What is an electronic instrument?

I’ve been interested in the history and classification of instruments lately and it has got me wondering. What exactly makes something an instrument vs a family of instruments or a production tool when it comes to electronic instruments?

The earliest examples like theremin and ondes martenot have their own performance techniques and for the most part “sound like themselves”. Whereas most synthesizers “can be many instruments” sound wise and most commercially available options opt for a keyboard and at least as far as performance goes fall into a tradition of technique from another family of instruments. Some synths like the Minimoog or 303 have classic patches but can also sound very different when used differently. And many come with MIDI or CV and thus you can bring your own controller.

Do you think there is a distinction between an electronic instrument (like a theremin or an Omnichord) and a synthesizer (like a Minimoog)? What other electronic instruments, with a recognizable sound and established performance techniques associated with it, are there?

Is this a useful distinction at all - fixed electronic instruments you learn to play vs synthesizers as instrument factories that you use to create sounds you want to play? I guess modular is an instrument factory factory.


Well, is it at it’s core something that is not only an acoustic instrument?
An electric guitar or a Rhodes is an electro-acoustic instrument, a Hammond B3 or an ARP 2600 has no physical resonating parts …reed, string, etc…
Altho, the speaker on both instruments adds an acoustic element (speaker) to the end of chain!

It’s funny how my 1st thought was how this will be an interesting discussion here and on MF it’ll turn nasty within a few pages.


The question I’m getting at is less “What is an electronic instrument vs an acoustic or electric instrument?” and more “Is there a distinction between instruments and synthesizers which can be many instruments?”

For instance you could make an entire album on a Haken Continuum without someone who owns a Continuum being able to tell and each patch would respond differently to your playing technique.

Whereas non-guitarists can pretty consistently recognize a guitar even with effects on it and the main way you get it to sound different is to play differently vs altering the way the instrument makes sound.

Any time you use a synthesizer you have an opportunity to fundamentally change how it works whereas many guitarists never modify their instrument beyond changing strings.

I realize this is all a bit abstract but I figured if there is anywhere folks like to get into the weeds…


Aaaah, OK. Let’s see where this goes…

1 Like

the first definition of ‘electronic music’ i ever came across was that electronic music is music not attempting to mimic music made with other kinds of instruments. this definition has a thousand holes in it, grey-space between those holes, and has the misfortune of only defining what it is not, yet i still think it’s the best definition i have come across.

i would extend that definition to the instrument themselves, not in their inert state, but in use.

a synth used entirely to mimic an acoustic instrument within a musical setting native to that acoustic instrument being mimicked might as well not be an electronic instrument.

edit - I think maybe I missed the distinct focus on instrument in the question


The line can be fuzzy, IMHO.

Theremin? Probably not a synthesizer.

Organ? Ondes Martenot? Trautonium? Probably not but it can be a bit more questionable.

Casio DG-20? They often get called “guitar synthesizer” but it just plays a handful of presets.

Other preset keyboards without the possibility of editing…?

A rompler?

A sampler that has a filter onboard?

An all analog drum machine?

A Lyra-8? It says “Organismic Synthesizer” but the control over timbre is quite limited.



From an organological perspective, the question becomes less “what it sounds like” vs “how the sound is made.” Electronic instruments make sounds via electronics—whether by oscillation, sampling, or other means. A transducer is necessary for the sounds to become audible. That’s a broad enough umbrella for me.


Not necessarily on point but one of the general ideas I pose to my Music Technology in the Marketplace class is to think about the difference between “tools” and “tools for making tools.”

In the software realm, I would think something like one of the (imho) fantastic Arturia V Collection synths like their Buchla Music Easel is a tool, in that its architecture is essentially fixed despite being deeply programmable and capable of making a very wide range of sounds.

Whereas Max/MSP/Jitter is a tool for making tools, in that it is designed to be open-ended and capable not just of making a wide range of sounds as a single instrument but rather an entirely other level of making instruments themselves.

To me this is an evolutionary leap into a different kind of relationship between artists and their expressive means…


Besides natural curiosity the main driver of this thought is “How do I find out about more electronic instruments you learn to play, discovering how they work and developing or learning techniques, as opposed to deciding how they work?” I love synthesizers and I don’t think the ability to be many things is bad at all. Instrument is just a very overloaded term so I don’t know how to find what I’m curious about. It’s also just an interesting thought experiment.

Partly inspired by Harry Partch who did the opposite. Acoustic instruments didn’t do what he wanted so instead of working within the constraints of what existed he built his own acoustic instruments. Partch worked with acoustic instruments the way many of us work with synths. What electronic instruments exist where you can have a Yo-Yo Ma or a Jimi Hendrix who excels within constraints and pushes them further?


