What is Polyphony on a Digital Piano?

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What is Polyphony on a Digital Piano?

When it comes to buy a digital piano for the first time, many people are unsure where to start. With a seemingly endless selection of makes, models, and sizes to choose from, finding the best digital piano is often challenging for new players.

One of the more common terms you are likely to find when looking for a digital piano is polyphony. What is polyphony on a digital piano? It’s one of the most important components of this type of instrument, being one of the key differences between an acoustic and digital piano.

Let’s take a closer look at what polyphony is on a digital piano and why it is so important:

What Does Polyphony Mean?

To understand what polyphony is on a digital piano, we should first look at what the term means.

Polyphony literally translates to “many sounds”. So, in terms of piano playing, this is referencing how many notes can be played at one time.

Given that we only have ten fingers, it’s easy to assume that we can only produce ten different notes at one time. We can’t push any more than notes at one time – so how can there be more than ten?

Well, this is where the unique aspects of a piano come into play. Foot pedals allow us to produce elongated notes, with the sound continuing after the keys are released.

So, when playing an acoustic piano, if we press each key once while holding the sustain pedal, we can produce 88 unique sounds. Each sound is dynamic, being produced directly by the instrument, rather than recorded, which is the case for digital pianos.

This means that an acoustic piano as potentially unlimited polyphony, while a digital piano does not.

What Does Polyphony Mean?

What Sounds Counts Towards Polyphony on a Digital Piano?

Digital pianos have all kinds of recorded sounds. Both the notes and recorded voices (e.g., other instrument sounds) played at one time count towards your polyphony notes.

For instance, if you played five notes on both piano and guitar, then you’re playing ten notes at once. Add in drums and it reaches 15 notes. Keep adding newer sounds and the higher the polyphony note count becomes.

So, what happens if you exceed the polyphony while playing? Maybe you want to add guitar, bass, piano, and drums voices to recreate a live band sound?

Well, you’re going to get cut off at whatever the polyphony number is! The piano simply stops certain notes to allow other notes to be played.

Sometimes you can notice this, while other times its too subtle to see an obvious change.

There are all kinds of sounds that can count towards the polyphony on a digital piano, including drum tracks and metronomes.

Polyphony can quickly add up – even more so if two players are playing together – so hitting the limit is surprisingly easy!  

The Importance of Polyphony on a Digital Piano

The Importance of Polyphony on a Digital Piano

Polyphony is important for any digital piano player, whether you’re just learning or playing live with a band. The higher the polyphony, the more sounds you can play at once, expanding the type of music that can be played at any time.

Therefore, buying a digital piano with a lower polyphony can quickly become frustrating, as it limits what you can play. You may find various sounds get cut off before you wanted them to, producing a different sound to the one you intended.

Polyphony becomes especially important for digital piano player performing classic music. As mentioned above, an acoustic piano as a virtually limitless polyphony thanks to the dynamic sound and sustain pedal.

So, buying a digital piano with high polyphony is highly recommended for any live performer. It provides the most expansive range of sounds you can play at once, especially when it comes to combining various voices from the piano.

Having practiced all kinds of music on a digital piano with a low polyphony, trust me when I say the more you have the better! 48 note polyphony may sound more than enough for a beginner, but it can quickly show its limitations when you start developing a larger repertoire of music.

Yes, lower polyphony may be fine initially, but if you plan on improving over time (like any pianist should) then you’re better investing in high polyphony now. Trust me, you’ll want to have more sounds available the more you play!

What is the Best Polyphony for a Digital Piano?

Simply put, the higher the polyphony the better the digital piano.

Of course, not everyone can afford a digital piano with a high polyphony note count. Those in the higher range are expensive, so it helps to buy the highest polyphony within your current budget.

We recommend that you try to get a minimum of 128 note polyphony for a digital piano. If you can go higher than this it’s well worth it, as you’ll be able to play a wider variety of more complex music. Which is what we all want to learn to do!

Don’t worry if you can only afford a 48-note polyphony digital piano. Yes, it is limited but it’s a good place to start, especially for newer players. However, if you are serious about learning piano, you will eventually need to get a higher polyphony to play a wide range of music.