How Alternate Synth Keyboards Could Bust Open the Door to Your Creativity

There's something magical about forcing new patterns

  • There are plenty of hardware and software alternatives to the old-fashioned piano keyboard. 
  • Different instruments push you to play in different ways. 
  • The piano is a classic for a reason.
Closeup of someone's hands on a piano keyboard.

Andy Catlin / EyeEm / Getty Images

Piano keyboards are fine and iconic and all, but they're not the only way—or even the best way—to play music. 

One of the things that makes guitar music different from piano music, trumpet music, or any other kind of instrumental music is the way you play it. Yes, these devices all have their own distinctive tones and timbres, but they also have different input methods. This can really open creative pathways. So, while most synthesizers come with piano-style keyboards, there are—happily—plenty of other options available in both hardware and software.

"There are some things that are easy to do with the traditional layout that sound good, which eventually can become cliche because everyone does them. Alternate keyboard arrangements are a way to break out of those habits," Emilio Guarino, engineer and producer at Glitch Magic, told Lifewire via email.

Alternative Music

If you listen to a lot of blues, jazz, or rock music, or any music where you can clearly hear individual instruments, you'll notice certain patterns and motifs that repeat. These are the vernacular of the musical style and the instruments used. 

For instance, on a guitar, scales are usually played vertically across the strings. Every guitarist learns these scales, and our fingers fall into certain patterns, making them easier to play. 

An alternative keyboard that mimicks a guitar layout.

Roger Linn/Linnstrument

The same goes for the piano. In fact, one nice creative trick is to learn a piece of music composed on another instrument because it will force you out of common patterns. A guitarist might transcribe a Miles Davis solo, for example. 

There is a whole market of alternative music input devices, and thanks to the MIDI standard, they can work with any electronic instrument and with any software. Richard Linn's Linnstrument, for example, is a grid of touch-sensitive buttons that can even mimic a guitar layout. 

There are other advantages, too. For example, on the piano, you have to learn different scale patterns and chord shapes for each key, while on the guitar, you just learn one shape and move it up and down. Conversely, a guitar can only play one note from each string at a time, and playing bass notes simultaneously as high notes is very tricky, but both are easy on a piano. 

Alternate layouts can offer different options. 

"One of the main advantages of alternate keyboard layouts, like the ones found on the Linnstrument (or my personal favorite, Ableton's Push), is that they can be more approachable for musicians who aren't trained in traditional piano playing. For me personally, as someone who never learned to play the piano, these layouts are much more intuitive and allow me to focus on the music itself rather than worrying about finger placement and technique," touring musician Arnold aka theRave, told Lifewire via email. 

The Arithmophone, alternative musical keyboard.



This brings us to the Arithmophone, a software-only keyboard that can run in a browser and can be used to control hardware and software synths. Take a look at its layout. It makes it easy to play chords, thanks to hexagonal keys that are split into three sections and can result in some off-the-wall improvisations. 

The Arithmophone is a web app that can run in any touch-based browser that supports web MIDI, which unfortunately does not include the iPad. But the iPad has a ton of great options. In fact, the iPad might be the best way to try out alternative keyboard layouts before you spend big money on hardware options. I recommend GridInstrument, KB-1, Chordion, and Navichord, among others. 

And, of course, you can also stick with the piano. It's not new or fancy, but it's a standard, and if you learn it once, you can play pretty much any keyboard instrument ever made. 

"Part of the piano keyboard's staying power is simply momentum. Western music basically grew up around the piano. There are lots of pianos around and lots of people who know how to play them. If you're marketing an electronic instrument, setting it up to use a common interface will help lower the barrier to people using it and playing it regularly," says Guarino.

But that doesn't mean there isn't room for something new to shake up your creativity. And if you already own an iPad or iPhone and opt for a software controller, you can try it for a few bucks today.

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