A piano is an instrument that is familiar to millions of people across the world. It has become iconic and is regularly admired for its adaptability and majesty in concert halls and homes everywhere. Often it is the first instrument that children learn to play as they develop an interest in music and perhaps too because it is easy to produce a sound.
In relative terms, the synthesiser is a modern invention although its origins stretch back as far as the late 1890s with instruments like the Theremin. It was not really until the 1980’s that the synthesiser truly gained its rightful place in music with many popular bands adopting the ‘synth’ as a feature of their songwriting and performances.
Piano vs Synthesiser
Leaving aside the electronic piano, the acoustic piano comes in two varieties; the grand and the upright. The methods of construction vary as you might expect between the two types of piano but essentially the mechanics of both pianos are the same. By this, I am referring to the fact that they are built on an iron frame with a complex hammer mechanism that strikes the strings to create the sound. There have been many developmental steps made in the manufacturing processes of pianos that have meant tuning stability, overall durability of the instrument and refinement of its action.
The synthesiser, on the other hand, has been in almost constant evolution since the turn of the 20th century. I should clarify at this point in the article that a synthesiser produces its sound by the use of electronics. More specifically, control voltages that operate oscillators when the key on the keyboard it struck. This produces wave shapes that broadly fall into the following categories; square wave, sine wave, sawtooth wave and triangular wave.
Each of these waves, when used in combination, can produce a sound that closely resembles that of acoustic instruments, including the piano. The sounds produced are almost limitless and the attraction of the early synthesisers was the potential to create new sounds that could be used to write very different types of music.
Here it is possible to see one of the first differences between the piano and the synthesiser. The piano is designed to produce a single type of sound all be it with a multitude of subtle colours that can be teased from the instrument by the fingers of experts. Synthesisers do not have the same restrictions. Instead, synthesisers have the potential to continually evolve and produce new sounds and combinations of sounds at each developmental step.
Not only is there a significant difference in terms of sound production but there are many other things that a synthesiser can do with the sound that a piano cannot. As the sounds on a synthesiser are created electronically, and these days digitally (as opposed to analogue), then the options for sound manipulation are remarkable. When playing the piano there is a genuine potential for very subtle alterations of timbre (sound colour), and changes in volume, it does not stand up to what the synthesiser can achieve. Even if we take into account the concept of the ‘prepared’ piano, as popularised in the works of John Cage, the piano has no significant way to compete with its close relative, the synthesiser.
Take for instance the use of wheels and dials on a synthesiser. These can be programmed by the performer to alter almost any given parameter of the sound wave. They could, for instance, be used to fade in a sound as a volume controller. Another example would be ‘pitch bend’. This acts very much like the slide or glissando produces by a string instrument of trombone and can add a very human quality to the timbre. Modulation is another programmable effect that brings a ‘vibrato’ to the tone the synthesiser produces, similar to the human voice.
In addition to these effects, it is also perfectly possible to use effects that are perhaps more commonly applied to electric guitars. The list is endless but includes such wonderful sound altering devices as a ‘ring modulator’, ‘distortion’, ‘overdrive’ ‘chorus’, or ‘flanger’. When carefully and creatively used, the results are spectacular and can easily overshadow the modest sounds of the piano.
Perhaps in terms of repertoire, the piano can claim some ground. It does, after all, have several hundreds of years of outstanding compositions to fall back on and indeed many more works that are still being written. Mozart, Beethoven or Chopin did not write for the synthesiser but this does not mean that instrument has not delved in this rich arena of music. Wendy Carlos produced a double album of music she titled ‘Switched-On-Brandenburgs’ in the late 1960s. Carlos worked with the ‘Father of Synthesisers’ Robert Moog assisting him with the development of the ‘vocoder’ and the touch-sensitive keyboard that would become a feature of many synthesisers that followed.
Japanese composer Isao Tomita has also worked extensively with synthesisers to create a whole series of albums based on well-known classical music. The album titled ‘Snowflakes Are Dancing’ was a kind of homage to Claude Debussy and is worth a listen. The supergroup Sky extensively used banks of synthesisers to ‘rock’ their way through some incredible interpretations of Bach that are still hugely popular today. A final group that needs mention is Emerson Lake and Palmer whose version of the Copland classic ‘Fanfare For The Common Man’, placed the American composer in a whole new light.
Both the piano and the synthesiser often work together in a broad variety of ensembles and in a wider than expected set of genres. Each instrument can be celebrated for its own unique creative possibilities with only the limits of the composer or performer’s imagination to control how. Avant-garde pioneers like the German composer Stockhausen or the French composer Pierre Boulez were amongst the first to explore the new electronic technology in their works. Whilst these compositions were not purely based on using synthesisers, the idea of electronic music combining with acoustic was paramount in their compositional processes.
In the final analysis, the piano is not and perhaps should not try to be a synthesiser. The synthesiser by its very nature is a mimic. It builds its own sounds on what broadly already exists and has the potential to expand and develop it in wholly new ways. Now synthesisers are closer to pianos than ever before in the quality of digital sound that they can produce, although they are unlikely to ever replace the beauty of an acoustic piano.