When most people hear the term “electronic musical instrument,” they think of a keyboard or synthesizer. While they aren’t necessarily wrong, and you could make a good argument for keyboard instruments being the most popular electronic musical instruments in circulation, the actual breadth of the term is staggering. These instruments can span everything from amplified antiquarian clavichords (Stevie Wonder, anyone?) to spacey theremins and the latest iPhone drum set app (check out the YouTube link below for an excerpt of J.S. Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto” from “Switched on Bach,” Wendy Carlos’ famous intersection of chamber and electronic music).
I will do my best to break down the various groups in the subsequent pages.
Keyboards, Controllers, Synthesizers, & Samplers
Keyboard instruments have been around for a long time, with antecedents stretching back as far as the B.C. period – although these ancestors used buttons, the general design and idea has staying power for a reason: they simply work well in any musical context, and, because of their adaptability, keyboard instruments have become the catchall, swiss army knife of the musical instrument world.
This keyboard instrument, manufactured by Roland, is an example of the most easily recognizable and traditional keyboard instrument: the piano.
Because of their rich influence on, history in, and widespread contemporary usage in both technological application and acoustic performance, it is imperative that the music technology students of the world are as familiar with the keyboard as they are with their own two hands.
Through the wonders of MIDI technology, the same timeless, inter-generational keyboard layout used by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Bill Evans can be digitally re-mapped and used as a drum set in a jazz fusion context; this particular function is an example of the myriad applications available through music controllers. Music controllers can come in all shapes and sizes, but they are most often made with some sort of keyboard layout. These controllers transmit MIDI data (basically a digital series of instructions) to be re-interpreted by another device that houses a soundbank. These instructions tell the device all sorts of data, from which sounds in the bank to use to when these sounds should be activated and silenced.
The Alesis Q25 displayed above is a MIDI controller, and a more modern example of a keyboard instrument. Note the similarities between this keyboard controller and the Roland piano above.
Synthesizers and samplers belong to two different sub-groups of the electronic keyboard instrument family. Synthesizers aim to emulate the sounds of our natural world through the manipulation of audio waveforms. Samplers, however, assign recorded samples of real-world sounds to a keyboard layout and re-pitch them accordingly. The embedded video below explains the difference well, and was made by my own Technology for Music Educators professor, Dr. Craig Sylvern.
Through innovations in technology and the growing accessibility to electronic keyboard instruments in schools, the integration of digital instruments into traditional and entirely new ensembles is becoming more and more widespread. While it is not uncommon to see synthesizers and electronic organs or keyboards in jazz, rock, or fusion contexts, entirely new electronic ensembles are in constant creation. I’ve embedded one of my favorite examples of the eclectic “digital orchestras” popping up all over the world. Enjoy!