HomeIn SeriesIs Technology A Hindrance Or A Benefit To Music?

Is Technology A Hindrance Or A Benefit To Music?


(The ​study and ​knowledge of) the ​practical, ​especially ​industrial, use of scientific ​discoveries


A ​situation or ​statement that ​seems ​impossible or is ​difficult to ​understand because it ​contains two ​opposite ​facts or ​characteristics
What is the Technology Paradox, exactly?
It’s the way that some look to Tech as the answer to musical problems. It’s the way Technology can be used in music – where the Technology becomes the focus rather than the music. It’s the way that Technology can actually make decisions for us that we are possibly even unaware of. It’s the way Technology can free us and constrict us simultaneously. It’s the lack of training, the unfamiliarity, the amount of time to use & maintain it, the way that kids can seem to know more about the software than adults. It’s the answer to so many problems. It’s responsible for so many problems. Should you embrace it for popular music but use “the right way” for composing “art” music? Is it the only way to make music in the 21st century or a distraction from music making? Or is it the enabling bridge between conception and realisation?
Ever since the 1980’s when the Atari and Amiga computers came with built in MIDI ports, music technology has become something for home users as well as professionals. With a sub £200 computer or a “smart” mobile phone and the right software / app, it is now possible to create high quality music wherever you are. You can publish your ideas straight to the Internet, even set up the possibility of getting paid for your work. Technology has opened not just one, but many doors in music, from the top quality “recording studio” to the teenager’s bedroom. The big “Major Label” recording companies are losing a lot of money as they try to establish the proper copyright restrictions and compete with the home “D.I.Y.” approach. People are not buying music in the way they used to, not only for the easy direct digital access to recorded music, but also thanks to the streaming of music which can be accessed for no money at all (if you are prepared to put up with adverts). Can all this be a good thing?
There is no doubt that the music business has grown up as the technology has developed. In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the world’s first sound recording / playback device – the Phonograph. If you spoke into a brass horn (loudly) it could record your voice onto an aluminium (later a wax) cylinder which could be played back to hear your voice come out of the brass horn as many times as you like. The alleged first recording ever was a rendition of “Mary has a little lamb”. The main problem was that Edison’s phonograph was a bit of a gimmick – you couldn’t easily make copies of your recordings. So, in 1887, an inventor called Emile Berliner came up with the idea of using a disc instead of a cylinder. Thanks to the flat surface, impressions can be taken and copies can be made extremely easily. And thus, the “music industry” was born.
Even in the first days of recording there were pro’s and con’s: the discs could only record up to about three and a half minutes per side. This was not long enough to play a movement of a Beethoven symphony or an overture or aria from an opera or oratorio. The recording companies turned to a lot of spoken word recordings, “folk” music and a little known phenomenon called “Jazz”. So, very quickly, the recording industry focused on “contemporary” music rather than “classical”, creating a divide that remains with us today. In doing so, the development of Jazz across the world (rather than just in New Orleans, USA) took off as demand grew, going from strength to strength. But just a few decades later, this changed too: rather than hiring a band for a social event, people invested in gramophones and records, taking control of when, where and how they listened to music. Jazz eventually grew into “Popular” music with the birth of “Rock and Roll” in the 1950’s. If Elvis hadn’t gone into a shop to record a song for his Mum, “Colonel” Tom Parker would never have heard his voice… Probably the best book I have seen on the development of “contemporary” music is Dave Ventura’s “Understanding Popular Music”. This book is a demonstration of how technology can work at its best: each genre or song discussed has a web-link you can follow to listen to what you are reading about. If you have ever wanted to know more about this topic, this book will answer almost all of your questions.
Microphones, mixing desks, ferric tape, multi-track recording, special effects, electronic sound synthesis, dynamic control, MIDI, sequencing, cassette tape, compact disc, the iPod, digital streaming – without any one of these, we wouldn’t have the music industry we have today. With every new innovation, new forms / treatments of music occur. Some have stayed with us, many more have fallen by the way side. If you want to learn more about this, I highly recommend  “Music Technology from Scratch” written by Mortimer Rhind-Tutt – a very easy to read book with great illustrations and explanations, covering the past and looking at current technologies at use in music today.
I passionately believe that musicianship and creativity need to be at the heart of musical composition in any genre, “classical” or “contemporary”. Technology can help that to be expressed. But technology cannot somehow create that. Let me give an example. Back in the ’90’s there was a music creation program called “E-Jay”. It came in a wide range of guises based on different musical styles – dance, rave, hip-hop etc.. It allowed you to generate multi-track music by just clicking and dragging samples from a selection provided, building layers of sound that you might expect to hear in the style of music you are working with. But no composition has taken place at all. No new music has been draw out of the imagination, nothing crafted from concept to completion. It’s not even “painting by numbers” – it’s shuffling someone else’s ideas around. There is some musical value in programs like “E-Jay” but it is not composition.
Compare that to software that allows you to create the building blocks with your own musical ideas. The program “O-Generator” almost forces you to think differently about sound and how it is created. The main composing interface is not linear – moving from left to right like staff notation – it is circular. A circle represents four beats of music, with each circle being 16 dots, so each beat divides into four. The cursor moves clockwise, sweeping around the screen. There are concentric circles with different sounds on each circle, sounds that you can choose and change according to taste. Using a simple grid, like an abacus or a musical “Connect 4” board, you can then create longer patterns of circles, repeating the patterns or adding new ones as you wish. In this way, you can create your own arrangements. Here, we have much more composition. The patterns that you can arrange are filled with your own musical ideas, not pre-recorded, un-editable material. The composition is not totally free and open ended, but there is a framework that must be filled with the composers’ own ideas to make any music at all. Check out www.musicfirst.co.uk to find out more.
Finally, one of the biggest paradoxes of them all – does the clarity and content of the sound equate with good quality music? Technology can produce amazing clarity and almost endless variation of sound. As such, it is a very powerful musical tool, capable of doing things that would be impossible without it. Simply because this is so easy, there is also the temptation to be musically lazy. For example, using a pitch correct processor in recording or live performance can easily hide what the singer or instrumentalist is actually producing – why worry when the technology can cover up your mistakes? It is all too easy to fall into the same trap when composing music too – lots of repetition without variation or making use of very simple harmonies that are easy to play on your MIDI keyboard with pitch spacing limited to “one hand at a time” thanks to the range / size of your note input device.
Using Technology in Music can create many paradoxes. Some questions will arise and challenges will have to be faced. Keep musicality and creativity at the heart of each task and Technology can be a very powerful tool. Get distracted by the unfamiliarity, focus on the “how…” rather than the “why…” and Technology can quickly take over as the focus of a piece of music. Technology will always be a paradox: it can help and it can hinder. We are now in the 21st century in the burgeoning “Information Age”. Let music take control of the technology to help us access music to a deeper and more meaningful, high quality level. Make Technology work for you. Be in control. Be creative. Be expressive. Be musical.
Matt Allen is Head of Music, Chessington Community College.

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