Musical Synthesizers of the 1980s

Contributor: Brian Anthony. Lesson ID: 12658

Popular music tends to reflect the era in which it is created. The budding digital age of the 80s produced unique sounds from unique instruments. Go back in time and try your hand (mouse) with synths!


History, Musical Arts

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Otter, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio: Image - Button Play
Image - Lession Started Image - Button Start

Listen carefully to the following piece of music.

  • What musical instruments do you think were used to produce this song by a-ha - Take On Me (Official Video)?

Image - Video

The music of the 80s is as popular as ever!

There are countless radio stations that replay the best songs of the era, 80s pop stars keep themselves busy touring and playing concerts for fans old and young, and the music videos that defined the decade still fetch millions of views on Internet websites.

If there is a sound that captures the decade, it might be the sound of the synthesizer. A synthesizer is a musical instrument that runs on electricity and produces sound. The element that makes the synthesizer such a unique and special type of musical instrument is its range. Synthesizers can produce a staggering array of sounds because they are able to build sounds from their most simple components.

The music you listened to in the beginning relies almost exclusively on synthesizers for its sounds. Listen to an isolated track from the same song, without the vocals, drums, and other production.

  • How would you describe some of the sounds you hear?

Now, listen to just the synthesizer track from the song above.

A Ha Take On Me Keyboard Only from VEVO // Warner Music Group:

Image - Video 

Listen to some of the other great songs of the 1980s.

  1. Choose at least three of the songs in the interactive below — you probably won’t be able to resist listening to them all!
  2. Carefully try to isolate the synthesized sounds.
  3. Choose at least one sound per song and describe it using some of the words found on this list, Interesting Sensory Words, courtesy of Susan Nixon.
  4. Share your findings with your parent or teacher, and then discuss the following questions:
  • How could you tell synthesized sounds from other sounds, like percussion, voice, and conventional musical instruments?
  • How do you think synthesizers create different kinds of sounds?
  • If you were to classify all different possible sounds, how would you go about it?

Image - Video

There are many different types of synthesizers, and the technology of music production is only becoming more sophisticated. There are a few techniques that the earliest pioneers of synthesizers used and that reached their peak in the analog synthesizer technology of the 1980s — that 80s sound!

In the Got It? section, learn the basic principles on which those synthesizers were based.

Image - Button Next