Music used to be about hands. Hands plucking strings, hands pressing valves and swinging sticks. And the records that were made had fingerprints all over them, places where pinkies slipped or thumbs bent. Recorded music isn’t about hands anymore, it’s about heads.
Since the mid-eighties, sophisticated sampling technology has made it possible to generate incredibly realistic computed-generated sounds. Listen to pop radio for a few hours and chances are good you won’t hear a single drum set that was recorded live. Instead most commercial producers use either drum machines or software programs to fill the space that an acoustic kit used to fill. The same goes for most of the other sounds, from the bass tracks to the organ overdubs.
One of the results of this is a more level playing field. Technical virtuosity has become a fun party trick, with little or no real practical use. In a few clicks of a mouse amazingly complicated licks can be made simple and clear. This gives the person who is building the song endless options for tone and timbre. Need an oboe part? There’s a patch for that. Need a Didgeridoo to double the vocals? Just a few keystrokes away. Imagine the sonic landscapes Sly Stone could have created had this technology been available in 1969.
A friend of mine who is a very well-respected session guitar player explained it to me this way: When a producer hires a musician he doesn’t do it for their command of their instrument. He hires them for their ideas. There are a million kids fresh out of music schools all over the country who can play with great technique and tone, but a computer can easily do the same thing much more quickly. The one thing that computers haven’t figured out yet is generating original concepts.
This is what separates the construction of music from other examples of mechanization like the story of the Luddites, or John Henry’s classic fable. The cerebral part of railroad construction (mapping track routes, designing the technology) or textile manufacture comes from higher up, not from the workers themselves. In the case of music the ideas are generated by the worker, they come from the bottom rung of the ladder, making it possible for the industry to shrink the workforce, but never eliminate it.
So it’s not about hands anymore, a keyboard has replaced the drum stick and a computer screen has eclipsed strings. It’s about heads and the ideas that come out of them. About ears and what goes into them and you’ll forgive the sentimentality, but it’s also about heart. A computer can play its notes perfectly, it can move faster and more accurately than any musician, but the one thing it can’t do is feel.
LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org