Synthesizers are, for many, the ultimate musical instrument. Indeed, they can bend and break all known rules and make sounds that suit the space age and any of your favourite sci-fi movies. Most of them, though, come with a keyboard controller. So, the question arises: do you need to learn piano to play the synthesizer?
Do you need to know piano to play synthesizer? Being proficient on the piano is optional for playing synthesizers. Not every synthesizer is keyboard-operated. Learning synth programming is arguably more important than keyboard playing. Of course, knowing the basics of keyboards is useful if the synth is keyboard-controlled, but is not necessary.
In this article, we’ll discuss the differences between playing piano and synthesizer, and make the argument that being a proficient keyboardist is not a prerequisite to being competent with synthesizers.
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Differences Between A Synthesizer And A Piano
Synthesizers and pianos are two entirely different instruments. That being said, it’s important to discuss the differences to explain why you don’t need to be a piano player to play the synthesizer.
A piano is technically a string instrument with a keyboard (though it can also be considered a string/percussion hybrid). Every time you hit a key, a coinciding hammer strikes a string, and thus, you get a sound corresponding to that note. Pianos do not need electricity to work. They are organic instruments, and what you hear is the sound of steel, wood, and other materials used in the piano’s design.
On the other hand, a synthesizer is an electronic musical instrument that generates sounds by combining electrical signals and frequencies. In this sense, we can speak about a synthesis of different audio signals that can be filtered and altered to create new sounds.
Note that audio is only electricity that represents sound. We’re only able to “hear” audio when it is converted from alternating current (analog audio) to sound waves via a transducer such as a speaker or headphone.
To learn more about the differences between sound and audio, check out my article What Is The Difference Between Sound And Audio?
This distinction is, perhaps, the biggest difference between a piano and a synthesizer. A piano is an acoustic instrument with a definite sound, and a synthesizer is an electric instrument that can create all sorts of sounds. Furthermore, synthesizers can often emulate other instrument, including pianos.
Finally, another big difference is in its use in modern music. While a piano is a harmonic instrument that can be the founding stone for any type of music, a synthesizer is usually used for odd sounds, sound design, melodies, and ear candy.
Playing Piano Vs. Playing A Synthesizer
When playing a piano, we press down keys on the keyboard, which cause their respective hammers to strike strings associated the note assigned to the key. So long as the piano is tuned properly, we produce the desired notes by pressing the keys.
The harder we press the keys, the greater the force of the hammers and the louder the notes. Many pianos have sustain pedals to keep the strings vibrating after the key is released, and dampening pedals to subdue to the sound of the strings.
Each note available on a piano is somewhat independent of the others. Piano’s are polyphonic, and all notes can be theoretically played simultaneously.
Synthesizers can be controlled by keyboards, too. Technology has been developed to help make synths feel like pianos, including weighted keys, sustain pedals, polyphony (though polyphony is often restricted to a few notes at a time), velocity (which mimics the force-volume relationship of pianos), and more.
However, synthesizers can also be controlled by voltages, including triggers and gates, by MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) data, and by other means.
Since synthesizers can be controlled by keyboards or other means, it stands to reason that knowing how to play piano (a keyboard instrument) would be beneficial, but is by no means necessary.
What Is Sound Design?
Sound design can be used in a plethora of senses. In this case, it means the ability to shape a sound to make it exactly as you want it. Within this framework, we can say that while other non-electronic musical instruments (like the piano) have a distinct sound, with a synthesizer, you can “create” the sound you like.
With the help of oscillators, envelope generators, different voices, filters, and LFO (low-frequency oscillators) you can literally make a synthesizer sound like anything you want.
Therefore, it is arguably more important to learn how to navigate these categories than trying to learn how to play the piano to be a proficient synthesizer player.
Sequences & Arpeggios
Another one of the many uses of synthesizers is to play sequences. To play a sequence on a synthesizer, there’s no need to trigger it on any keyboard, you can give it the information through MIDI, for example. Thus, it is, again, more important to learn how to tamper with sequences than learning to be a prolific piano player.
In the same vein, playing a single note on a piano might sound like a boring endeavour. With a synthesizer, on the other hand, you can use what is commonly known as an arpeggiator. This is the ability of the synthesizer to play a series of notes according to note division and a clock rate.
This way, by simply hitting a note on a synthesizer you can make it play chords, triads, or any other interval you set it to.
Pay close attention to the first video and see how the circular sound comes from a single note. That is the arpeggiator playing the entire chord from a single note. In other words, the synthesizer creates sounds that follow what’s been triggered without anyone actually playing the extra notes.
Hence, learning how to handle an arpeggiator can be much more important than learning how to play the keyboard to make the sounds you need.
Monophonic Vs. Polyphonic
Another crucial aspect to understand about synthesizers and what sets them apart from pianos is that synths can be monophonic or polyphonic.
A monophonic synth is capable of producing only one note at a time. A great example of this kind of synth is the Moog Grandmother, a monophonic modular synth capable of some of the most iconic, quintessential synthesizer sounds you’ve heard in countless records before. Plus, the Moog Grandmother features a sequencer, an arpeggiator, spring reverb, and MIDI capabilities.
Monophonic synthesizers are commonly used to create those bigger-than-life basslines that can be the backbone of any top-10 hit.
Polyphonic synths, on the other hand, are capable of producing more than one note at a time. Thus, they allow the musician to create synthesized chords and harmonies. For example, it is very common to hear them as a background instrument thickening choruses in pop songs and following a chord sequence to put a melody on.
A good example of a polyphonic synth is the Juno60 by Roland, a very complete instrument that helped shape the sound of a generation with 6 voices at a time.
Although knowledge is always a plus, utilizing your time in learning how to play the piano if you want to be a synthesizer player may not be the most pressing issue. So, as a conclusion, you can hone your piano-playing skills and it would be a great added bonus. Nonetheless, the most important thing for your career as a synth player is working on that synthesis knowledge and learning how to program your instrument.
When buying a synthesizer, it can be challenging to choose the most ideal option within your budget. For this reason, I’ve created My New Microphone’s Comprehensive Synthesizer Buyer’s Guide. Check it out for help choosing the best synth for your applications.
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