The 5 Keyboard Sounds You Should Be Familiar With

Are there ever sounds on a song that you absolutely love, but are unable to identify which instrument it is?  Perhaps you are a guitar-based band and are considering branching out.  It is essential that you learn about keyboards.  Almost any song that you hear in music that is not a guitar or bass is produced by some sort of keyboard.

Most people can identify a piano, drums or a guitar, but can you tell the difference between an electric piano and a synthesizer? Between an organ and a guitar with heavy effects?  Many of these lines get blurry and I’d like to clear them up for you.  Even if you’ve never really been curious about sorting these things out, doing so will give you a better appreciation for the music you love.

With that said, I am going to talk about five keyboards that you are very likely to hear in modern music.


You probably already recognize the sound of a piano, but for those who don’t, listen to the keyboard sound in Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”   Better yet, listen to some Mozart or Beethoven.  It is a very clean bright sound.

Electric Pianos

An electric piano is similar to a piano but has pickups like a guitar, so the notes can be electrically amplified.   Listen to the keyboard on Elton Johns “Daniel,” or “Just The Two Of Us” by Grover Washington. The sound is typically reedier and hollower than a piano.


Photo by Wiki commons / cc by-SA 3.0

The clavinet is a centuries-old instrument that is similar to a piano in structure but has some key internal differences that make it sound a lot different.  In the 1970s they started putting pickups on clavinets and discovered that they work great for Funk Music.   For a perfect example of a clavinet with a pickup, listen to the intro to Stevie Wonders “Superstition.”  Some think this sound is a super tight and funky guitar, but it is not.  It is a clavinet. Clavinets are tight and creaky sounding.


The organ is super old school.   The first organs were used centuries BC!   These were pipe organs.  Ever hear the “Wedding March” played inside a large church?  How about “Here Comes The Bride" at a wedding?” These are pipe organs.

Ever hear organs being played at a revival church? How about “Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harem?    Or “Oye Como Va” by Santana?  The keyboard sound in these songs is a tone wheel organ, most likely made by Hammond.  It can be a warm sound or a shrill sound.  It can be a clean simple note or a multilayered sound with lots of texture and overtones.   It can even be distorted and gritty at high levels.  It all depends on the organ settings.

Finally, we have transistor style organs.  Listen to the intro to The Doors “Light my Fire” for a perfect example of a transistor organ sound. They sound similar to tone wheel organs by maybe a bit brighter.


Photo by Create Digital Media / ccby-SA 2.0

The synthesizer is a keyboard that produces all sounds electronically.  There are analog synthesizers, where the sound is produced by an electrical circuit, and there are digital synthesizers where the sounds are created by internal computers.

Synthesizers can sound many different ways.  The quintessential synthesizer sounds very electronic.  It can vary from pads creating a wash sound, to electronic beeps, to punchy bass sounds.

Listen to “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics, or “Computer Love” by Kraftwerk.  These are some classic analog synth sounds.

A digital synth can do a great job of creating sounds of other instruments like horns, strings, guitars, and drums.  A digital synth can also be set to sound just like an analog synth.  Just remember, if it is electronic or futuristic sounding, it is probably a synthesizer of some kind.

Functional Families

If you want to get scholarly about it, we can categorize keyboards according to how they work.  So, lets look at a functional breakdown:


Chordophones are instruments where when a key is pressed, something hits or plucks a string.

  • Clavinet
  • Harpsicord
  • Piano


Aerophones are instruments where air goes though some sort of pipe or chamber which creates a note

  • Accordion
  • Claviola
  • Pipe Organ
  • Melodica


Idiophones are instruments where a hammer hits something metallic which is picked up by an electromagnetic pickup that sends a signal to an amplifier.

  • Celesta
  • ElectricPiano
  • Glockenspiel
  • Toy Piano


Electrophones are instruments who’s sounds are made by electric circuits or sound samples.

  • Transistor Organ
  • Synthesizer
  • Mellotron

Sound Families

Now let’s categorize the instruments by the sound they make.

Piano Sounds

  • Piano
  • Electric Piano

Organ Sounds

  • Pipe Organ
  • Tone wheel Organ
  • Transistor Organ


  • Analog Synthesizer
  • Digital Synthesizer

And that is my general overview of keyboards in modern music.  Be sure to check in with my articles on keyboards, because I am going to cover all five of the instruments I just talked about in great depth.

In future articles I will explain how each one works, its history, and cover the most popular models.   I will also cover a variety of famous musicians who used each one of them.

Can’t wait!   See you soon!