Synthesia is an incredible piece of software, and can be a lot of fun to use.
But is is actually effective in teaching you how to play the piano?
The short answer is no. While it has its uses (which I’ll detail in this article) and it can help you pick up pieces more quickly, it is not sufficient in helping you become a well-rounded pianist. This unfortunately means you’ll have to put in the real work of learning how to read sheet music, and practicing piano techniques over and over again until they become second-nature.
That being said, Synthesia can be used as a tool to speed up progress as long as it is supplemental, and not the only way that you’re learning.
To explain, let’s look into this a bit further.
The Fun Factor
Before we get into the details, I’d like to stress an important point.
Playing music is about having fun. The more fun you have, the more you’ll practice your instrument. And the more you practice your instrument – even if it’s often through something less effective to build skill (like Synthesia), the better you’ll become.
It’s the same reason we love video games like Rocksmith. Is it the best way to learn music? Heck no. Will you still get better by playing it? Yes, particularly in a few specific areas.
Therefore, if Synthesia helps you to play more piano, by all means, there’s no reason to avoid it.
Yet if building skill as quickly as possible, with a solid musical foundation to work from is important, it’s best to do it the old fashioned way.
Synthesia For Learning Piano – The Pros
Although Synthesia is a fun game, its actual uses for building piano skill are limited. That being said, there are still a few areas where Synthesia can help.
One very valuable skill that Synthesia can aid with is building pure muscle memory.
Over time, as you play more and more songs, you develop a sort of ‘internal sense’ on where to move your hands, what notes and chords sound good together. What intervals (the distances between the notes) feel right in a given piece.
One problem Synthesia has is that due to the way its laid out, you are often looking more for proper placement of individual notes than you are for complete phrases of music. However, simply by playing a wide variety of songs through Synthesia, you will still develop muscle memory to a degree.
While this won’t help you in reading music, it may make it easier to handle the technical movements later on, while also aiding your improvisation skills in the meantime.
Synthesia has a ‘waiting’ feature built right into it, forcing you to play the write notes before it allows you to continue. Although making mistakes is obviously a critical part of learning, the fact that the software forces you to hit every note of the chords correctly can help train your fingers and wrist as you develop your skill.
Exposure To More Musical Styles
One of the biggest barriers to learning is an unwillingness to push yourself.
We learn a piece or a specific style of music, and it sounds good. So we play that piece over and over again because it’s comfortable. The problem is, this doesn’t actually help us grow as musicians.
Playing a diverse set of music on Synthesia will help give you a larger repertoire of styles to pull from, particularly with the left hand. You’ll be able to use these as you improvise on your own, and you’ll also find that many of the patterns repeat themselves as you move to other songs.
This is why so many expert piano players are able to play pieces by ear – so much of music is repeated across songs.
Therefore, the more musical styles and patterns you’ve familiarized yourself, the more well-rounded you’ll be when playing your own music later.
Synthesia Can Help Build Your Repertoire
Unfortunately, one of the only ways to play complex pieces with Synthesia is to basically memorize them.
You just can’t take in so many notes as quickly as you could with sheet music.
However, because you’ll be practically memorizing entire arrangements, this means you’ll be able to build up an internal repertoire of songs you can play whenever you’re at a piano – even without your computer or sheet music around.
If you’re like me and you have an urge to try out every piano you come across… well that can be quite useful!
Synthesia Sheet Music Mode
If you’re using the paid version of Synthesia, you have the option to enable sheet music running across the top of your screen.
Or, you can disable the falling notes completely and only show sheet music.
If there were an ideal way to use Synthesia for learning, it would be this one.
If you’re playing along with the sheet music via MIDI, it will show the notes you’re playing alongside the area of the sheet music that you’re at – so you can see what notes you’re actually hitting if they’re not correct.
By utilizing this, along with the speed functions and ‘waiting’ feature built-in to Synthesia, this can actually be a solid tool to practice songs with!
It May Help You Play More
I’ve said it already and I’ll say you again – anything that helps you play more piano is obviously a good thing – especially if it’s fun.
Purists will say that you should only ever practice a certain way. I say, you don’t build skill just to get good. You do it because it allows you to have even more fun with your instrument. I’d rather learn something slow, but have a blast doing it, then to do something boring even if it meant I learned quickly.
Synthesia For Learning Piano – The Cons
Unfortunately, the cons of Synthesia outweigh the pros when it comes to actually building your skills as a pianist. Let’s look over some of these drawbacks now.
A Huge Chunk Of The Music Is Missing
Synthesia shows you what notes to play, and when to play them.
That’s about it.
However, there is so much more to music than that, and you completely miss out on it when using programs like Synthesia.
We’re talking about things like dynamics (how loud or soft to play the notes), accents (which notes to play with more emphasis) and things like time signature, which are crucial to reading any piece of music.
This also includes using the pedals of your piano, which you know, are there for a reason and are pretty important to the entire experience.
This is particularly important for beginners (who are also the most likely to try using Synthesia to learn piano)
It’s not enough to just hit the note. As your arrangements become more complex, you’ll need to pay specific attention to what fingers you’ll use to play the notes, to transition to other notes more easily while maintaining proper form.
Synthesia has no way to handle this or guide this. Easier piano music will often specifically write this out for you, which can help your technique early on.
Synthesia Can Hurt Your Ability To Sightread
Even if you do have some experience sightreading music, Synthesia can actually cause you to go backwards.
Think about it – Synthesia is acting as a crutch.
Your brain isn’t being trained to take in an entire bit of music all at once – with everything that entails. Instead, it’s being trained to look for where a falling note lines up on a mockup of a keyboard.
Unless you want to be bound to Syntheisa forever (which quickly has its limitations), it’s better to make slow progress reading real sheet music, than quickly picking up a new Synthesia song.
Complex Arrangements Are Near Impossible
As mentioned earlier, you can only follow along so much when using Synthesia.
Eventually, the notes become too fast, or there’s too many at once, and you can no longer keep up.
As your skill builds, it may be easier to recognize patterns (for example, quickly identifying chords or common left hand styles), but it’s still so much slower than reading real sheet music – even with all the extra bits of information that sheet music provides.
This means the only way to actually play a song at the composer’s intended speed is to essentially memorize it.
You could imagine how much longer this would take.
Probably slower than just working through the sheet music the gold fashioned way, I’d imagine.
It’s More Difficult To Pick Up New Arrangements
Finally, because of all of this, it is difficult to pick up new arrangements.
Skilled pianists can pick up a piece of sheet music and play it coherently the first time through. This doesn’t mean they’re perfect, but they can read all the notes even if the arrangement is quite complex.
This means that they can then focus on all the little extra bits that help the music really come alive – that give it the feeling and emotion that the composer intended.
Skilled pianists do not need to memorize sheet music. They simply need to practice it, work on the few troubled areas that would’ve been difficult inside Synthesia anyway, and make tiny adjustments.
Being able to play such a diverse set of music quickly is part of what makes piano so much fun.
Synthesia is a tempting cruch, and quite honestly can be a good way to quickly learn a song or two.
However, it will only hold you back in the long-term.
I own it, I play with it from time to time, and I think the developers have created something very valuable.
It’s just not a good way to actually learn piano.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about Synthesia, maybe any thoughts or ideas that I’ve missed. Whether you’re completely for it or you’d never dream to download it, I want to hear from you.
Thank you for reading,
– The Musical Sanctuary Team