You are here

PAUL NAGLE: The Erosion Of Musical Skill

Sounding Off By Paul Nagle
Published July 1998

PAUL NAGLE: The Erosion Of Musical Skill

History is littered with people who proclaimed that the latest musical development was 'just not music' — Mozart, rock & roll, and techno have all come under fire in the past Paul Nagle would normally be the first to decry such conservative musical attitudes, but some of the latest developments in music technology have got him worried; the end results just don't seem, well, like music anymore...

As more and more products appear which are designed to minimise the effort of making music, I can't help but worry that we're on the brink of one shortcut too many. I'm all in favour of cutting the red tape between music and its creator, but what if the creator's very existence is threatened? Some of the latest instruments and computer programs provide the facilities for everyone and anyone to put together superficially great sounding tracks, almost instantly. No effort is necessary — just assemble some ready‑prepared building blocks, and hey presto! Even the experienced composer/writer is at risk, because the easy results are far too tempting to ignore in a tough commercial world.

The fear of an erosion of musical skill isn't a new one — it happened when the synthesizer first appeared. Experienced musicians quaked in their boots and protested that this was the work of Satan and would put them out of a job. Orchestras would be pensioned off; other instruments would cease to exist. If you had a synth, ran the accepted wisdom of the time, you merely had to hold down a single note to sound wonderful; no musical training was necessary.

Well, time passed, lots of people held down notes, and it became clear that the synthesizer, with its arcane knobs and sliders, was quite a difficult instrument to master after all. What's more, it wasn't necessarily suitable for automatic use with just any kind of music. Synth manufacturers, eager to please — and successfully sell some of the damn things in quantity, of course — produced all manner of new varieties, with simplified controls, hundreds of stored sounds to get you up and running right away, and familiar keyboards, so pianists and organists could play them from day one. Progress continues its onward march, and the most recent instruments, with their Dance or Groove labels, should eliminate forever the chances that anyone will buy the 'wrong' box again, although a look at the second‑hand market, which is periodically clogged with 'yesterday's synths', hints otherwise. What I'm suggesting is that when an artist's role is merely to cut and paste existing material, it's time to take a serious step back and ask ourselves what the point is. I can understand the justifications of someone who makes multimedia presentations and wants to 'knock up some music' themselves. But to create something lasting (and something for future generations to sample!), there's no substitute for inspiration, real musicianship, and good old‑fashioned graft. Also, you often understand and remember something far better when you work it out for yourself. OK, so you may spend precious hours learning to master the settings on a compressor or struggling with a difficult chord sequence, but it can be time well spent — not least because if you do discover something amazing, you'll know how you got there. I'm certainly not advocating that we undo all the advances we've made, or suggesting that anyone gives up their hi‑tech toys. But both musical and studio skills are important, and it takes time to learn them.

A shortcut might be the easiest way to get from A to B, but it's not always the best; by taking the fastest routes all the time, you're in danger of missing the most beautiful scenery.

Time and again, I am asked 'what gear should I buy to make techno?' and 'what effects box do I need to sound like The Prodigy?' but if you could just spend money to get musical talent, don't you think The Spice Girls would have done it by now? And if there is no effort on the part of the music maker, what enthusiasm can this generate in an audience, and how will the listeners judge between one artist and another? After all, if this music lark is really such a doddle, why should the audience bother to be an audience at all? Think about it.

If you'd like to air your views in this column, please send your ideas to: Sounding Off, Sound On Sound, Media House, Trafalgar Way, Bar Hill, Cambridge CB3 8SQ.

Any comments on the contents of previous columns are also welcome, and should be sent to the Editor at the same address. Email: