Semi Weighted vs Weighted Keys – What Should You Choose?

Author: Brian Campbell | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

If you’ve spent any time around professional keyboardists, you know that comparing semi-weighted and weighted keys is a notoriously controversial topic. Traditional piano teachers swear by weighted keys, while countless hobbyists play semi-weighted keyboards at home.

As a classically trained pianist, I was no stranger to the raging debate. Until high school, the only music I played was Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin. Since they wrote for acoustic pianos, I considered any non-weighted keyboard a disgrace. They just didn’t feel right.

Thankfully, I grew out of my close-minded phase. I discovered Stevie Wonder’s funk, Thom Yorke’s electric wizardry, and Deep Purple’s organ-driven rock. Turns out, they all played semi-weighted keyboards and are still legendary musicians.

Weighted keyboards still deserve respect, but the debate isn’t that simple. Sometimes semi-weighted keys really are better.

When it comes down to it, different keyboards can function as different instruments entirely, and different instruments are played, well… differently. Key weights directly reflect this.

In this article we will look at the benefits of both types, giving practical advice for which one works best for you.


What Do We Mean by “Weighted Keys”?

“Weighted keys” means exactly that; when you press a key, you feel a literal heaviness in the key that pushes back at you.

Acoustic pianos are naturally weighted because they use hammers and levers to produce sound. Pianists refer to this heaviness as a piano’s “action.” Despite the initial challenges caused by this weight, it still has many benefits.

However, when manufacturers started making electric keyboards, no actual weight was needed. As a result, the first synthesizers and organs weren’t weighted at all. They added springs under the keys so they would pop back up, but that was all.

As the electronic keyboard market grew, acoustic pianists wanted ones that reflected the action of acoustic pianos. Semi-weighted keys were the result. They had springs too but also had extra weights put in each key.

Weighted Keys

Weighted keyboards are the first choice for most professional pianists, and for good reason. Weighted keys reflect the tone and expressiveness of acoustic pianos better than any others.

Although the possibilities of today’s electronic instruments are unprecedented, you simply cannot replace the expressiveness of an acoustic piano’s action.

For example, my piano professor in college said acoustics can create seven “shades” of dynamics under the fingers of a gifted player. An unweighted or semi-weighted keyboard simply isn’t as nuanced.

Weighted keys are the best choice for anyone seriously studying piano. Not only do they encourage nuanced playing, but they force you to learn proper technique. This is crucial for classical music and jazz.

Unfortunately, the downside to weighted keyboards is their price. Since they literally require more materials to build, they are bulkier and more expensive.

Still, if you are serious about your piano chops and can afford one, a weighted keyboard should be in your studio.

Yamaha’s P-45 model is a classic, full-88 weighted keyboard that is perfect for beginners. It is a simple, lightweight keyboard with minimal presets and fluff.

The Casio CDPS160 is another excellent option at a similar price, including several presets like organ, strings, and harpsichord. Both provide USB/MIDI connectivity, meaning you can use them with sounds in a DAW.

Hammered Keys

If you see the terms “hammered keys,” they’re still considered weighted keys. As previously mentioned, weighted keys are a mix of springs and extra density.

Hammered keys, on the other hand, actually use the lever mechanism of a real acoustic piano. They include everything except for the actual strings and hammers, which are replaced with electronic sensors.

Their intention is to feel more authentic than weighted keys. Some are even “graded,” meaning the lever is longer and heavier for low notes and short and lighter for high notes. This also reflects the acoustic experience.

You can certainly buy a keyboard with hammered keys if you want an acoustic experience, but it isn’t necessary. However, if you were trained on acoustics your whole life, they are worth considering. I got one from a friend for free and have used it ever since!

Semi-weighted Keys

Now we talk about the black sheep of keyboards: the semi-weighted keys. Classical purists and academics don’t like them because they won’t prepare you for the sensitivity or nuanced playing of an acoustic piano. Lighter keys can also mean sloppier playing.

And they’re not wrong.

But those reasons don’t have to be bad things. Everything boils down to experience and purpose, and sometimes semi-weighted keyboards are your better choice. They are tailored for specific styles of music and playing, often for instruments that are approached differently from piano.

Remember, just because they have a keyboard doesn’t mean they’re approached like a piano.

Hammond organs are a perfect example. Organists use techniques like glissandos and palm smears, which are easier to play with semi-weighted keys. The same goes for synthesizers, like the Minimoog in Pink Floyd’s albums and the Prophet 5 in Radiohead’s Kid A.

Some music calls for solos, improvisation, and sounds that are produced better with the feel of semi-weighted keys.

Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic, for example, played extensive lines with one hand while manipulating tone wheels and knobs with the other. He focused on the sounds more than the notes, and semi-weighted keys made improvisation easier to manage.

With all that said, if you’re looking to play keys for very specific reasons, semi-weighted keys can work just fine. Perhaps you’re just playing fat basslines, or multiple synth leads on various keyboards.

Basically, if you use it as a means to create sounds rather than seeing yourself as a “technical keyboardist,” then semi-weighted keyboards are perfect for you.

If this describes you, you might want to research “MIDI controllers” alongside normal keyboards. MIDI controllers can be small and inefficient for live performance, but they can also be full-sized and playable.

The Keystation 88 MK3 is a MIDI controller that communicates with a DAW while still behaving like a “real” keyboard. If you are looking for a relatively cheap and minimalist keyboard, you can’t go wrong with the MK3. It is full-length with tone and modulation wheels.

If you want something with more hands-on manipulation, the Nektar Impact LX88+ includes pads and ADSR manipulation.

The Akai Professional MPK249 is another excellent choice. Although it is shorter with a 49-key range, it includes many of the same functions as the iconic MPC drum machine used in 90s hip-hop!


Ultimately, your choice between weighted and semi-weighted keyboards comes down to two considerations.

First, how serious are you about learning piano and its techniques? If you are even remotely serious, weighted keys should be considered.

However, think about your previous experience and your future intentions. Do you want to play piano licks like Billy Joel and Ray Charles? If so, get a weighted one.

However, if you want to shred like Deep Purple or explore new soundscapes like Herbie Hancock, a semi-weighted keyboard has its benefits.

In my humble opinion, keyboard instruments are some of the unsung heroes of popular music. We all know and love the sounds of acoustic pianos, but there are many others waiting to be rediscovered.

I hope this article gave you practical advice on key weights, but hopefully along the way it gave you new inspiration and ideas as well. Until next time — happy music-making!

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About Brian Campbell

Brian has been playing piano since elementary school and started learning guitar in 7th grade. He teaches K-8 students in Columbus, Ohio, and writes lessons covering a broad spectrum of genres. As a child, he moved back and forth between Colorado and West Africa. He credits those experiences with opening his eyes to the cultural and artistic diversity he appreciates today. Several of his favorite musicians include J.S. Bach, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Radiohead. When not doing music and teaching, you can find Brian reading, hiking, traveling, or making just one more shot of espresso.

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