As a hobbyist I've been learning and picking up new music theory through a long process of 'experimentation' for about 2 years. When I learned more about different modes, chords etc. I would mess around with them and try to make something decent. Lately my music is now passable for decent video game music. I can make pieces that work good for a lot of epic, fast-paced orchestral battles, but I can never manage really emotional songs with sadness or a joyous atmosphere.

I hope I didn't baffle on too much there, but now my question: If I was to practice the piano, and compose on a physical instrument, would it harbour creativity and a better understanding of more complex music theory? For example, I struggle with the extra 'flairs' that you can have on piano arrangements, with many fast arpeggios, trills, use of dynamics etc.

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    Do you use a midi keyboard (black&white keys) for input at all?
    – Dave
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 13:54
  • Great question, but some detail about how you input with the DAW would be really helpful. Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 20:56
  • For input, I'm simply using a keyboard & mouse, using the piano roll editor. Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 1:46
  • Bad question. No way that learning a real instrument will ever impede you in any way. Real music is made on real instruments played by real people. Everything else is just a poor emulation. If you don't actually play an instrument, you are not a musician, just an emulation of one.
    – Stinkfoot
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 0:17
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    @Stinkfoot the question seems to be from someone starting to recognise that playing a real instrument may help them, and potentially wanting encouragement to do so. Are you sure you don't mean "Good question...?" Commented May 5, 2018 at 6:26

5 Answers 5


Some of your question is about music theory, but I sense it's more about composition and comparing acoustic instruments with the DAW.

I can never manage really emotional songs

If you are still learning the composition or performance skills for creating emotional music, and you input in the DAW with the mouse, I think the DAW will get in the way. Physical performance - either with an acoustic instrument or in real time with a midi controller - will give the immediate feedback needed for the learning process.

harbour creativity and a better understanding of more complex music theory

In some cases the DAW might aid with this learning. For example, you can cut and paste, transpose sections, re-order sections, change instruments, and do other manipulations quickly and then hear the results right away. Those things are more about the composition process. For learning theory I feel it's best learned by looking at actual repertoire and learning how theory is applied in actual musical context. Developing some sight reading skills - even if the playing is sloppy and incomplete - is probably more useful for this learning than to input music in a DAW.

I struggle with the extra 'flares' that you can have on piano arrangements

This is where I think the DAW will really fail. If you don't understand piano technique, and sequence fast, flashy passages, there is a risk they will sound fake. Sure, it's possible to sequence realistic virtuosic piano music without knowing how to play the piano, but it's not likely.

I think you need to ask yourself how much you want to emulate "acoustic" music performance. If you want a really convincing imitation of living, breathing people playing acoustic instruments, you should spend some time learning to play them. Learn about their unique properties. Imagine sequencing a violin part with no awareness of the open strings or bowing technique! Learn about the instruments and then bring that knowledge back to the DAW.


In the abstract, adding different tools to your arsenal tends to promote creativity, no matter what it is, so on a basic level this is true.

That being said there is a specific gap involved in DAW based composition: there is a physical disconnect and time delay between what you do to sequence the music, and actually being able to hear it. For many (most? all?) people, this gap, or indirection, is a serious impediment in their ability to effectively internalize the music; audiation is a key component of musical fluency. This is part of why singing is so important to developing musicality -- singing brings you into full bodily contact with the music.

Over an above this internal aspect there is, for most musicians, better fluency and flow with an actual instrument than there is with a DAW. A proficient keyboardist can try out many different ideas or nuances on a keyboard instrument in a shorter time and without as much context switching as someone working at a computer. The time to sequence a trill is much longer than the time to execute one on a piano; plus the feedback, whether it sounds good or not in context, is immediate.

I'm being a bit cagey here since I suspect that some DAW users are so proficient and have built up such a smooth work environment that they might get close to what a proficient keyboardist might be able to do, and are able to work well despite these differences.

  • I like the answer and appreciate the last paragraph, as it was something I was thinking throughout reading it. I don't think most users get to the point of extreme proficiency in a DAW to get that instant sort of playback that you get from a physical instrument but some do. The other thing that comes to mind is that many people that are composing in a DAW are using a controller, not just programming everything in and playing on a controller, such as a keyboard, is basically just a live instrument through the DAW. Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 17:53
  • @Basstickler I got the impression, confirmed by subsequent comment, that this person used mouse+qwerty, so it is more focused on DAW based composition in that mode of operation.
    – Dave
    Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 13:41
  • Fair enough. With the addition of their comment I entirely agree. Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 20:33

Since this is primarily opinion based, I'll give you a rough idea, as I am a piano player as well. Well, on DAWs, you are limited, and you experience less on the components of music out there. You are restricting your experience on:

Expression and emotion

Expression is barely expressible on DAWs. It is difficult to give a full moving piece with barely a piece of software, and you almost need trial and improvement to succeed. However, if you constantly play piano, your tone can be thoroughly expressed. Cantabile. How would you play this on DAWs?

But then, I don't think that your music theory should be limited too much. You just won't experience the full standards of Music Theory. My reccomendation is that you play piano as well.

If I were you...

The first thing I'd say to myself is: Do I enjoy doing this thing? If I learnt/ continued to learn this instrument, would I regret it in a years time?

The choice is yours

  • Good point. I definitely agree with DAWs being quiet emotionless when it comes to simulation of real instruments. Even perfect renditions of pieces such as Joe Hisaishi's 'One Summers Day' sounds soulless with a MIDI file played on one of the best piano VSTs. I do have a 61-key MIDI keyboard I never used, so maybe I can start with that. I could never fit or even afford a real piano in my tiny apartment. Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 13:58

Biggest problem with DAWs is that you need to have the computer on, have the midi keyboard on, have the speakers on, have the software on, pick the instrument, all the while using a computer keyboard and mouse, set up at least one track to hear the instrument, hope that it all works, etc.

I recommend having a guitar or real piano next to you at all times (digital piano worst case if u don't have room b/c the keys are weighted) that way the only thing separating you from playing music is a touch. That's it. Actual instruments completely eliminate any time it takes for you to hear what you play the moment you decide to play - which can happen at any moment. No setup time whatsoever. I have a small piano next to my computer. Can't tell you how much I mess around with it just cause it's just "there".

Also I noticed you said you don't have any keys. Atleast get a midi keyboard if all else fails. But by just "I'm simply using a keyboard & mouse, using the piano roll editor." is so... yeah, that's nasty. Get yourself a 4 octave usb midi keyboard at the very least. Those things are way cheap.


You'll 'learn music' best not from studying 'theory' but through experience of a wide range of music in different styles. And by far the best way to get such experience is by PLAYING it. If you play one instrument, piano os the obvious choice. There's just so MUCH music written or arranged for piano.

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