Piano on PC – how can you turn your computer into a useful tool for learning how to play the piano, and even practice playing the notes of a piano?
When you first take an interest in the piano or learning how to play the piano then you might not want to invest in a piano, or you might already have a small keyboard or MIDI keyboard and want to access better piano sounds.
Luckily, your piano can be turned into an incredible simulator and you can start to learn a lot more about how to play piano and how the notes and chords work, not just by observing, but in an interactive way.
As software has improved and more and more software options have become available, people are starting to embrace the power that computers have for music, even more than they did five or ten years ago. Some PCs have the ability to generate piano tones that could fool you into thinking you are in the room with a genuine Steinway. In this guide, we’re looking at piano on PC and the best ways to use your computer, whether you just want to generate a simple tone for learning or are looking for the best tone possible for producing music.
Windows vs Mac
Do you need a certain type of computer for learning or playing the piano? Luckily, the answer is “no”. You can use whichever computer you see fit, and this means that you don’t need to worry about having the latest or most expensive equipment, either.
There are some differences when using PC vs using Mac though. For example, certain VSTi’s (virtual instruments) will not work with one operating system when they will work for another. Mac tends to be a little more restrictive if you are getting free or smaller release virtual instruments, but if you are getting the very best music software out there it will probably work with either Windows or Mac.
Macs have the benefit of including music software, Garageband. This is a good starting point for people who want to learn how to produce music, but it also has a “piano roll” in it, so you can control the notes of the piano as if you were playing it, by clicking on the note you wish to trigger. More on this below.
Should I Use a MIDI Keyboard?
One of the best ways to get the most out of playing piano on PC, is to make use of a MIDI keyboard, sometimes called a MIDI controller. These are keyboards that, on their own, do not generate any sound, but when you connect them to a computer and a virtual instrument or DAW, they have the capacity to control the notes on pretty much any instrument, including VSTi piano instruments.
Because MIDI keyboards do not have inbuilt speakers or a sound engine to generate the tones required, they are much more affordable than digital pianos or other forms of keyboard, making them a budget-friendly pick. They’re also extremely flexible and you can often control the exact aspects of a virtual instrument, with controllers for the sound envelopes that the more tech-minded musicians can set.
In truth, when learning piano on PC without a keyboard or a MIDI keyboard there will definitely be some limitations. Though you can learn the names of the notes, the relationship they have with one another and more, a MIDI keyboard means that you can get used to playing with two hands, and that you learn the feel of a keyboard in front of you rather than just your laptop or PC.
If you just want to learn the basics of piano on PC then a MIDI keyboard might not be needed to start with. However, when you get to the point where you want to feel like you can perform or compose then you might find just using the computer a bit restrictive. A MIDI keyboard can be a good solution.
Top Tip: If you are on a budget and want to get a MIDI keyboard, you will find that some of the standard keyboards are cheaper, especially from affordable brands, but still have the MIDI-USB connection so you can plug them straight into your laptop and get started!
Music Software (and Piano Rolls)
If you are going to learn how to play piano on PC then you might want to get access to some music software.
We’ve briefly mentioned already that you can use Garageband if you are a Mac user, and this is even included with phones and iPads. However, you might want something more advanced, and users of a Windows PC might not have anything inbuilt that can allow them to use their PC for generating a piano tone.
You can use a DAW (digital audio workstation). These are usually quite advanced pieces of software, designed for people who need to track, edit and layer pieces of music. Modern music production all takes place in some sort of DAW.
Those who are really serious about their music hobby might go on to buy something like Logic (an industry-standard piece of software for making music, which is available on Mac). Other options include ProTools (doesn’t have to be used on Mac), Cubase and some cheaper alternatives including Reaper. These all act as the central hub for your music production, and they also all include a piano roll. So, what is a piano roll?
A piano roll is basically the notes of a piano laid out in front of you, usually along the left of a window within the software. You can use this to program notes in by using a grid, or you can press the individual notes on the piano roll to see what sound is generated.
Even in a DAW, you still need to assign the piano roll to something. Without doing this, the notes can be hit, but they aren’t actually triggering any sound.
