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Alex Marten: Is Music Meaningless In Isolation?

Sounding Off By Alex Marten
Published December 2010

Is music meaningless in isolation?

What is music? The consensus shared by musicians and philosophers of aesthetics alike, is that it is a form of expression. We strum, hit, scrape, blow and tickle (occasionally) things in order to make sounds, rhythms, melodies and harmonies that will express those things that are otherwise inexpressible, or at least hard to express.

Exactly what we try to express through music varies wildly, from adolescent angst, to religious fervour, to streetwise swagger, and all manner of emotions in between, but what all forms of music have in common is that they strive to express something.

Expressing yourself is about communicating your inner feelings to others, and this is what I am rather slowly driving at: without others to express our music to, the music very quickly loses its purpose and, ultimately, its value. This is why the creation of music is inherently a social interaction; it is about people coming together to express things to each other and to the rest of the world; it is about communication.

And how is this relevant to you, O world‑weary SOS reader? It's relevant to you because, slowly but surely, musicians and producers like you are being encouraged (no doubt for insidious, shadowy purposes) to make music alone.

It is now surprisingly easy to bypass all forms of direct human interaction when creating music. All the gear you need can be ordered online and delivered to your door. The gear in question can include virtual session players who can replace your friends or, if this isn't enough, you can virtually 'jam' with other musicians around the world via services such as eJamming.

It's only a matter of time before Native Instruments release a VST plug‑in called 'Rekord Kontrakt' that not only composes a song, plays all the parts, mixes and masters it, but also submits the resulting track to a record company and generates a meticulously modelled virtual rejection letter from said company, thus completing the process known only too well to many of us real musicians. Ultimately, we lowly humans won't be required to engage in the process whatsoever. Hooray! Er...

OK, this may be a little bit far‑fetched, but it is true to say that every single part of the music production process can now be carried out 'in the box', alone in your room.

But can it really? Yes, the so‑called 'Communications Revolution' — the rise of the Internet and (almost) instantaneous data sharing — has meant that we can share information that can be communicated digitally, but does this apply to live music?

I would argue that it doesn't, that no super‑high‑bandwidth information uber‑highway, no cutting‑edge online collaboration service, can match the immediacy of the communication involved when performing in a room with other players. There is an almost magical instantaneity to this process, an immediate psychic connection — no latency, not just 'low latency' — and, for this reason, there is a great joy to it that cannot be replicated by computer‑based interactions, let alone by virtual accompanists. The resulting music has depth, expression and soul.

Many home producers will know the feeling of emptiness that can accompany a day or evening of coming up with perfectly good musical ideas that just don't seem to go anywhere. This is because music is a conversation — making it completely alone is like talking to yourself, and we all know where that leads...

So what? So stop playing with yourself (fnarr) and get out there and play with others (oo‑er), meet like‑minded (real, physical) musicians, hang out in your local music shop, go to jam sessions and engage with others, communicate with them and, as NWA would say (or at least sample), express yourself. You will learn to communicate more effectively though your music and your music will thus undoubtedly become richer, more interesting and, ultimately, better.

About The Author

Alex Marten is the owner of Red Dog Music, a meticulously modelled three‑dimensional approximation of an online musical equipment retailer based in Edinburgh.