I have been discussing a lot lately with friends on Twitter what constitutes and instrument. When dealing with electronic instruments, this question if far from easy to answer and perhaps, as I would like to suggest, needs no answer at all.
Perhaps, what has always captivated audiences is the degree of expression that there is in an instrument. The symphony orchestra has a soloist, a great pianist or perhaps a violin player or another instrument. The rock band has the guitar hero who learns to play blazing solos. Or the blues man who has that certain tone that defines him or herself as a great musician. There are many much examples but what seems to be clear is that there is a kind of magic in playing a musical instrument.
What I would like to suggest is that that magic has to do with a feedback loop between the musicians senses (what he/she feels and sees) and what he/she hears. Musicians learn to play by muscle memory. The muscles in the body become accustomed to ever more refined movements and with a bit of inspiration, a kind of magic happens that we call musical expression.
But now we live in the age of electronics and something rather unique has happened. The instrument is now no longer fixed. A guitar for example, can only sound a certain way and respond a certain way. Sure, there are many techniques to get certain sounds but there is still a limited pallet, a guitar, by any other name, is still a guitar.
A synthesizer is by virtue of what it is, designed to be many things. It's universe of sounds is much greater. In the beginning, how to control a synthesizer was far from obvious. It was really Robert Moog that seemed to bring the keyboard into the forefront but others like Donald Buchla did not see the keyboard as the obvious choice of controllers. In time, the keyboard became the standard and for a long time, the keyboard, pitch bend wheel and mod wheel, with a few exceptions, dominated the world of synth controllers.
Lately however, new instruments and controllers have flooded the market. The Eigenharp, the Haken Continuum and now even Apples pride and joy, the I Pad and the new sensation Morphwiz with it's colorful screens and finger based pad control.
There are also tools like Tenori or even just layouts of knobs like those of the Minimoog and it's reincarnation the Moog Voyager that act as instrments themselves. While not all that tactile, the realtionshsips between sound and sight are joined in a unique say. On builds and feeds back on the other.
So this brings me to the question, what makes an instrument? "Feedback", is my response. That very same connection between what ones sees and feels and what one hears. Now, what one hears is greatly expanded. What one hears does not even have to be connected with the seeing and feeling. One can have a controller in one place and a computer program with a synthesizer in another. Or for that matter, as can be said of the Continuum, a set of analog circuits. So what's an instrument and what is not?
My answer is that they are all instruments. What works for a musician is a matter of taste. I for example like weighted keys because I like the way they feel. And it's not just a matter of how they feel but the connection between hearing the sound and feeling the key which is different for non weighted keys.
Bottom line, I see no real difference between controller and instrument. The controller can be separated or not but ultimately, if it makes a sound its an instrument. Sure, there are controllers that don't make sound but when combined with some type of sound generating source, they become and instrument. Now some ways of controlling and instrument are more expressive than others. What is more expressive is a matter of taste. Screens such as the I pad allow a direct visual feedback but only a weak tactile feedback. The Continuum offers more of a tactile feedback as do the wonderful keys on the Eigenharp which also offer the visual component of lighting up.
So I guess I never really answered the question because perhaps, an instrument by any other name is still an instrument and instruments these days are more like chameleons than lepers which can't change their spots.