Adventures in Chiptunes (Part 2) – Keyboards vs. Pianos

LizardmanRecap: For over a year, I’ve been investigating chiptune music.  I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned about myself, my music, my creative process and more.  I hope some of this is relevant to you.  Thanks for reading.

Here’s an excerpt of one of my own chiptunes.  It’s a remake of Dan Fortin’s tune Myriad.  From MYRIAD3’s album Tell.


Keyboards vs. Pianos

I’ve always had misgivings about playing keyboards.  I used to say that I prefer bad pianos to good keyboards.  But since acquiring my Nord and experimenting with Chiptunes, I’ve modified my views on this.

First of all, a keyboard is not a piano.  A keyboard is a keyboard.

Nor does a keyboard have “piano sounds.” A keyboard has “keyboard sounds” (despite what the buttons may say).

Problems arise when we confuse keyboards with pianos.  This is understandable because they often share a similar interface, with black and white keys.  This tricks us into thinking we can use the same technique to interact with them.  But you can’t, and you shouldn’t.  A piano is different from a keyboard, just as a piano is different from a guitar.

Playing a keyboard, just as any instrument, is about understanding and interacting with its capabilities, limitations and interface.  Not to mention connecting the music with audiences and circumstances.

It’s reasonable to prefer pianos to keyboards.  But this preference is just as much a reflection of the capabilities and limitations of the player as it is of the instrument itself.

Blame the Skater, or Blame the Skates?

Last winter, I put on skates for the first time in 10 years. I played a lot of hockey and was a good skater as a kid, so I anticipated being able to skate reasonably well.

But I rented skates from the arena, and the edges were much different from what I grew up with.  I wiped out a few times and it took a while to figure out how to skate straight and turn corners.  Eventually, I was a little more comfortable, but far from skating as I used to.

I had deceived myself into thinking that my skate rentals would be like my old hockey skates.  This is excusable, I think.  They looked like skates, they were used for skating, and I called them “skates.”  It’s easy to see how my expectations would work against me, just as between pianos and keyboards.  The vendor who rented me the skates is partly to blame too.  He told me they were “skates” and could be used to “skate” around the arena.

Ultimately though, in order to adjust to the current circumstances, my ideas of “skates” and “skating” needed to change. Skating was no longer a fast paced activity, with me doing laps at fast speeds and being able to stop on a dime.  Skating was now very casual, perhaps the goal being to enjoy the cold breeze and socialize with friends.  Maybe with enough practice, I could adjust to the rough edges, and pull off a few impressive tricks.

Or maybe next time I can bring my own pair that better complement my ideas of “skates” and “skating.”  But what about my ideas of “ice” and “arena?”  There are countless variables outside of my control that would also require constant adjustment.

Maybe the best strategy is to figure out how to take advantage of all the variables in the current circumstances, even if it means challenging your ideas of skating and skates.  After all, the best hockey players wouldn’t complain about the condition of the ice.  Rather, they’d figure out how to use different ice types to their advantage.

Either way, using a keyboard as you’d use a piano is a misstep.  It’s not a piano; it’s a keyboard.  Just as they’re not my old hockey skates, they’re skates with unfamiliar edges.

The Square Wave – No Such Thing

Through my adventures with chiptunes, I learned a lot about waveforms.


Simple Wavesforms (From Wikipedia user Omegatron)


The most simple and common waveforms include the sine wave, square wave, triangle wave and sawtooth wave.  All have a unique, continuous, cyclical sound and can be combined, or synthesized to create new ones.  Most synthesizers will have two or three of these waveforms in their sound banks.

The sine wave is the smoothest and purest of sound waves and could be considered the primary colour of sound.  The mathematician Joseph Fourier discovered in the early 19th century that any waveform could be broken down as a combination of sine waves with various amplitudes and frequencies.

The square wave is a composite of sine waves, of odd-integer harmonic frequencies (Fundamental + 3rd harmonic + 5th harmonic + 7th harmonic etc.).  The ideal square waveform though, as represented in the picture above, is impossible to realize using a finite Fourier expansion.  The square waves produced using synthesizers, keyboards and music chips are imperfect approximations.  Further, different synthesizers, keyboards and music chips may have different forms and approximations of square waves, resulting in slightly different sounds.


Animation of the additive synthesis of a square wave with an increasing number of harmonics including frequency domain analysis. From Wikipedia user Peretuset

This raises the question: What’s a square wave?  Is it a composite of 10 odd-integer sinusoidal frequencies? 100 frequencies?  Even with a million frequencies, it’s still not a square wave.

This hints at the sorites paradox, but the boundaries that define “square waves” are determined by the capabilities, limitations and preferences of the different technologies used.  Ultimately though, all square waves are imperfect, and can be improved.  Even the “best” square wave has room for improvement.

Instruments As Connectors

The same can be said about pianos, piano sounds and keyboards.  If you think you’re playing a perfect piano, you’re not looking close enough.  Similarly, a keyboard that only uses square waves is not a shitty keyboard.  Great music can be made with the simplest sounds and waveforms.  Chiptunes is a great example of that.

The solution is not only in what pianos, keyboards and square waves are, but in what they do and how they connect.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a keyboard, an out-of-tune upright piano, a Steinway, or a square wave.  The music-making instrument in front of you can be used to connect.

Unlocking the connecting potential in a variety of instruments, in a variety of contexts, is a skill in itself.  Some artists are up for the challenge.  Others may avoid it completely (by refusing to play a keyboard for example). Again, this is reasonable, but it’s important to remember that this preference is just as much a reflection of the capabilities and limitations of the player as it is of the instrument itself.

Personally, this is one of the reasons I learned to play the spoons.  Music shouldn’t be dependent on having access to a big wooden box with strings.  This has enriched my idea of making music.

I’m not necessarily happy about playing keyboards, but I’m more likely to blame the skater than the skates.

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