They can sound like other instruments, from flutes to violins to sitars. Some can mimic noises such as thunder or clapping hands. In fact, there's probably only one thing an electronic keyboard can't sound like:
A real piano.
Keyboards vs. pianos: It's like butter and Parkay. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, their fans and opponents. While some will accept no substitute, others say the substitute has exceeded the original.
Electronic keyboards -- the smaller, more portable version -- and electronic pianos -- which usually have a full 88 keys -- offer compactness, portability and price. Acoustic pianos offer tradition and an incomparable sound and feel (not to mention a platform for torch singers to slither around on).
But it's not entirely a case of the twain never meeting -- increasingly, children and adults alike are learning to play electronic keyboards as a substitute for traditional piano lessons. And while purists still stand by their grands, they acknowledge that these electronic cousins have their place.
Debbie Cohen has a good reason for singing the praises of electronic keyboards -- the one she shipped to her husband in Saudi Arabia is helping him get through his tour of duty.
"My husband loves the piano. He's played it since he was 6 years old," said Mrs. Cohen, whose husband, Ami, is a surgeon who was sent to the Gulf three months ago. "That's what he does to relax.
"Now he's asking me for more music, a two-part invention by Bach and some oldies," said Mrs. Cohen, who lives in Silver Spring.
And batteries -- lots of them.
While keyboards are great for shipping to the desert, they probably will never replace pianos in the concert hall, experts say.
After testing hundreds of keyboards to compile a buyer's guide, Keyboard magazine editor Dominic Milano says not one of them really sounded like a piano.
"There's nothing like hearing a real, felt-covered hammer hitting a real, copper-bound string," said Mr. Milano, himself a longtime player of synthesizers and other electronic instruments. "When you get right down to it, if you've got discerning ears, you can tell the difference."
Yet most people can't distinguish between the two, he added, which is one of the reasons electronic pianos have proven so popular, with over 3 million sold in the United States in 1989. And, as technology advances, some have become better in quality than lower-priced pianos, he said.
In the past, for example, the sound coming out of an electronic keyboard and piano was the same no matter how hard you hit the keys. Some of today's models, however, have made the sound more sensitive to the player's touch.
With such advances, however, electronic pianos may not be the bargain they once were compared to acoustic pianos.
Electronic keyboards and pianos can range from $1,000 to $7,000; acoustics from about $6,000 to $60,000, estimated Thomas Sheehan, general manager of the Yamaha Communication Center, which sells both instruments.
Keyboards have proven popular among casual players because of gimmicks that allow the player to simulate other instruments and add rhythm lines and harmonies. What separates the casual from the more serious player, though, is how interested they remain after those "bells and whistles" lose their initial fascination, said Mr. Milano.
"My son, when he was 10 months old, started playing around with my electronic instruments, pushing the buttons, hearing the weird sounds they would make," he said. "But when he got old enough to ask for serious lessons, we got him piano lessons. I've got a grand in the living room. Now he never is interested in going into my studio.
"If they're serious, teach them the fundamentals," he said. "Technology is no substitute for musicianship."
Mary Beth Hernandez considers her electronic, computerized keyboard as good as a piano -- and then some. The instrument she bought last year uses recordings of an actual piano for its sound.
"This has a piano in it," said the Timonium resident, whose 6-year-old daughter, Lauren, also plays the keyboard. "If you were standing with your back to it, I don't think you could tell the difference. . . . And this is more fun."
Another parent, Craig Hankin, was delighted to see his 6-year-old son, who plays an electronic piano at home, climb aboard a baby grand that he saw at a recent wedding reception and start playing the Christmas carols he'd been practicing.
"I think he can appreciate the difference between the two [instruments], but, surprisingly, he has no trouble moving from one to another," said Mr. Hankin.
Space was a prime consideration for Mr. Hankin when his son, Joe, started asking for piano lessons a couple of years ago. Impressed by the quality of digital pianos, they bought one after getting the OK from Joe's music teacher.