose should feel the most comfortable and let you perform freely.

In this article, we’ll explore semi-weighted vs. weighted keys, discussing their differences and what they can offer. We’ll also look at non-weighted keys to give you a comprehensive comparative guide. 

Comparison chart

FeatureWeighted keysSemi-weighted keysNon-weighted keys
ResistanceHeavy resistanceModerate resistanceNo resistance
Dynamic responseSensitive and responsive to your playingResponds to your playingNo dynamic response
Suitable forClassical pianistsNumerous genres and playing abilitiesSynths and keyboards
PortabilityHarder to transport than non-weighted and semi-weighted digital pianosGenerally quite portableExtremely portable
Similarity to pianosExtremely similar to pianosHas traits of piano keys but not the full experienceUnlike pianos

What is key action? 

Key action is all about how the keys on a piano respond when you press them. It’s the feeling of resistance or the way they bounce back under your fingers. This aspect is crucial because it directly influences how enjoyable and expressive your playing experience can be, and how easy it is for your piano to display dynamics. 

When considering key action, you’re essentially looking at how closely a digital or electronic keyboard mimics the feel of an acoustic piano.

Some keyboards offer weighted keys, designed to replicate the resistance of traditional piano keys to give you a realistic playing experience. This is a desirable feature for those practising for performances on an acoustic piano as it ensures a smoother transition between the two instruments. 

An authentic-feeling piano is also important for beginners as it promotes correct technique. Many teachers recommend a digital piano with weighted or semi-weighted keys over something non-weighted as this will help you learn how to play dynamics, how to press the notes with intensity or subtlety, and how to add expression.

Semi-weighted vs. weighted keys 

What are semi-weighted keys?

Expressive E OSMOSE Expressive SynthesizerSemi-weighted keys are a type of key action found in many keyboards and digital pianos. They incorporate a spring-loaded mechanism similar to that of non-weighted keys but add a bit of resistance that feels like an acoustic piano. 

Ideal for genres requiring swift key movements, semi-weighted keys allow for rapid playing without sacrificing all of the tactile feedback that will help you with dynamic expression. They’re particularly well-suited to organ and synth sounds, where a lighter touch can facilitate faster passages and repetitive motifs.

The slightly heavier touch compared to non-weighted keys also means that you might find it easier to transition to an acoustic piano.

Choosing semi-weighted keys can be a good idea if you’re looking for versatility in your playing – whether that’s intricate synth lines, organ runs, or composing a piece of music with the array of sounds on offer.

They don’t offer a complete recreation of an acoustic key action like fully weighted keys do, but they help build correct technique and allow you to comfortably play fast sequences. 

Digital pianos such as the Nord Stage 4 Compact Digital Piano feature semi-weighted keys with a triple sensor keybed for extra responsivity. The Alesis Concert 88, on the other hand, includes velocity sensitivity for altering the response of your playing.

For high-resolution sensors, the Expressive E OSMOSE Expressive Synthesiser is great. It’s designed to provide an extremely accurate response without using fully weighted keys.


Pros and cons of semi-weighted keys 

ProsCons
Great for swift movementsThe keys don't offer as much control over your expression and dynamics as fully weighted keys
Easy to transfer skills to acoustic piano
Great if you are looking for versatility


What are weighted keys?

G4M HDP-1 Upright Digital Piano, Maple & WhiteWhile semi-weighted keys are designed for rapid playing, fully weighted keys are designed to closely mimic the tactile response and resistance of an acoustic piano. They do this by employing a mechanical system of levers.

This key action is designed to give you tactile feedback, making it feel like you’re playing a traditional piano, which is great for developing proper technique and dynamics. 

Within weighted key action, we have a few different variations, including standard weighted keys which use a heavy key weight and counterweights to give you a precise response in the way the key sinks and rises.

Other variations include hammer action and graded hammer action. Hammer action keys use actual hammers or hammer-like mechanisms to recreate the feel of an acoustic piano more authentically. This design allows for a more realistic playing experience, especially for those accustomed to or aspiring to play acoustic pianos. 

Graded hammer action takes this a step further by varying the weight of the keys across the keyboard. The keys feel heavier in the bass register and lighter in the treble – meaning you can play deeper passages with more intensity and higher parts with more softness. This graded weight system enhances the playing experience, offering a nuanced approach.

Weighted keys can significantly impact your playing. This key action offers a level of tactile feedback and resistance that aids the development of finger strength and control, meaning you’ll pick up correct technique straight way that’s easily transferrable to an acoustic piano. Digital pianos like the G4M HDP-1 Upright Digital Piano feature fully weighted keys with tri-sensor action.

