Keyboard Instruments: A Guide for Beginners

By Jesse Preis

What are keyboard instruments?

A keyboard instrument is a type of musical instrument that is operated through the playing of a keyboard. There are many different types of keyboard instruments, including the piano, electric piano, organ, and accordion. You are probably familiar with the piano and electric piano (electric keyboard), but have you ever thought about what makes them different? In this article, we are going to answer this question and others!

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Which instruments are classified as keyboard instruments?

Chordophones are keyboard instruments that operate by vibrating strings to create musical sound. The strings within the instrument can either be struck by hammers, like the piano, or plucked by a plectrum, like the harpsichord, or bowed, like the hurdy-gurdy.

Struck chordophones

  • Piano 
    • This is the keyboard instrument that you are probably the most familiar with There are many different types of pianos. Upright and spinet pianos are compact pianos with their strings running up and down inside the instrument. They are the kind you’ll most often see in private homes. There are also the large pianos that you’ll see in concert halls, which are called grand pianos and have their soundboard and strings lying flat inside the instrument. Since all of these instruments are mechanical, they cannot be turned on and off like an electric piano (see Electrophones below). You can read about how the piano was invented here.

A little intro to the video: Watch this video to learn more about how grand pianos work.


  • Clavichord
    • This is an instrument that predates the harpsichord and is very rare today. Its inner mechanics are very similar to a piano, but the instrument was much smaller. Clavichord players could add vibrato to pitches, which is something that can’t be done with a piano. To create vibrato, the player just had to wiggle their fingers on the key.


Plucked chordophones

  • Harpsichord 
    • This is the instrument that is most often associated with musicians such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It was the immediate predecessor to the piano. Like a banjo, the harpsichord’s strings are plucked by a plectrum. The keys on the keyboard operate the plectrum, giving the harpsichord its distinctive, harp-like sound.

Bowed chordophones

  • Hurdy-Gurdy
    • This instrument looks similar to a violin or viola, but is operated by a hand-cranked wheel that rubs against the strings. These strings are depressed by keys on a small keyboard that resembles an accordion’s keyboard, which brings them in contact with the wheel. The hurdy-gurdy is very common in different folk-music traditions, such as those of Hungary, France, Québec (French Canada), Spain, Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, and others.

  • Viola organista 
    • This fascinating keyboard instrument was designed by Leonardo da Vinci. It looks like a piano, but sounds like a bowed string instrument, like a cello or violin. Watch the video to find out how it works!

Aerophones are keyboard instruments that produce sound through the movement and vibration of air.

  • Accordion 
    • Another instrument very commonly associated with folk music, the accordion often carries the melody in traditional dance tunes from many cultures throughout Europe and the Americas. There are several different types of accordions, including the concertina, bandoneon, and concert accordion.

Electrophones are keyboard instruments that create musical sound through electronics.

  • Electric Piano
  • Another common type of piano is the electric piano or electric keyboard. While the standard piano operates hammers which strike strings, the electric piano is basically a computer that produces electronic pulses. Unlike standard acoustic pianos, the electric piano must be plugged in and turned on before it can operate.

A few other interesting electrophones include:

  • the Ondes Martenot

  • the Synthesizer

  • the Electric Organ

  • and the Mellotron

Idiophones are keyboard instruments that create sound by their own vibration, similar to how bells work. In fact, both of these following instruments sound like bells when they’re played!

  • Celeste 
    • Inside this instrument, little hammers strike pieces of metal, similar to on a glockenspiel, which makes a bell-like sound. A piece of music that is most commonly associated with the celeste would be the Christmas-y “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker.

  • Carillon
    • This instrument is really cool! It rings real church bells and you play the keyboard with your fists and feet instead of your fingers.

What is the oldest keyboard instrument?

The oldest keyboard instrument is the hydraulic organ created by the ancient Greeks, which was operated by water. The creation of this instrument is attributed to Ctesibius of Alexandria, who was a Greek scientist, mathematician, and inventor who lived in the 3rd century BCE.

Are pianos and keyboards the same?

As we’ve seen in the previous paragraphs, all pianos are keyboards but not all keyboards are pianos.

How do you learn to play keyboard instruments?

You learn to play keyboard instruments the same way you learn to play or do anything else: through practice and dedication. It’s important to find a teacher that works for you and helps you achieve your goals. If you are new to piano, would like to learn online, or are having trouble finding a local teacher, check out our blog article here.

At Hoffman Academy, we are passionate about bringing quality music education to EVERYONE who wants it. That’s why our basic plan is FREE and our Premium plan is as low as $20/month.

What is a good keyboard instrument for beginners?

Probably the best keyboard instrument for beginners would be an electric piano or standard acoustic piano (preferably an upright or spinet), because these are affordable and easy to find. They can serve as a great way to get to know keyboard instruments before specializing in less affordable or accessible instruments, such as the accordion or organ. No matter your price range, you want to be sure to find an instrument that is good quality. If you’d like to learn more about finding an appropriate instrument for you or your child, check out these articles for more information:

We hope that you enjoyed learning more about keyboard instruments. Keyboards are an extremely diverse and important group of musical instruments. From the ancient Greek hydraulic organ to modern electronic keyboards, there’s a keyboard instrument waiting out there for you! With consistent practice and proper guidance, you can master the art of playing one or more of these incredible instruments. 

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