Synthesis: Music for the non-musician

There’s something about synthesizers that attracts non-musicians. At least it is so in my case. Musically, I am quite inept. But for two-and-a-half years or so, I’ve been playing with synthesizers. I’ve used a couple semi-modular synths, as well as a small Eurorack system of my own (poor) design. In this time, I’ve made some really cool little tunes of which I am reasonably proud. But most of the time, I’ve just made unpalatable noise. Cacophonous at best, incoherent gibberish at worst. Even when I’ve made something, in which I have a little pride, my lovely wife often says, “I guess it’s ok…” No accounting for taste, eh?

Today for the first time, I sat down, made a sequence, in one, single, intentional pass… and came up with something not only usable, but my wife liked it as well. I planned and recorded that sequence in about ten-seconds. Compared to the minutes and hours sitting around making sounds that rate a solid “meh” from the missus.

So what’s changed? I actually spent a handful of minutes trying to understand music theory. I’m not talking about hours. I’m not even talking about one hour. Five minutes researching “arpeggios”. Another ten finding and printing out a keyboard cheat-sheet, with the notes on it, and a cheat-sheet of keyboard chords. After maybe ten minutes playing arpeggios from some of the major chords, I started a sequence. It was three repetitions of an F chord followed by three repetitions of a G chord… that’s all. A couple minutes setting up a very basic patch, and I had a pretty nice sound.

No, you don’t have to be a well trained pianist to make a cool sound, or even a nice sequence. But some time learning the basics of chords and apreggiation and keeping a cheat-sheet handy can go a long way to a more musical sound.
What I learned on today’s little journey:

  1. An arpeggio is not just some random keys you hold down, being played in sequence.
  2. An arpeggio is a chord which is played one note at a time.
  3. Arpeggios are great for modular synthesis, since most systems are essentially monophonic.
  4. It’s really easy to start learning arpeggios and start making musical sounds with them. (Or just using the ol’ cheat-sheet.)
  5. I really do love the ease of creating arpeggios or arpeggiated sequences on the Arturia Keystep. It’s a great interface for Eurorack and Semi-Modular.


  1. Piano Keyboard Layout: Nope, I didn’t even know which key was “C” before I started the day. Sad but true… at least it was true.
    Learn your Keyboard layout here:
  2. Piano Chords: You’ll use these to make your arpeggios: