So, you’re looking into buying a digital piano but want to make sure you know your stuff before committing to a particular model? You’ve come to the right place!
There are so many different makes and models to choose from on the market that it can be confusing to narrow down the search. There are a lot of questions you’ll need to ask yourself to ensure you’re getting an instrument that gives you the experience you’re looking for.
One of the questions you might be asking yourself in your quest for the perfect digital piano could be “how much polyphony will I be likely to need?” Or, perhaps you’re not quite there yet and the question is more like “what is polyphony?” full stop.
Either way, you’ll find the answers here!
Firstly, What is Polyphony?
Poly (Many) + Phony (Sound) = Polyphony (Many Sounds)
Polyphony refers to musical texture and is basically a term used to describe the layering of notes playable at one time.
Music can be as simple or as complex as we like and there are so many different songs out there to play. The simplest of songs can be referred to as a monophony, which in layman’s terms means that it consists of a melody created by a single instrument or voice.
Melody is the part of a musical composition that we also call the “tune”. Many traditional folk songs and well-known childhood tunes are monophonic (Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, anyone?).
More complex music is often polyphonic. Polyphony, when speaking about digital pianos, means the maximum number of notes that can be played by the digital piano at one time.
Polyphony and Acoustic Pianos
In order to understand polyphony in digital pianos which, in some ways are more complicated machines than acoustic pianos, it might help to start with the acoustic basics.
Acoustic pianos have 88 keys as standard. This means they can play 88 different notes in total.
The average person has ten fingers, so the natural conclusion in terms of polyphony is that of those 88 notes, you would be able to play 10 different notes at once, maximum. This is not the case, however – the real polyphony of an acoustic piano is so much higher.
How is that possible? How can you play more than ten notes at once when you can only press down ten keys at a time?
With acoustic pianos, the use of pedals greatly increases the potential for more notes to be played simultaneously or layered on top of each other. Putting the sustain pedal down while you’re playing stops the notes from being cut off as soon as you release the keys, which results in each note playing for longer.
As these notes are being elongated by the sustain pedal, you can continue playing more notes on top of them, thus increasing the polyphony.
The amazing truth is that acoustic pianos essentially have unlimited polyphony. Polyphony is buildable.
Digital Piano Polyphony
Now that we’ve seen how acoustic pianos and polyphony correlate, we can move onto the main course: digital piano polyphony.
Because digital pianos do not play sound dynamically through the instrument as an acoustic piano does, the potential for high polyphony is not as limitless.
Most digital pianos nowadays have a polyphony of at least 128, which means that they can play 128 simultaneous notes. There are some models that will have polyphony of as little as 48, and some higher-end digital pianos can go up to 256.
While these numbers may seem like child’s play when compared to the theoretically limitless polyphony of an acoustic piano, 256 or even 128, are still impressive capacities. For the average person, it’s quite difficult to imagine 128 different sounds playing at once and what that might sound like.
Because the sounds played by a digital piano are not organically created but rather pre-recorded and stored on the digital piano’s internal memory, any notes played after the piano’s polyphonic limit will be cut off.
Or rather, as you continue adding notes, some will eventually be cut off to make space for new ones to be played. If your digital piano has a polyphony of 64, you won’t be able to play more than 64 notes simultaneously without losing some first.
The Addition of Different Instruments and the Effect on Polyphony
Depending on the model, many digital pianos have options for adding different instrumental “voices” to your playing. The most common of these tend to be things like the electric piano, harpsichord, or pipe organ, although there is a vast range of possibilities.
If you’re playing the digital piano with only its own voice and you play 5 notes, then the current polyphony will be 5. If you were to play the same 5 notes with both the piano and harpsichord voices, the polyphony would be increased to 10 and so on.
This can compound even further with the addition of the sustain pedal, if your digital piano has one. The pedal will elongate the sounds as we explored earlier and will allow you to add more notes to the mix.
If you start adding too many voices however, or if you play more notes than your digital piano’s polyphonic limit, then some sounds will begin to be lost to other, newer sounds.
Generally speaking, percussive voices such as the piano itself (yes, pianos are percussive due to the hammers hitting the strings) and drums will be the ones to get cut first.
Even if you do not exceed your digital pianos polyphony, percussive sounds eventually taper off naturally so even when using a sustain pedal, they cannot go on forever. You’ll reach a point where percussive sounds are reduced to just an echo and are then washed out by newer, stronger sounds anyway.
Other Factors that Can Affect Polyphony
Apart from just additional instrumental voices, there are several other things to take into account when considering polyphony:
- A metronome is a device which is set to a particular beat and then makes an audible tick or click sound on said beat.
- Metronomes are commonly used to help beginner pianists practice playing to a beat and are also often used to guide duets.
- If there are two pairs of hands playing the same piano, 10 fingers become 20 which will mean more notes being played more quickly and therefore your polyphonic limit being reached sooner.
- Many digital pianos allow players to introduce a drum track to the background of their playing.
- This track will become in essence, another voice which will add to the piano’s polyphony, meaning you’ll be able to play fewer simultaneous notes before they begin to be cut off.
Why Does Polyphony Matter?
The answer to this question will depend entirely on your skill level and intentions.
For beginners, it’s probably absolutely fine to opt for a cheaper digital piano that will host a lower polyphony – a polyphony of 64 might enable you to play everything you need.
If you’re more advanced and if you like to play more complicated pieces of music, then definitely go for something much higher. Polyphony of 128+ is easy to find and will give you a lot more scope for what you can play.
The main thing you need to consider is “if I play a song on this digital piano, am I likely to begin losing notes very quickly?”
This can be a very frustrating experience, especially for more advanced pianists so some careful research might be necessary before you commit to buying. It is also easier to reach the polyphonic limit when playing classical music as there are frequently several things going on at once, so factor that into your equation if classical music is your goal.
By now, you’ll hopefully have a better idea of what polyphony is and how it comes into play. When comparing digital pianos to acoustic, it might seem like what a digital piano offers is inferior, but when you take polyphony into account realistically, there’s a very high chance that a digital piano will have what you need.
There’s no one right answer when choosing a digital piano. The best you can do is consider your skills and goals and see what will make the most sense.
You now know why polyphony is important, so head into your search for a digital piano with confidence!