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2.2: The Synthesizer: Education's electronic xylophone?

Andrew R. Brown

The synthesizer is one of the more recent instruments of western music. While it has come a long way from the early valve instruments of the 1950s the modern digital synthesizer is still finding its place in our music education system. Some of it's very recent, but quite different, manifestations in Australian music making are as the Forte Symphony Orchestra in Queensland who accompany concerto soloists, and The Interactive Performance Space in Tasmania who are exploring interactive performance.

Despite these and other recent performance manifestations on the borders of music education the synthesizer is more often found in the music classrooms of this country as a tool, replacing a piano, or as a MIDI device for sequencing. The synthesizer's performance role, explored by the ensembles above in varying ways, is largely left unexplored. The lack of experimentation with synthesised sounds in performance is lamented by Pierre Boulez who comments that;

It is hardly necessary to add that this state of affairs [the completely blocked evolution of musical instruments] is faithfully reflected in education, where the models selected for teaching are drawn from an extremely circumscribed period in the history of music, and consequently limit - from the outset - the techniques and sound materials at the musician's disposal; even more disastrously, they given him a restricted outlook whereby his education becomes a definitive absolute possession. (Boulez 1986:6-7)

Since these harsh words were spoken, synthesizers have found there way into many music education programs, and this article explores some of the ways they might be used. As a useful metaphor, imagine the synthesizer as the 21st century xylophone. In the same way the Carl Orff and others expanded the horizons of music experience through xylophones and other percussion instruments, the synthesizer has the capacity to explore similar tonal worlds and even richer timbral ones.

In what ways is the synthesizer like a xylophone for music education? Firstly, the synthesizer often has a 'keyboard' interface more restricted than a piano. This enables visualisation of pitch relationships, equality of performance effort at all pitches, is easy to make a sound on but capable of virtuosic mastery. Secondly, it comes in a variety of sizes and qualities to suit all situations and budgets. Thirdly, it can be played monophonically or polyphonically, enabling it to function in a variety of musical roles.

Classroom applications of synthesizers

A rich instrumental environment is good for music students, and synthesizers add to this richness. As well, within the collection of synthesizer is is best to have several different controllers, some keyboard, some wind,some percussion, and even a guitar controller. This enables students with diverse range of acoustic instrument techniques to access the advantages of synthesizers.


Individuals can use synthesizers whenever they need an instrument to work something out on, or to perform a part. The use of headphones can make individual synthesizer use both productive and unobtrusive. Students can be working on arrangements, transcriptions, theory exercises, composition, or performance practice in a focused environment.

Class ensembles

The synthesizer and xylophone metaphor brings to mind their use for class ensemble playing. Having a range of pitched and non-pitched sounds means that they can be used for the performance of class arrangements or sound scapes. The ability of synthesizers to play across various pitch ranges enables them to be bass instruments, chordal, melodic, percussive, or to provide sound effects. By using synthesizers with different controllers - some keyboard, some wind for example - a variety of articulations are possible and any live presentation of work always looks and sounds more interesting and fun with a mixed ensemble.

For best ensemble participation synthesizers need to be movable so that ensembles can form in various arrangements in the class room as required. This may mean keeping the odd power extension cord handy and purchasing small powered speakers rather than large guitar amps, and definitely not building synthesizers into fixed furniture.


Synthesizers come to their fore in the exploration of sounds, or in creating music where that has a home. As well as following the lead of the experiential learning of Schafer, Paynter and others, sound exploration pieces are ideal for film music, art instillation sound scapes, and music for dance. Simple adjustments such as envelope and filter changes can take minutes to teach and lead to hours of musical exploration. It is important to make sure that such editing of sounds is possible, as it is with synthesizers by definition, but not on many electronic keyboards.

The synthesizer for solo performance

As an instrumental study in its own right, synthesizer has a large history of informal practices. These have mainly supported its use an a contemporary popular music band instrument. Keyboard players in pop bands are the main users of synthesizers in performance, as it is expected that such performers have facility of a range of keyboard instruments including piano, organ, clavinet and synthesizer. With the ability of synthesizers to sample each of these other keyboard instruments, and being more portable than the others, it is generally the dominant performance instrument in contemporary popular music.


There are a few established curriculums in synthesizer. The AMEB's newly released CPM course has a keyboard category where synthesizers are often employed, but as a keyboard instrument not a synthesis instrument. A number of tertiary institutions allow(ed) synthesizer as a performance study, these include The University of Melbourne and Queensland University of Technology.

An increasing selection of senior syllabuses in Australian states allow for synthesizer performance as an instrumental study. Amongst these are Victoria's VCE which has had a suggested list of works since 1992, Queensland introduced the Music Performance Extension in 1996 which includes synthesizer study and New South Wales' HSC allows for it but has no prescribed repertoire. Amongst these states, Victoria is the only one to my knowledge which would employ instrumental teachers in government schools on all instruments offered by their own curriculums, including synthesizer.


One of the most serious impediments to school-based synthesizer performance tuition is the scarcity of repertoire. Although the synthesizer has decades of composers writing for it, the styles in which it was commonly used, in particular electroacoustic music and popular music, have different cultures than western art music which undergirds music education in this country. In particular, the music for synthesizer from the electronic music community is often specific to now-obsolete instruments or unpublished and difficult to obtain, while pop music has an aural tradition which means that the body of notated works is limited.

Some good sources of synthesizer repertoire are the Australian Music Centre, the prescribed works for synthesizer from the VCE Solo Performance lists, Exploding Art Music Productions on the Internet, and a list of ensemble works with synthesizer in Synthesizer Performance by Jeff Pressing (1992).