At the risk of sounding like some kind of Eno worshipper (although he is a hero of sorts to me, no doubt), I would point to his use of the VCS3 as a great example of single-synth mastery, although he would probably laugh at any such suggestion…

Allen Ravenstine of Pere Ubu with his EML 200 is another great favorite…


Arguably that’s how many electric guitarists approach their instruments too. A guitar is an instrument, but then a pedalboard, rack effects, the amp itself are tools for radically transforming and sculpting the sound – so effectively, it’s a synthesizer.

One might also argue that certain uses of microphones and amplifiers – e.g. swinging a mic above an amp to generate feedback – are a kind of electronic instrument. Or perhaps a synthesizer?

Also I think we shouldn’t take it as a given that a synthesizer is “an instrument.” It might be several, if it’s multitimbral or a modular synth. It might be used in a non-“instrument” sort of way as well.

So I think both “instrument” and “synthesizer” depend on context.


I think I’m gathering that we’re making or trying to draw a distinction between instruments, which are things that can be practiced, mastered, and remain relatively constant, and synthesizers, which can be patched, built, and are polymorphic.

In this framework, and forgive me for saying something silly-seeming, a violin or your voice is an instrument and not a synthesizer. Modular synthesizers and Max/MSP are synthesizers and not usually instruments, although I think it’s hard to find an example of a pure synthesizer without instrumental qualities, simply because I can imagine mastering patches or, well, instruments built on these platforms.

How about the grid? For some reason I feel like staking the claim that although it is almost definitionally polymorphic, and the specifics of the interfaces it presents to you are dependent on the script it talks to, playing a grid feels to me like playing a keyboard more than it does learning how to interact with a patch on a modular synthesizer. The location and feel of the buttons remains the same across scripts, and the kinds of behavior a button can have and the ways of interacting with it are relatively few (it’s a button with a light, after all).


I think part of the issue is that electronic instruments are a) relatively new, compared to pretty much everything else (iterations on designs that are centuries or millennia-old) and b) subject to relentless “update” due to capitalist/marketing/modernist pressures. Hard to get a standardized baseline sort of thing like you would with a guitar or a cello, hard to measure “virtuosity” when the playing interface is not standardized nor subjected to decades/centuries of debate as to “how it should be done”

I don’t consider those things negatives by the way! Instruments and pedagogies often carry a whole lot of baggage along with their histories (and by now, probably, so do synths/electronic instruments)


I think this categorization makes sense for the sake of discussion even if reality gets blurry the more you look at it.

An electric guitar into an amp I would consider “an instrument” because while there are options it doesn’t radically change timbre or playing technique when configured. A guitar into a pedalboard I would consider a “synthesizer”. A particular “patch” of pedal settings I would consider an “instrument” unto itself.

Input method can also define an instrument within a family. Say keyboard accordion vs button accordion.

What I’m seeking is electronic instruments in the tradition of the theremin or ondes that are relatively fixed enough to be “one instrument”. But the term is so broad that finding that means sifting through many synthesizers, which I absolutely love but aren’t what I am thinking of.


Here’s a fun “fact” (I hope it’s a fact) from biology that your thoughts about the grid suggest to me.

Life is most plentiful and diverse at the boundaries between ecosystems. Evidently there’s more life and more variety of species where the ocean meets the land than there is when you get further away from the boundary.

Of course I could be completely wrong, as I heard that a long time ago and can’t possibly cite the source.

But I love the idea, even if it’s BS…


I reject that reality and substitute my own!


might be worth taking a look at Thoughts About Musical Instruments, a old thread started by @MengQiMusic, talking about their thoughts regarding this question from a designer’s perspective.


Here is a bit of a tangent (but hey who doesn’t like a bit of maths ?) :

I always feel like it is a fun and creative mental exercise to try to find what is at the center of a precise category, like say what is an instrument and what is not, or what is music / sound , etc, but the “real” world and most of life is (to me at least) always in the middle of the continuum defined by those abstract categories that we try to define for the sake of naming, the ease of communication, etc. I like thinking about those abstracts absolutes but I feel a lot more interested in finding ways to explore what happens in the infinite middle.


Here’s another thought: instruments really need repertoires in order to achieve the kind of standardization we’re talking about. The Ondes and Theremin fulfill that requirement (I think there’s something like 800 pieces for ondes?!)

Similarly an 808 fulfills that requirement due to its ubiquitousness in a certain scene/genre/point in time.

It may be fruitful to go about your search that way perhaps?


Isn’t what happens in “the infinite middle” actually “the infinite muddle”?