What Are The Differences Between Synthesizers And Pianos?


Musical instruments utilizing a keyboard, like all pianos and many synthesizers, are sometimes a matter of confusion. Whether acoustic or electric, these musical instruments have distinct character and a specific application in music-making.

What are the differences between synthesizers and pianos? Pianos are acoustic string/percussion instruments that produce sound by hitting a string with a hammer. Synthesizers generate sound by converting audio signals (electricity) from an oscillator into sound waves. A piano has a defined sound based on its design. A synth can produce a variety of sounds.

In this article, we'll discuss the differences between synthesizers and pianos with a consideration of the various types of each.


Pianos & Synthesizers

Pianos and synthesizers are musical instruments that belong to different categories. They may generate confusion because most synthesizers utilize a keyboard to trigger the notes, just like a piano.

Although that is the most common scenario, synthesizers do not require a keyboard to function. They only need triggers (control voltages and gates can be triggered by sequencers, trigger pads, faders, and more).

Related article: Do You Need To Know Piano To Play Synthesizer?

Let's dive deeper into the topic.


What Makes A Piano?

Although the exact year of the invention is unknown, pianos were invented by Italian master Bartolomeo Cristofori around the year 1700. The mechanism is quite complex, but the principle is very simple.

Inside the piano, there are, typically, 88 sets of strings representing 88 notes; there are also 88 hammers, 88 keys, and a soundboard. I should clarify the phrase “sets of strings.” The lower notes of the standard acoustic piano have a single string, the middle range keys hammer on two strings per key, and the upper notes have three strings per note.

Whenever a player hits a key or a group of keys, the corresponding hammer(s) hits the tuned string(s), and the soundboard vibrates. Thus, the instrument's sound is the note of the string being hit amplified naturally by the soundboard.

This is a mechanical procedure requiring no electrical power. Furthermore, the hammer hitting the string can be thought of as a pick or finger strumming a guitar; the principle is the same. The musical instrument category for guitar and piano is chordophones. Pianos technically belong to both the string family and the percussion family of musical instruments.

Note that there are also instruments known as electric pianos and digital pianos.

Electric pianos work largely the same way as the previously-described acoustic pianos, only with magnetic pickups that convert the string vibration to electric audio signals that can be amplified further.

Digital pianos are more similar to synthesizers as they don't require vibrating strings, though their keys trigger samples rather than controlling oscillators.

We'll discuss the differences between synths and electric pianos as well as the differences between synths and digital pianos shortly.


What Makes A Synthesizer?

Synthesizers do not belong to the chordophone category. They are electrophones, which means they do not create sounds through strings but rather by manipulating electricity.

For more information about synthesizer classification as a musical instrument, check out my article Are Synthesizers Considered Musical Instruments?

The mechanism in synthesizers is much more complex, and they only appeared in the second half of the 20th century. The first commercially successful synthesizer can be attributed to Robert Moog (the founder of Moog) and came out in 1964.

Moog is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
Top 11 Best MU (Moog-Unit) Synth Module Brands In The World
Top 11 Best Synthesizer Brands In The World

In the first decades of their existence, synthesizers were analog instruments with an internal oscillator. When controlled with electrical power, the oscillator creates an electric impulse that suffers internal transformations through filters, modulation, and other modules and behaves like any other soundwave when it reaches an amplifier and a set of speakers.

There are plenty of different types of audio synthesis, but all work on this principle of manipulating electrical power to produce audio signals and, ultimately, sound.

To learn more about synths and why they require electricity, check out my article Can Synthesizers Be Played Without Electricity?

The most common types of synthesis include subtractive, additive, wavetable and frequency modulation.

Subtractive synthesis: this is the most common type of audio synthesis. It begins with one or more oscillators (analog or digital) that produce an audio signal output. The synth then subtracts information from the signal via filters (controlled by envelopes, LFO, and other control signals).

Additive synthesis: this type of synthesis constructs the harmonic makeup of the signal on a per-frequency basis. Individual sine waves (the waveform with a single frequency) with varying amplitudes are produced at specified frequencies to build/synthesize the audio.

Wavetable synthesis: this is very similar to subtractive synthesis, using defined-waveform oscillator(s) to produce audio signals that are effectively filtered and amplifier (among other modulators and processes) before getting outputted.

Frequency modulation synthesis: the oscillators of an FM synth are often basic waveforms and are known as “operators.” These operators have their frequencies modulated by other oscillators within the audible spectrum and can be outputted as audio.


Acoustic Pianos Vs. Synthesizers

In a nutshell, pianos are analog, organic chordophones that create sound by physically hitting a string with a hammer. Synthesizers are electrophones that can be analog or digital and that generate sound, transforming electrical impulses coming from an oscillator into soundwaves.

Finally, while one can physically produce a definite array of sounds, the scope of the second is as rich as the number of filters, oscillators, and other modules the unit can apply to the oscillator's electrical current.

Of course, as we've discussed, electric and digital pianos work differently than acoustic pianos. Let's now focus on these instruments and their relation to synthesizers.

Related article: Top 11 Best Acoustic Piano Brands In The World


Electric Pianos Vs. Synthesizers

Although the first-ever electric pianos came from the late 1920s, they gained mainstream status in the 60s and 70s. Models such as the Fender Rhodes or Wurlitzer EP-210 became trademark sounds in upcoming musical styles of that time, such as Soul, RnB, Funk, and Rock and Roll.

