What is digital piano polyphony?

polyphony
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When you decide that you want to purchase a digital piano and start looking for one, you will soon be overwhelmed by the number of digital pianos available in the market these days and do not know what to look for.

You can read this article that lists main features in digital pianos to see which features you cannot compromise or which can be overlooked to narrow down the models that suit your needs. 

What you need in your digital piano varies depending on what level you are in terms of learning stages of piano-playing as well as what your plans are for the future. What someone who is a complete beginner in any keyboard instrument wants is totally different from someone who has some experience and wants to have a digital piano for practice at home without disturbing neighborhood, or already a pianist looking for a digital one so that he/she can practice in a hotel room during traveling. 

This article explains a terminology you encounter in the specifications of digital pianos: polyphony. It can be one of the features to examine the level of digital pianos.

Polyphony

This number represents the number of notes played at the same time. If you think about an acoustic piano, you have two hands of the total of 10 fingers; thus, the maximum number of notes you can play with both hands is 10, obviously. However, with the use of pedals, you can make a lot more sounds. When you use a sustain pedal, the note you played sounds for a long time even after you release the key, which means a lot more number of notes are sounded at the same time.

Human ears are very complicated organ and we can hear multiple sounds at the same time. Acoustic pianos, whose sound is produced mechanically, can produce as many sounds as we make, but in the digital world, technology must be there to enable multiple sounds to be heard from speakers. 

As technology advances, digital pianos nowadays have capability to sound different notes because it is basically like a computer and have a memory in it, from which stored sounds for corresponding keys and instruments are pulled out to sound.

 What can impact the number of notes to sound simultaneously?

  • 1
    Layering: If you layer different instruments, you need more notes to be sound at the same time. Think about string instruments and drums. You can quickly add many more sounds when you play.
  • 2
    Pedal use: As mentioned above, when you use a sustain pedal, the sound played while the pedal being held will stay until the pedal is released. 
  • 3
    Stereo sound: It usually takes 2 notes to have stereo effect.
  • 4
    Piano sound: Sometimes, depending on how piano sound is sampled, one note can take up two voices, for example. One note may have multiple voices because of pedals mentioned above and how the sound decays, meaning how the sound disappears after you release the key. In acoustic pianos, after the hammer strikes the string and released, the sound naturally fades out. Digital pianos imitate the process, and the closer the sounds are to those of an acoustic piano, the more complicated it is to make the sound, which requires higher polyphony. The same applies to other instrument sounds.
  • 5
    Recording: Most digital pianos allow you to record what you played. You can play along with what you played. Not only for replaying, but during recording, the piano needs enough polyphony to record what you are playing. This application requires more polyphony.
  • 6
    Split function: Most digital pianos have a feature to have the keyboard split in half and two players can use the keyboard.
  • 7
    Effects: Digital pianos have a lot of effects available such as reverb and chorus, which requires more polyphony.

As you can see, polyphony can easily add up even if you don't intend on playing complicated pieces. 32 would be probably the lowest you will see in keyboards and for digital pianos, 64 would be the lowest that you would want to consider. Even if you don't plan on using your digital piano for music pieces that require higher polyphony, it is advised not to go below 64 and if all possible, it is better to have 128 or higher, considering all the features available on the digital piano such as different voices, effects, and layering/split function.

What happens if the maximum polyphony is reached?

When the maximum polyphony is reached, simply notes, usually the notes played first, are starting to be dropped. Imagine a toy piano for toddlers. When you press multiple keys, you can't hear everything at the same time. Similarly, when the maximum capacity is reached while playing a complex piece with a sustain pedal and accompaniment, all the notes will not be heard. 

Conclusion

There is no absolute number of polyphony that a digital piano must have for you to play as it depends on how you want to use the piano. Generally, it is advised not to go lower than 64 if you are serious about playing the piano, however, technology is advancing and having a lower polyphony does not necessarily mean lower quality or poor sounding because how the memory is used or stored sounds of various instruments use polyphony capacity may be different in each manufacturer. 

The following models have over 128 polyphony with high quality sounds and various features that are enough for beginners to enjoy for several years.

Yamaha ydp-143 arius

casio privia-160

 

This Kawai KDP-90 model has impressive 192 polyphony. A beginner piano player probably may not need such high number polyphony, however, it may be a good idea to invest on a high quality digital piano if you are planning on playing for a long time.

kawai kdp-90

There are various models available these days for any budget. Determine what's the features that you definitely need and budget first and then look for different models that meet your needs.

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