This can be an opportunity to have some fun. Most DAWs will have a virtual piano built-in. It is the most mainstream instrument they can build in easily, of course. However, the notes are the same if you want to play a synthesizer or some other instrument, so you can play around with unlimited sounds. This is one of the advantages of piano on PC, the sounds you can generate are unlimited.
As well as all the inbuilt sounds, you can “plugin” more sounds and effects. All DAWs are compatible with plugins which are sound modules such as reverbs, compressors and even other piano sounds and synthesizers. Once you delve down the rabbit hole, you can find that you can do almost anything with piano on PC. If you want to make it sound like a singing monk, you can do so with the “Delay Lama”.
If you don’t want to go for a specific DAW, you can get standalone virtual instruments that can create the sound of a piano.
This guide to the best 25 piano VSTs has options that will need to be used as a plugin but also plenty of options that you can just use on their own. Plug in a MIDI keyboard or use the piano roll included and you are ready to go.
A quick note on recording. You can record directly as a MIDI format within a DAW. This allows you to share what you are doing, for example, with a piano teacher who can critique your playing and help you to learn.
If you fancy yourself as a singer-songwriter, having a setup like this, with a DAW and MIDI keyboard is a great way to learn how to track your own songs and start to play like a true professional, with songs you can share with others. It can be the first step towards becoming a music production maestro, too.
How Good Can Your PC Piano Sound?
This is one of those “how long is a piece of string?” sort of questions. Obviously, all of the piano on PC options have their own pros and cons, and some will sound better than others. In music, there is often an element of getting what you pay for. You can’t expect a free piano plugin to sound like you are playing a genuine concert Steinway.
That said, there is no reason why a piano VSTi can’t sound impressive. The very best ones use samples from real pianos, and layer this in a way that creates a high-quality sound engine. In some scenarios, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a real acoustic piano being played.
As technology has improved over the years, PC pianos have started to sound far better. They can do a better job of mimicking the way that piano acoustics work.
Even the free piano plugins out there can do a fantastic job. Check out the video below to hear demonstrations of some free plugins doing an amazing job of replicating the sound of piano on PC.
Of course, there is one limiting factor that you need to consider when you are playing piano on a computer and that is your sound output. You can have the best virtual instrument sounds in the world, but if you are playing them through cheap and tinny speakers then the sound is going to be horrible. This is part of the package, and though you might not mind cheaper speakers while you are learning, if you are looking for the very best PC VST sound then you might want to ensure you have some decent studio monitors to hear what is happening.
Piano in Your Browser
Yes, technology has really come this far.
Most internet browsers have the capacity to recognize and use MIDI to create sound, so, if you want to, you can play the notes of a piano right there within your browser. You can even plug in a MIDI keyboard and use it right there in your browser.
For MIDI control within your browser to work you need to be on a website that is designed specifically to let you play piano on PC without having to download software. Pianu does exactly this. Our whole academy allows you to work with MIDI keyboards, or to use your normal computer keyboard to control the whole of the piano within your browser.
This is the sort of technology we didn’t have 10 years ago but that people can definitely take advantage of now.
This is specifically an addition for playing piano on PC within a browser as it does not work as easily on iPads or other tablet browsers, for those, you should look to get an application that will allow you to practice the piano.
What if I don’t use a MIDI keyboard in browser?
It is nice to be able to plug in a MIDI keyboard and control the piano in your browser, however, it is not the only way to do things.
Both in browsers and in some software such as Reaper, you can take advantage of a “virtual MIDI keyboard” and use the notes on your computer keyboard to act like they are a MIDI keyboard, for example, hitting a “K” might trigger a certain note on the piano roll.
Learning is very visual for a lot of people, and when you are learning within the browser, even without a MIDI keyboard to help, you can see the keyboard notes laid out in front of you. Pay attention to what is on the screen when learning, and when the time comes to switch to a digital piano, acoustic piano or a keyboard, you will be ready to do so.
Using piano on PC, it is easy to get sucked into the habit of learning the controls of the computer keyboard, or your mouse. This then makes it tough to transition over to keyboard or piano.
How Piano on PC is Better for Learning to Play
So far in this article, we have focused largely on how the piano will sound when played on the PC. We’ve not focussed on one of the key benefits of piano on PC. It allows for far more interactivity.
