The synthesizer is perhaps the most versatile, interesting, creative and expressive musical instrument in the world. Synthesizers range wildly in their construction and abilities, and they're virtually unlimited in the sounds they can produce. In addition to such vast musical and sound design capabilities, there are a surprising number of benefits associated with learning how synths work, how to play them and practicing/playing synthesizers regularly.
Whether you're just beginning to experiment with one of the many virtual synth instruments or you've invested tens of thousands in a spaceship-looking modular system, it is my hope to inspire you to continue your musical journey with synthesizers as you read this article. There is so much to gain from learning a musical instrument like the synth, and I've selected what I believe to be the top 11 best reasons.
The top 11 benefits of learning and playing synthesizer are:
- Develops An Understanding Of Electricity & Signal Flow
- Develops A Deeper Musical Connection To Tone & Timbre
- Enhances The Understanding Of Music & Music Technology
- Yields Transferable Knowledge To Other Electronic Instruments
- Improves Discipline & Concentration
- Builds Confidence
- Learning & Playing Synthesizer Improves Coordination/Dexterity
- Improves Memory
- Building Relationships
- Provides A Creative Outlet
- Therapeutic Benefits
- Bonus Benefit 1: Monetizing Your Skills
- Bonus Benefit 2: Opportunity To Learn Instrument Upkeep & Construction
In this article, we'll discuss each of the benefits listed above to understand better how learning and playing synthesizers can improve our lives.
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Learning & Playing Synthesizer Develops An Understanding Of Electricity & Signal Flow
Audio synthesis can be as simple as a single oscillator or as complex and modular as we want. Whether we opt for an all-in-one desktop synth or choose to go down the modular route, we'll develop a better understanding of audio and signal flow in the process.
Since analog audio is literally alternating current, we'll also learn about electricity in many cases. Note that even digital synthesizers and virtual synth instruments will ultimately produce analog audio, if only just before the speaker or headphone transducers.
Related article: How Do Speakers & Headphones Work As Transducers?
Modular synthesis is an especially potent tool for understanding signal flow. In patching different modules together, we get a visual, tactile and auditory sense of how audio and other signals (control voltages, MIDI, power) flow. These signals flow from outputs to inputs, sends to returns, through processors in series and parallel, etc.
It's super useful to understand how different signal generators (oscillators, LFOs, envelope generators and more) interact with the various modules (effects, filters, amplifiers, etc.) to ultimately synthesize a sound.
While not necessary to synthesize sound, it's also obviously useful to study and learn about how oscillators, LFOs, envelopes, effects, amplifiers, filters, and all other synth components work. Getting into the world of synthesizers (and especially modular synthesis since it contains individual elements) will put us in the right direction to learn about such signal flow.
Even “all-in-one” desktop synthesizers are likely to offer some control over the signal flow. We can read the manual or listen for ourselves to understand how audio and control voltage flow. It's often the case that the oscillators flow into filters, into effects, into amplifiers and to the output (with control voltage modulators available to control the filters, effects, amps, etc.).
This comprehension of signal flow will help when mixing and mastering audio since individual tracks often have several processes/effects/plugins and can be routed to several buses, sends and groups.
Related article: Can Synthesizers Be Played Without Electricity?
Learning & Playing Synthesizer Develops A Deeper Musical Connection To Tone & Timbre
With the virtually limitless range of sounds that can be produced via synthesizers, these instruments provide one of the best opportunities to develop an ear for tone and timbre.
Technically, “timbre” refers to the quality of sounds among different instruments and “tone” refers to the quality and frequency of a sound as compared to itself. I'll use both in regard to synthesizers since a single synth can sound like so many different “instruments”.
The timbre of a synth patch can vary greatly from another, even in the same synthesizer. From the basic waveforms to the unique, never-been-heard-before patches, designing a synth's sound gives us the opportunity to create the timbre we want.
Within a patch, subtle changes in individual parameters will alter the tone of the synth's sound. With the right ideas, we can shape the sound to our exact liking.
To learn more about synth patches, check out my article What Is A Synthesizer Patch? Traditional & Modern Definition.
Compared to other instruments, the tonal variety in synthesizers is practically unmatchable. Though electric instruments can come close when combined with effects, nothing beats the versatility of a capable synthesizer.
As we dive deeper into synth design, we come to know how small changes in tone can really shape the musicality of a patch.
Furthermore, when playing in a group or producing our own music, we learn how tone-shaping is a necessary component of mixing, where separation and compatibility with other instruments are key for a clean mix.
