What is an electronic instrument?

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”?



This feels like a welcome development of the Eno chestnut of electronic instruments replacing skill with judgement. This quote has always bothered me because clearly synthesizers do take practice to master, so it’s an extremely blurry distinction (as I’m sure Eno was aware, see above :slight_smile: ).

I have an instrument (piano) that I practice as well as a modular kit. I’ve mentioned on this forum before how I love the difference between approaches that each music making system requires- one based on repetition and the other on consideration and planning. It’s very much deepened my relationship with making music and each system provides great insights into the other.


I should probably refrain from joining the discussion because I fundamentally disagree with how “instrument” is being framed but

here goes anyway…

there isn’t any distinction
an artist approaching each “as an instrument” makes it an instrument for them, if not for anybody else

they are all electronic instruments

i flinch at the phrase “established performance techniques” partly because it seems to tip the cards a bit as far as your own conception of what validates a tool as a full-fledged instrument

disregarding that, the answer includes playback devices, sound capture and amplification (as others mentioned above)

i specifically think of wire recorders, phonograph and disk players, and all iterations of magnetic tape machine

i find this especially interesting because, first of all, no…i don’t find the distinction “useful”
also patching/playing a modular synth 100% qualifies as a fixed electronic instrument unless you are soldering new parts onto modules on the fly :smile:

even then…how is that functionally different from retuning a guitar in between songs or using so-called extended techniques to play anything?


My own thoughts on this aren’t about validity. If anything I’m saying synthesizers are more than traditional instruments (or many instruments) and not less than.

I don’t like the word “instrument” for what I’m thinking of but I can’t think of a better one either.

My attempt at categorization isn’t to judge value but rather to find more of one type of electronic instrument. I love synthesizers. I can find them easily because we have the word “synthesizer” for an electronic device that can make many sounds in many ways. I can’t think of a term for “an electronic device that makes sounds recognizable as that device and where timbre is consistent to how one physically interacts with the device to the point where one can practice techniques specific to the device”.

Sure you can set up a particular patch and master it but that’s not really what I’m wondering about.


fair enough

forgive me if i’m wrong but is repeatability or precision a part of your means of categorizing things?

i think the breadth of knowledge needed to reliably produce expected sounds could be viewed as equivalent to the way you’ve explained theremin, for example

i’m arguing that the tonal & timbral range of synths and samplers being quite wide doesn’t actually make them much different than instruments that appear fixed

any thoughts on that?


I guess repeatability is important but mostly in the sense of “it is what it is”. Synthesizers tend to attract tinkerers and musicians who want to have complete freedom. Many musicians aren’t technical at all and just want to grab something and play it. I noticed that there were some electronic instruments that fit into the “just grab it and play it” category and wondered why I couldn’t find more.

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The beauty of music and instruments is that we can all see things so differently. I have never thought of a theremin in the category of “just grab it and play it”

I guess maybe my entry into music and electronics have too great an influence on how i think. Drumming seems fixed but as a performer i always know there are many ways to shape the sounds i make…facing a multitude of sound options is normal

Also my entry into electronic music and synth understanding came from drum machines and making percussive sound with dj equipment and guitar pedals

Sorry for the timeline discontinuity…this came in as i was editing.
Is your original question: What is an electronic instrument for me? or more general?

I see many samplers as grab-and-play, intuitive enough that i can learn the features and instrument terrain as i spend a bit of time with it…same with almost all drum machine or synths

It’s difficult for me to see time and/or training needed to learn theremin as tangibly distinct from time and thought needed to learn to play synthesizers or other electronics


Theremins definitely take a long time to learn how to play but I’d categorize them as “just grab it and play it” because you’re learning how it works by playing it, not deciding how it is played and how that affects how it sounds.

One example that always springs to mind when I talk about that kind of things with students :


This gets a bit wiggly for me.

A eurorack can be totally grab and play, if it has been built already. A Make Noise Black and Gold Shared System fits the description.

But it can be radically reconfigured by a user, or the case can be bought completely empty and filled to the brim with no MN modules whatsoever.

One can say that both of these fall within the manufacturer’s intentions.

Similarly, a stock Stratocaster can be grabbed and played, but one can also replace the neck, pickups, tuners, pots, etc. in this case it’s likely not within the manufacturer’s intentions.

I’m not sure how useful these distinctions are in a place like this, where such a high percentage of the folks are tinkerers of one kind or another. It’s fun to play with definitions of course.

I can think of other contexts where this could be of material consequence, such as determining what “instruments” can be approved for an academic major, as is actually the case at Berklee. Significant institutional resources are allocated based on precisely such differentiations…

Anyway, I personally appreciate having an open relationship with my various tools, without thinking too much about how to classify them. It’s a bit polymorphously perverse, which is a positive!


The terms “technology” and “technique” arrive to us from the Greek root techne, which mean art or craft. These questions about qualifying “instruments” are still difficult when it comes to electronic tools because

i) all of us were born into a world that has many schools and traditions with regards to acoustic instruments, and

ii) electronic instruments are still somewhat representative of a punk subculture that was originally thought of as subversive to the above mentioned traditions.

While it can certainly be argued that our culture has made peace (to an extent) with electronic instruments, the generation that runs things right now still carries a little scar from the “wound” of betrayal inflicted by Bob Dylan’s decision to go electric in 1965.

It was a move that hit a nerve because Dylan was initially thought of as a bit of a wandering minstrel voicing a down-to-earth set of values, which is a throwback archetype. That shift in instrumentation recast those values into something that no longer shared footing with the generation before (the WWII generation), and so electronic instruments (in my opinion) still carry some of the baggage from that societal fragmentation.

A decade later, kids started putting together punk shows while their parents and grandparents were still going to symphonies. That right there represents a serious fragmentation of the traditional order that preceded it. With the use of electricity, Punk became an explosive sound. Then New Wave hit, and there are still a lot of grandmas out there that frown on the idea of a synthesizer.

All of that is to say that synths (and other electronic instruments) are just as techne as violins and clarinets. They are simply not yet steeped in as much tradition, cultural support, and orthodoxy as the older tools because they are newer and (therefore) more illicit.


i usually think of an instrument as being the combination of an oscillator and a controller

oscillator in this case is defined in a very general way as a noise-maker, and controller the means by which the musician interacts with the oscillator

neither a string nor a bow is an instrument, but a violin is

the grid, mlr, and samples are not instruments by themselves, but the three together become one

this definition in mind, there’s a definite pattern of classifying acoustic instruments by their controllers and electronic instruments by their oscillators