Look at it this way – when you buy a digital piano or keyboard with learning modes inbuilt, there is a restriction on the software loaded onto the keyboard. Some have lighted keys or other clever learning systems, and this can be a very good thing, but eventually, you will run out of new songs to play or new learning programs.
Using software like the Pianu academy means that you can interact. The browser can detect when you have played a note correctly, and only let you proceed when you have got it right. Also, unlike with a limited digital piano or keyboard learning mode, new songs and lessons can always be uploaded and you can play them right there in your browser. If a new song comes out and you really want to learn how to play it, you can learn simply and easily with this mode of playing. Combine your browser with a MIDI keyboard and you will soak up loads of knowledge.
This interactive approach to learning how to play the piano wasn’t possible even a few years ago, and now that it is, you can take full advantage and learn to play your favorite songs without having to worry about whether you are getting it wrong or not.
Downsides to Piano on PC
So, are there downsides to playing piano on PC? What are the negatives?
We’ve talked so much about the brilliant aspects of piano on PC but it is worth saying that not everything about it is perfect. There will always be scenarios when playing away from your PC on an acoustic or digital piano is preferable. Some people just don’t like the feeling of a MIDI keyboard (or the feeling of no keyboard at all).
You Don’t Get the Feel of the Piano
This is one obvious downside. Whether you are using a MIDI keyboard or the keyboard of your computer, you won’t get the feel of a piano. By this, we mean the weighted keys and the dynamics of hitting the keys harder to trigger louder notes.
A lot of MIDI keyboards are suitable for playing with velocity-sensitivity so you do get some of the feeling, but it is not as realistic. Also, it is worth considering the fact that most MIDI keyboards are 88-keys wide, meaning you do not get the full range of the piano.
A PC (or Laptop) is Hard to Use Live
It can be done, but having to take this extra equipment is less than ideal. A lot of people will opt for a more portable option in a live environment and this can mean extra expense. If you have a MIDI keyboard and you rely on your PC to generate the sound then this can be limiting when it comes to playing live. It’s fantastic for the studio, but keep this in mind if you do plan to eventually move over to playing in a live environment.
You May Need to Buy Software
This is just the way things are when it comes to the piano. You don’t have to spend a fortune this way, and it is much more affordable than it would be to buy an acoustic piano! However, the point remains valid that you might need to buy some software to get the most out of your piano playing and ensure a high-quality sound.
Piano lessons aren’t usually free, either, so you may pay for access to online lessons. Once again, this is actually far more affordable than the price of piano lessons in person, so it shouldn’t be seen as too much of a downside.
Your Sound is Only as Good as Your Speakers
When you buy a digital piano or a keyboard, there are usually some speakers built-in. These vary in quality, of course, but when you are using your computer then you will be responsible for the choice of speakers. Most laptop speakers, for example, are pretty weak and not very clear, so it might be the case that you have to invest in new speakers to properly hear a nuanced, quality piano on PC.
Piano on PC – Great for Studios and Learning, Not for Live Use
This is one of the key takeaways from this article. A piano being used with your PC can be amazing for those who want to learn how to play, but not so good for people wanting to play live, as it can be restricting and rely on you taking a computer to every show and practice.
If you are looking to start your own little home studio, connecting a MIDI keyboard or digital piano to your computer can enable you to start to learn far more about production and learning how to make music from scratch. Also, tools like Pianu’s academy let you learn how to play songs in an interactive way, walking you through each lesson and showing you what is correct.
There will always be people who just prefer the feel of sitting down at an acoustic piano and reading from sheet music, and there is nothing wrong with this. However, for some people, embracing technology to learn and play the piano is far more appealing. There is no denying that tech can streamline the process, and being able to have your MIDI keyboard and your PC communicate with one another opens up a world of possibilities for lessons online.
If someone had said even 10-15 years ago that you could play high-quality songs on piano within an internet browser, you probably would not have believed them. The fact that we have access to this technology now should be celebrated whether you are looking to learn how to play the piano from scratch or you want to experiment with new and exciting virtual instrument sounds.
Being a hobby or professional musician is easier, more affordable and more exciting than ever, and getting to grips with what a PC can do for your piano playing is something most musicians will want to take advantage of as they increase their level of ability.