Kawai take the key action one step further with their Responsive Hammer Compact (RHC) keyboard action, as featured on the Kawai KDP75. This has a springless mechanism keybed for consistent movement, and a cushioning material minimises mechanical noise from the keyboard, exactly as you would expect from an acoustic piano. The keys are also graded. 


Pros and cons of weighted keys 

ProsCons
Realistic playing feel - just like that of an acousticThe heavier resistance might take some time to get used to, meaning it's not as beginner-friendly. However, it does build correct technique
Good for enhancing technique and playing strength
Allows for controlled dynamics in your playing

Non-weighted keys 

VISIONKEY-200 Digital Piano, with Bluetooth & 3-Pedal StandNon-weighted keys are often found on synthesizers and beginner pianos, making them a common choice for those just starting their musical journey. These keys are lighter to the touch than their weighted counterparts, making the instrument lightweight and portable – great for taking to and from lessons.

This design choice caters especially to new musicians. As the keys don’t require much force to be pressed, they allow you to get to grips with the basics like learning beginner pieces or practising playing both hands together.

This can be particularly beneficial for younger players or those still developing finger strength and dexterity. 

Non-weighted keys are also prevalent in synthesizers and workstations like the Yamaha Genos2 Digital Workstation Keyboard.

Choosing a keyboard with non-weighted keys can be a practical decision. It enables you to learn the fundamentals without the added complexity of weighted key resistance. Ultimately, it’s about finding what best suits your playing style and learning curve.

Digital pianos with non-weighted keys include the Roland GoPiano 88 Key Digital Piano, which offers smooth transitions between notes making it great for new players. Likewise, the VISIONKEY-200 Digital Piano offers velocity-sensitive keys meaning that you can change your playing depending on the pressure that you apply to the keys. 

How to choose the right key action for you 

The key action of your digital piano can significantly affect your playing style and the music you produce. If you’re planning to use your piano for a long time, you’ll want a comfortable key action that can keep up with everything you want to play.

Start by considering your style of music. For instance, electronic music or synth-heavy compositions are best played on semi-weighted or non-weighted keys. These offer a lighter touch and can make complex sequences easier to manage. 

On the other hand, if you’re drawn towards classical piano or aim to emulate an acoustic piano’s feel, weighted keys are your best bet. They provide a resistance that closely mimics the hammer mechanism of an acoustic piano, essential for developing proper technique and finger strength. 

Budget is also crucial. Weighted keyboards often come with a higher price tag due to their complex mechanisms. However, investing in one might be worthwhile if your playing style requires it. 

Does your music need to respond to dynamics? This is likely the case if you’re playing classical music. Consider weighted keys in this instance as they allow for nuanced expression based on how softly or forcefully you play.

Lastly, portability might influence your decision. If you’re often on the move, a lighter, non-weighted keyboard could be more practical. 

A pianist playing a white digital piano by Gear4music

FAQs  

Are semi-weighted keys better?

Semi-weighted keys are better than non-weighted keys for players wanting to learn the correct playing technique and be able to transfer their skills easily to an acoustic piano. They’re also great for practising quick passages of notes. However, if you want a lightweight keyboard, i.e., a beginner keyboard, or a synth, non-weighted keys should suffice.  


Can you learn piano on semi-weighted keys?

You can learn piano on semi-weighted keys. This key action is often recommended for beginners as the keys are similar to an acoustic piano but aren’t as heavy, making them easy to get to grips with whilst building good playing form and technique. 


Is it better to learn on weighted keys?

Weighted keys are better for players looking for more resistance in their playing as this builds up finger strength and technique. Generally, intermediate and professional players favour weighted keys. So if you’re serious about learning classical piano, you might want to opt for a piano with weighted keys that can accommodate you as you progress.

Final thoughts 

When looking at semi-weighted vs. weighted keys, it’s important to consider your playing style and what would work best for you. What might be right for a synth player might not necessarily fit a classical player; likewise, the key action for a beginner might be different to a professional’s. 

Some brands have innovated their own key actions within the confines of the main three we have spoken about – so be aware of these when you’re looking at digital pianos!

If you want a piano for playing notes in quick succession whilst still retaining control over your dynamic expression, semi-weighted key actions are a good go-to. On the other hand, if you want to experience the resistance you’d feel with an acoustic piano, and build up your finger strength, opt for weighted keys. 

Non-weighted keyboards are incredibly easy to play but don’t offer the same dynamic and expressive response as their weighted counterparts, making them great for beginner instruments and synths. 

Digital Marketing Apprentice

Laura is a Content Writer with 15 years of drumming experience. Laura's musical tastes range from Led Zeppelin to Phoebe Bridgers.

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