Fender is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
Top 13 Best Bass Guitar Brands In The World
Top 11 Best Bass Guitar Amplifier Brands In The World
Top 13 Best Electric Guitar Brands In The World
Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use
Top 11 Best Guitar Amplifier Brands In The World
Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Patch Cable Brands In The World
Top 11 Best Acoustic Guitar String Brands On The Market
Top 11 Best Bass Guitar String Brands On The Market
Top 10 Best Classical Guitar String Brands On The Market
Top 11 Best Electric Guitar String Brands On The Market
Top 8 Best Acoustic Guitar Pickup Brands On The Market
Top 8 Best Bass Guitar Pickup Brands On The Market

Electric pianos can be likened to acoustic pianos, much like electric guitars can be likened to acoustic guitars. The mechanism by which sound is produced is largely the same: pressing a key causes a hammer to strike a vibrating metal string-like object tuned to a specific note.

Acoustic pianos utilize strings, generally made of high carbon steel or copper. Electric pianos utilize metal strings, metal reeds or wire tines.

The vibrations of an electric piano's metal strings, reeds, or wires are effectively converted into electrical audio signals via pickups. Depending on the design, these pickups can be electromagnetic transducers or piezoelectric transducers.

Perhaps, the best-known method for producing sound is that of the Wurlitzer and the Fender Rhodes, known as “struck reeds”. This name owes its origin to the fact that you can find reeds that fit within a metal plate resembling a comb inside the instrument. These two elements together work as a capacitive pickup system, and the resulting tone is warm, sweet, and resembles that of a vibraphone.

Though the sound is still physically generated inside, making electric pianos heavy-to-transport machines, they are much smaller than pianos. Moreover, they can be plugged into an amplifier which proved to be a game-changer by the time they were created. Pianos needed to struggle for volume and a place in the mix during the rocking 60s and 70s when amplifiers were larger than life for bass and guitar.

Nowadays, it is still possible to hear Rhodes and Wurlitzer models in many modern-day recordings because of their distinct sound. They do not replace acoustic pianos; they created a new category sound-wise.

Electric pianos have a different sound scope and aren't a true acoustic piano substitute, whereas the synthesizer can cover much more sonic ground.


Digital Pianos Vs. Synthesizers

After electric pianos gained massive notoriety in the 60s and the 70s, the 80s brought new sounds and the almighty sampling technology. This is the beginning of the digital era (MIDI was standardized in 1983), and piano-making brands saw an opportunity to create a much lighter, portable instrument for the modern musician.

Thus, digital pianos use sampled sounds of real instruments ranging from million-dollar Steinway & Sons Grand Pianos to upright pianos. Moreover, some are capable of generating other piano-related sounds such as Hammond organs, pipe organs, harpsichords, and much more.

Digital pianos result from years of research and development looking for a portable, lightweight, powerful solution for piano players on the road. Also, they make great practice instruments since most of them incorporate a pair of built-in speakers with a dedicated amplifier, an output to plug them into a PA system, and a headphone input.

Digital pianos are the modern answer to a regular piano's portability difficulties. As such, they are designed and voiced to emulate the real thing, not creating new synthetic sounds. This is true, at least, in most of the digital pianos found in the market today.

Even though the same technology can create state-of-the-art, super-powerful digital synthesizers (such as the Yamaha DX-7), digital pianos pursue different goals. While the first is voiced for the adventurous sonic creators, the second is a lighter version of a known instrument with some added bonuses.

Related article: Top 9 Best Digital Piano Brands In The World


MIDI Controllers Vs. Synthesizers

Finally, as computers grew better and smaller, digital synthesis moved from the inside of an instrument to the inside of a computer. These are commonly known as software synthesizers.

Software synthesizers are among the most powerful in the world today. For example, you could emulate synthesizers of all eras, grand pianos, and electric pianos using the same software. This software requires a computer to generate sounds and something to trigger the sounds with. Here's where MIDI controllers appear as an option.

In looks and feel, they are very similar to a synthesizer or a digital piano. They can also be designed with a variety of action types to emulate the weighted keys of an authentic acoustic piano if need be. Furthermore, some of them feature sensitive keys that react differently with the player's touch.

Although they resemble the real thing very closely from the outside, they cannot generate any sounds on their own. Thus, MIDI controllers are not musical instruments but the hardware side of software synthesizers.

Software synthesizers are becoming increasingly popular as a convenient option for home studios and home music production. Some of the benefits are:

Simplicity: there's no need to understand the use of a complex synthesizer, patch cables, or move knobs; you can access thousands of expert-made presets and be playing in no time.

Cost-effectiveness: with a single purchase, you can have a massive collection of vintage tones at your fingertips. Moreover, you can continue to expand your sound library by simply adding more software instruments to your computer.

No microphones involved: since the audio comes from a software instrument, you can easily integrate it with your favourite DAW and make lossless recordings wherever and whenever you want. This is especially important for those who produce sounds on the road; you can make songs with just a MIDI controller and a computer.

Note that MIDI controllers can also be used to trigger sample-based software instruments, similar to how digital pianos work.

Related article: Top 11 Best MIDI Controller Brands In The World


Conclusion

Pianos are, arguably, the mother of all harmonic instruments as we know them today. Moreover, they are still the go-to option for many producers to write chord arrangements and melodies. That being said, the technology available today made it possible to create sounds in different ways, which has opened the doors for new, exciting music worldwide.

Synthetic instruments are quite new compared to pianos, and what they can do for music is to be seen yet!


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.


Choosing the right MIDI controller for your workflow and budget can be a challenging task. For this reason, I've created My New Microphone's Comprehensive MIDI Controller Buyer's Guide. Check it out for help in determining your next MIDI controller purchase.


This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

Recent Posts