Performance skills

The aptitude for synthesizer performance is generally similar to other instruments, however, a heightened interest in sound timbre and some creative drive seems to characterise the synthesizer player. Pressing (1992: 391) lists the following specific skills for a synthesizer performer: sight reading with a wide notational understanding similar to a conductors, improvisational ability, synthesis programming, knowledge of a wide diversity of styles, technique on the controller, familiarity with MIDI, audio devices, and computer software.

Performance techniques for synthesizer extend beyond note, dynamic, and rhythm selection. They include the addition of pitch bends, modulation control for variations over a note's duration, and the ability to change sounds and associated articulation demands during performance. These techniques, and the need to program sounds, demand of the synthesizer player a quite detailed knowledge of the workings of the instrument, of acoustics and synthesis techniques. There is often much effort in programming preparation for performance in order to make the performance itself sonically rich with fewer gestures.

Synthesizer ensemble performance

The synthesizer ensemble comes in a variety of forms. I've already mentioned the Forte Symphony Orchestra and The Interactive Performance Space as two recent Australian ensembles. In a school setting synthesizer ensembles can be a rich source of musical output, often for students who might not otherwise experience ensemble music situations; pianists and electronic music composers for example.

Synth-only ensembles

The synthesizer ensemble has been successfully run in many schools over the last decade. It often begins with a small group as a keyboard ensemble then adding alternative controllers to this group to provide visual interest in performance and wider participation. Experiments with sound systems can also add interest, as well as the traditional stereo PA setup, multi-speaker performances can easily be arranged with individuals or small groups of players dispersed around the space each with their own amplifier.

Mixed electro-acoustic ensembles

Ensembles of synthesizer and other instruments can range from rock and jazz band line-ups with rhythm sections, to art ensembles with any available grouping. The synthesizer's versatility in such ensembles usually means a workable balance can be achieved. Percussion and synthesizer is an effective ensemble mix, both timbrally and visually.

Issues to be considered in mixed ensembles include; tuning, balance, and effects.

Synthesizers are always out of tune (or always in tune depending on your view). They are usually set to mathematically perfect equal temperament, and not even the piano stick to those rules. It is necessary to retune synthesizers so that they are stretch tuned, in particular sharper in the higher registers, so that they stay in tune. Some synthesizers may not allow for this, but all reasonable quality ones do.

Being amplified, synthesizers should be able to balance with any ensemble mix. However considerable attention is often required to control volume levels. These can vary between sounds, and between works and sections of works. Although velocity sensitivity will go a long way to enable this, regular volume control by hand slider, or foot pedal, or breath controller is to be encouraged.

Another result of being amplified, is that mixed ensembles can sound socially incohesive without careful attention to sound quality. Reverb is common on modern synthesizers, this needs to be used with taste in a mixed ensemble; in most cases live performance is best with little or no reverb so that acoustic and electronic instruments sound 'in the same space.' Another alternative is to bring the acoustic instruments into the amplified space by amplifying them to some degree. Performers, such as interactive performance clarinettist Gerard Errante, amplify themselves when working with electronics for this very reason.

Interactive performance

The use of synthesizer and computer in an interactive performance is another exciting 'ensemble' possibility. Interactive, in this sense is more than playing-along with a taped or sequenced backing; although this can itself be lead to rewarding performance outcomes. Interactive performance requires the actions of the performer to effect the accompaniment as well as their own part. Repertoire for interactive synthesizer performance is usually equipment specific, and so is often generated by the performers themselves or by composers writing for them. A number of popular sequencing packages, such as Emagic's Logic, allow for such interaction, and algorithmic compositional languages such as MAX are frequently used for this kind of piece.

Instrumental Teaching of Synthesizer Performance

Whether engaging in synthesizer teaching to increase the skills for a whole class, an ensemble, or a synthesizer soloist here is a list of content areas which might be a useful guide. Areas of study should include; sound design, technical and reading skills, aural perception, creative organisation, repertoire, contexts and literature, and performance practice (Brown 1994: 39).

Project-based teaching works well for synthesizer performance. In the classroom these projects can include playing prepared ensemble pieces, creating sound scapes, exploring sound editing and acoustics, composing and arranging small mixed ensemble pieces. In instrumental lessons projects can include learning repertoire on a theme, preparing for a particular performance, studying a new synthesis method, and so on. When teaching synthesizer performance research shows that:

Lessons should be practically focused, emphasise listening and reflection, should make significant use of media other than print including audio recording, video, sequencing and multimedia, and provide a positive social context. (Brown 1994:82)


Synthesizer students often site that they enjoy the instrument because it enables them to participate in ensembles, it gives them access to sounds and musical styles which are relevant to them, and that it makes a connection between art and technology which brings together significant aspects of their culture. Good teachers can make use of these inherent motivations to make synthesizer playing a vital part of their curriculum.

The synthesizer as an electronic instrument, often acts as the performance conduit to other electronic media. This is most commonly seen in its use with computer-based sequencers. It is important to not simply leave it as a tool for inputting notes into a computer, because it has much more musical potential than that. Just as educators don't stop at using xylophones to teach musical note names, but use them for creative exploration of sound, and for some like Evelyn Glennie, virtuosic musical expression; so the synthesizer has the potential to open up a world of music to students in our schools, if only we learn to play it, not just use it.


Boulez, P. 1986. Technology and the Composer. In The Language of Electroacoustic Music. Emmerson, S. (ed.). London: The Macmillan Press

Brown, A. 1994. Teaching Synthesizer Performance: Issues for an Instrumental Music Program for Synthesizer. Masters of Education Thesis. The University of Melbourne

Exploding Art Music Productions - http://www.explodingart.com.au

Pressing, J. 1992. Synthesizer Performance and Real-Time Techniques. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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