First it was Guitar Hero. Then came Rock Band. They even had DJ Hero. For those aspiring “musicians” who can’t play an instrument but still want the thrill of playing and creating music, there has been a recent string of technological innovations to help fill the creative void. Now, as creative software makes computers more capable, you hardly need to pick up an instrument—even if it is a plastic guitar controller—to kick out the jams. The recent explosion of house music, electronica, and dare I say it, dubstep, can be attributed almost entirely to the availability and ease with which users can create music on their computers.
So, the question now arises, is this newfound musical outlet a good thing or a bad thing? One could easily argue both sides. On one hand, these technological innovations allow virtually anyone to create music. Those who can’t afford a full drum kit, a guitar, an amp, and a microphone can now stage a full band with the click of a mouse. Those who couldn’t, or didn’t, want to take music lessons as children can now fiddle around on their plug-in MIDI keyboard and suddenly create a hit single in a matter of hours. The point is, anyone these days, from your little sister to your grandfather, could feasibly open up their MacBook, start Garageband, and create music with clever loops and built-in mics in an instant. Programs like Garageband, Ableton, and ProLogic give any average Joe the creative power to make music in their spare time. Creativity is right at your fingertips, and with the music industry going increasingly more digital with each day, people are almost encouraged to make music on their computer for the sake of convenience. Online DJ superstars can make a huge name for themselves without even revealing their true identities.
On the other hand, there are some who could argue that the creation of music is a unique process that requires legitimate, rare skill. These are the same people who mourn the loss of the printed book, as they believe it to be the purest form of the art. Take artists like indie savior Jack White, who, whether it’s through his Third Man Records or any of his numerous critically acclaimed bands, refuses to even look at a computer when he records his music. A diehard advocate of vinyl, White, among many other indie artists and followers, would probably tend to believe that the computer takes away from the soul of making music. They would claim that the art of collaboration between musicians, the real-life hiccups that come with live performance, and the “realness” of the sound all get lost when one takes to a computer to record his or her music. There’s a certain way in which a truly skillful artist can make his instrument really evoke soul in a way that a computer cannot. Jimi Hendrix, who could make his guitar wail and cry like a scorned beast in a way no computer could authentically replicate, is a perfect example. Indeed, this purist mentality does demand a sense of real musical talent and creativity, so in that sense, perhaps these artists make a case for upholding the creative demands of the music industry. Let’s face it, music today does have the ability to become watered down, or even mocked, with every teenage pop viral hit. Do I need look any further than the shining instance of Rebecca Black’s online hit, “Friday”?
One other variable to examine in this debate is the computer itself, which, some may argue, has become a legitimate musical instrument in its own right. It’s certainly true that the vast majority of electronic music out there today has been created on exclusively on computers, mainly because there’s no other platform on which to create such music. Whether a computer counts as a legitimate musical instrument or a mere vessel through which to convey blaring house tracks depends largely on one’s own personal definition of “music.” I won’t get into that debate. You can decide that one for yourself.
I spoke recently with Princeton freshman Matt Rogers about this ever-pressing issue. Rogers, who makes electronic music and publishes it online under the moniker Mr. Rogers Productions, proclaims himself an advocate of the use of computers in the music making process. He says, “I absolutely think that music-making programs are helpful in developing not only the music industry, but also the art form of music itself. The first reason for this is the increased accessibility. Now anyone with a computer and the will to learn some music theory can make music ranging from a single instrument melody, to a full-instrument orchestral symphony.” Rogers, who said he does not currently play any instruments but played violin through much of high school, says that the aforementioned instrument purists can be narrow minded in their creative musical approach: “I think the view that ‘real’ music needs to be made with ‘real’ instruments is both pretentious and narrow-minded. Sticking to music that relies only on real instruments is in my opinion, very limiting, because there are hundreds of random kinds of instruments out there, [and] on a computer not only can you sample all of those sounds, but you can harness virtually any other sound you can imagine, as long as you can figure out how to program the synthesizer.” There is certainly a sound case to be made for the accessibility and dexterity a computer offers any musician that may not be the case in, say, a practice room stocked only with a piano, drums, and one guitar amp.
Rogers, however, does note that musical instruments are important and not to be forgotten in the music industry. He says, “I am by no means saying that all music should be made on a computer; there is definitely a really full sound that comes from live or recorded performance with real instruments, but using a computer to make music opens up so many possibilities that it is narrow minded to deem it not “real” music. Personally, my favorite music comes from a conjunction of the two; some of my favorite hip-hop songs are computer-edited samples of real instruments being played, giving them a really organic sound.” I tend to agree with Matt’s view that a good balance is necessary for a successful future of music. There’s no denying the huge potential that computers offer music makers, and yet there’s not denying the true soul that comes from a live instrument being played. In my opinion, music can be treated the same way as the printed book has been recently. There’s valid sentimental and taste preferential value to a good old-fashioned printed book, but there’s also the practical, eco-friendly advantages of online texts. So let’s find some common ground for music, too. Like anything in life, whether it’s a PB&J sandwich or a classic liberal arts education, balance is a very good thing, so instrument purists, give computers a chance, and computer freaks, give those instruments a chance too!