Learning & Playing Synthesizer Enhances The Understanding Of Music & Music Technology
Synthesizers are used for special effects, sound design, and much more. They are musical instruments and are inherently musical, even if we don't use them for music, per se.
More specifically, synthesizers are electrophones, meaning they are musical instruments that utilize electricity or electronics to generate sound.
Synthesizers are often controlled via a keyboard, which is innately musical. Learning to play the synthesizer via a keyboard will directly translate to playing other keyboard instruments such as piano, organ, marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, and many more. Of course, synthesizer keyboards are often smaller and restricted in their voice counts (some synths are even monophonic). Nonetheless, playing on a keyboard will improve our understanding of one of the most intuitive music controllers.
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Beyond the keyboard, we have sequencers, which we can program to control a synth in a particular rhythm in defined, stepped intervals. Rhythm is a primary component of music as a whole, and controlling a synthesizer will inevitably deepen our understanding of this musical building block.
Furthermore, music is often expressed in a grid, whether as sections of a song, in the arrangement window of a DAW, in the note divisions of a bar on a written sheet, or the rhythmic pulses of a synth.
MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is also a common protocol for controlling synthesizers. As we learn more about MIDI, we understand how powerful it truly is. From synthesizers to orchestrating symphonies in-the-box with virtual instruments to controlling lights and much more, MIDI is a fantastic musical tool, ready to be learned through the lens of audio synthesis.
Beyond technology, synthesizers can teach us musicality through their expression and programming. We often learn about voices via different voice counts (monophonic vs polyphonic and beyond). We also learn about modulation and effects, portamento (the gliding between notes), and much, much more.
Related article: Are Synthesizers Considered Musical Instruments?
Learning & Playing Synthesizer Yields Transferable Knowledge To Other Electronic Instruments
We've already discussed how playing a synthesizer with a keyboard controller will give us transferrable skills to other keyboard instruments like the piano. It's also important to note that learning how to play the synthesizer will also give us skills related to other electronic instruments.
Related article: Top 11 Benefits Of Learning & Playing Piano
It could be simple skills like understanding the inputs and outputs of the instrument or the deeper comprehension of effects, modulation and audio processes. It could be the more complex interactions between electrical components in the schematics of such instruments. Regardless, a deepened understanding of our synthesizer will open our minds up to the inner workings of our other electric and electronic instruments.
Furthermore, I should mention the various types of audio synthesis. The actual synthesis of audio can be categorized into different primary types, including but not limited to:
- Subtractive synthesis
- Additive synthesis
- Physical modeling synthesis
- Wavetable synthesis
- Vector synthesis
- Linear arithmetic synthesis
- Phase distortion synthesis
- Frequency modulation synthesis
- Sample-based synthesis
- Granular synthesis
Learning any one of these synthesis types will set us up for an easier time learning the next, and the next, and the next.
Related article: Are Synthesizers Considered Musical Instruments?
Learning & Playing Synthesizer Improves Discipline & Concentration
Learning any musical instrument takes a significant investment of time and effort.
Whether we're sharpening our skills on the keyboard or furthering our capacity to program a synth, the improvements we make with our synthesizer takes discipline and concentration.
These skills (discipline and concentration) can be learned and developed with conscious practice. From the mechanics of playing and programming to music theory and sound design, learning to use a synthesizer effectively is a fun way to develop discipline and concentration.
Mastering the synthesizer is a seemingly never-ending journey thanks to the virtual limitlessness of synthesizer design. Reaching toward mastery takes a tremendous amount of discipline and concentration, which are traits we can utilize in many other aspects of our lives.
Learning & Playing Synthesizer Builds Confidence
With improved wisdom of synthesizers and audio synthesis more generally comes greater confidence. The Meriam-Webster Dictionary defined confidence as “a feeling or belief that you can do something well or succeed at something”.
As we learn how to program and play our synthesizer, we develop confidence with that particular synth. We also begin to feel the sense that we can learn other synthesizers as well. As we learn more and become more proficient with audio synthesis, the confidence gained will surely spill over into other aspects of our life.
Furthermore, we can get to a point where we're in a position to play with and/or for other musicians and audiences. In doing so, playing the synth can help us overcome shyness and stage fright.
Learning & Playing Synthesizer Improves Coordination/Dexterity
Though it's possible to build a modular synth system that can play itself ad infinitum, it's typically the case that we'll be playing and programming on the fly when playing our synthesizers.
In the same way that learning the piano will enhance the dexterity between our hands (and even our feet if we use pedals), performing on a synthesizer via a keyboard will also develop our coordination.
