Is modern music more concerned with good sounds than with good ideas?
Good music is a curse. I like listening to it as much as the next person, maybe more; but it's also something of a double-edged sword. With so much great music already written, why do we even consider producing music of our own?
Technology is also a curse. To paraphrase Brian Eno from a past interview, it's now so easy to produce music that we forget to ask ourselves why we're producing music. However, I'd go further than simply cursing technology, to say that technology has, for the most part, killed good ideas.
I remember a couple of years ago producing some artwork in QuarkXPress and someone seeing the final result and, assuming I'd used Word, asking me which wizard I'd used to create it! Which wizard? Has human creativity reached a point where nobody can produce something without resorting to a bloody wizard?
If you think it can't be the same for music, think again. Sibelius 2, for example, advertises a new auto-arrange feature where a piano part will be transformed into a full orchestral score, as if by magic, before your very eyes. However, unlike a real magician, Sibelius will repeat the same trick again and again, for anyone, anywhere, and at any time. This may be a great asset in education, but how long before everyone's arrangements end up sounding the same?
It's easy to forget that the modern way of making music has only been a recent development in the grand scheme of things. The problem is that, along the way, how we record music has become confused with how we write music. Great music comes from great ideas, and not as a by-product of being able to create great sound. Music is about communicating those ideas. Maybe we look out of the window and see something amazing, or perhaps it's a feeling or response we want to express, which inspires us to communicate it in musical terms. But how many people draw their inspiration from a drum loop, or other sonic fragment as a starting point, for example? What message can we hope to engage our audience with, if the original idea comes from a sound that's basically meaningless?
Some interesting research has discovered that music can stimulate both the visual and sonic responses in our brain; purely visual art, by comparison, stimulates only visual responses. So, given the power that music clearly has, don't we have a responsibility to create something worthy of being listened to? And maybe this gives us the ultimate musical litmus test: if we listen to our own music and it doesn't engage the imagination, is it really worthy of being played to anyone else?
Consider the feeling you get when a song really moves you. The songwriter has managed to capture an emotion, an argument, an idea, within the song, and communicate that to you as the listener. Forget mobile phones: this is how to get a message across.
So what makes me think technology has killed good ideas? The yardstick is simple: listen to some pre-technology music and the chances are that it will be filled with great ideas, maybe because of the struggle involved to make it happen. Compare that with the bucket loads of technology‑dependent music around today and you'll notice that mostly it's not full of good ideas, only good sounds. Technology has made it far too easy to avoid having a decent idea, and we end up writing music with our ears and not our imagination.
So the next time you get down to the business of making music, ask yourself the reason behind the process. What are you trying to say? And what thought should the listener be left with after the track has finished? If we can't answer these questions, surely we're in danger of just adding another layer of sonic wallpaper to a room that's been redecorated far too many times already.
Mark Wherry is a writer, musician, lecturer, and occasionally outspoken music technology evangelist. He spends most of his time working with the German company Wizoo and produces the odd tutorial for Steinberg.