How to Play a Synthesizer

By Christopher Capelle

Whether you’re in a band or just want to fool around with sounds, there’s almost no instrument that allows you to sound good as quickly as a synthesizer.

Things You'll Need

  • Synthesizer
  • Headphones or amplifier
  • Chord dictionary (for novice players)
  • Computer with MIDI software (advanced users only)

Step 1

Purchase a chord dictionary to get a basic knowledge of scales and chords, if you don't have that knowledge already.

Step 2

Choose your instrument. Not all keyboards are synthesizers--a true synthesizer can produce a number of sounds by generating signals of various frequencies. Playing one requires either headphones or an amp (or a loudspeaker, or P.A. system). Start by fooling around with the different settings to learn what sounds your instrument is capable of. There are an unlimited number of models available, but some features remain the same no matter what synthesizer you play.

Step 3

Explore the different ways to play, depending on what type of music you prefer. Many popular songs of the 1980s typically contained an easily identifiable synthesizer hook ("Der Kommissar," "The Stroke," "Shake It Up," "Subdivisions," "Jump"). Many dance tracks used a synthesizer bass. Other occasions have called for sparkly solos. Remember, if you’re playing with others, you’re only one part of the puzzle.

Step 4

Once you become proficient, you can start to explore MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) options, which will allow you to use your computer to have your synthesizer play multiple parts simultaneously.

Tips & Warnings

  • While years of childhood piano lessons certainly won’t hurt your musical endeavors, a good ear and some rudimentary keyboard skills will help you unleash your inner Trent Reznor.
  • Listen to the pros! See how the different instruments fit into each part of the song. Playing all over the keyboard during a vocal line can be distracting to the singer and the listener.
  • Trance, house, hip-hop and even reggae songs also have prominent synthesizer parts, so listen closely to these to see how the synthesizer fits in with the rest of the instruments.
  • The cheaper the synthesizer, the fewer features it has. Do your homework before buying!
  • Keep things pithy. Nobody wants to hear endless noodling in a song. As the old cliché goes: Don’t bore us, get to the chorus!