Furthermore, we can also play notes with one hand while adjusting parameters with the other. Understanding which menus to scroll, which knobs, faders and wheels to adjust, and which inputs and outputs to patch is one thing. Doing all of these things in real-time in a musical way during a performance is another. This all requires a deep understanding of the instrument and, of course, the dexterity to do so.
Learning & Playing Synthesizer Improves Memory
It's a widely accepted idea that learning a musical instrument improves memory. The synthesizer is a musical instrument and no exception to the benefit of our brains.
Our memory can be improved with proper training (source). The auditory and tactile stimulation of learning and playing the synthesizer works the brain in a way that promotes memory. More specifically, learning a musical instrument like a synth will stimulate the amygdala and hippocampus, which play a role in emotions and memories (source).
Consider all the factors of learning, programming and playing synthesizer that involve memory:
- Memorizing songs (with rhythm, harmony, melody, timbre/tone)
- The controls of the controller (whether it's a keyboard, sequencer or other)
- How the synth is routed and what the parameters are
- How different elements interact with each other
- Theoretical knowledge of music (rhythm, harmony, melody)
While learning and playing the synth, we stimulate the hippocampus relatively intensely, which activates neurogenesis, the formation of new neurons. Neurogenesis is linked to improved learning and memory (source).
Learning & Playing Synthesizer Helps To Build Relationships
We're certainly not alone in our love of synthesizers! Learning the ins and outs of audio synthesis gives us something in common with other synth nerds, which is a good thing. Bonding over shared interests is perhaps the best way to meet and become friends with new people.
Additionally, other musicians may be looking for a synth player for their projects, which opens the door for further musical collaboration and building relationships.
From my experience, I can say that becoming a musician has prompted and influenced more of my personal and professional relationships than any other hobby/profession. This is a huge benefit of learning any instrument and certainly applies to synthesizers.
Learning & Playing Synthesizer Provides A Creative Outlet
Creativity is an innate human characteristic, even if we don't feel particularly creative (source). Learning to play the synthesizer gives us a fairly obvious creative outlet to create new sounds, write our own music and perform or record our art.
Studies show that learning musical instruments creates connections between the brain's two hemispheres.
Synthesizers engage the “analytical and methodical” left brain with the technicalities of playing the right notes, programming the specific signal flow and control voltages, and understanding the internal workings of the instrument.
Synthesizers engage the “creative or artistic” right brain with the vast tonal and timbral possibilities, the unknown and extreme pushing of parameters and the novelty of investigating unique sounds.
Learning the synthesizer can actually increase the size of the corpora callosa, the bundle of axons that effectively connects the two hemispheres (source). With new neural pathways, we add additional ways of thinking (consciously and subconsciously), which surely improves our ability to create innovative and unique musical ideas.
Learning & Playing Synthesizer Has Therapeutic Benefits
Debra Shipman (Ph.D. RN) states, “Learning to play a musical instrument provides a peaceful retreat from the pressures of daily life. Therapeutic outcomes of playing music include better communication skills, improved emotional release and decreased anxiety and agitation. Musical training promotes cognitive function, mental health, and a connection to others.” (source)
Music, in general, is also being studied thoroughly as a promising tool for therapy for the brain, lungs and heart (source). The American Music Therapy Association lists the following benefits of music therapy:
- Promote Wellness
- Manage Stress
- Alleviate Pain
- Express Feelings
- Enhance Memory
- Improve Communication
- Promote Physical Rehabilitation
Learning & Playing Synthesizer Bonus Benefit 1: Monetizing Your Skills
“Money makes the world go round” – Paul Van Der Merwe (source). As the first of two bonus benefits, let's discuss money.
Once you've become a proficient synth player/designer/user, there are many different avenues to monetize your skills. Of the numerous options, I'm particularly fond of the following:
- Sound design and scoring televsion and film
- Performing original music live
- Record streaming royalties from original music
- Teaching audio synthesis
- Composing for stock music libraries
- Producing presets for virtual synth instruments
- Producing sound packs for music production
There are plenty of other opportunities to monetize your synthesizer knowledge. Marketable skills (whether they're high-paying and/or capitalized on or not) are undoubtedly a benefit of learning and playing synthesizers.
Learning & Playing Synthesizer Bonus Benefit 2: Opportunity To Learn Instrument Upkeep & Construction
Learning and playing the synthesizer isn't only about the synth design and technique, music production and songs. It's also about the instruments themselves. Leaning the synthesizer gives us a great opportunity to learn more generally about the physics of audio, sound, keyboard instruments (if we choose to control the synths with keyboards), other control mechanisms, cables, and more.
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