How does technology affect music?

The opinions on this topic differ a lot, however most people do agree that technology does play a role within music. I think that the biggest problem is defining what is technology. For some, the instruments we use to play on are part of the evolution of our technology, for others even our vocal chords would be considered technology, that of nature.

I will write this article defining technology as anything that is created by a living creature or being as a tool to achieve something, e.g. using a rock to open up a coconut or making holes in a bamboo stick to make a flute that produces different types of sounds. Nature definitely has developed a lot throughout the many years it has been here, and continues to develop so, in a way, we could consider that the way the human being has changed within our own time frame of existence has been the result of nature’s technological development, our body is a biological machine and our brain is a biological computer, the eyes, nose and ears are biological sensors, however from there on it is our way of living and reacting to our surroundings (for example, creating and using more tools on a daily basis) that led us to evolve into what we are nowadays.

Technology can also be a disadvantage, by taking the example of medicine, we have achieved so much in the past one hundred years in this field that we give the chance to a longer life to human beings that in the past would have just died. I am not saying this is bad, however in nature, you see that the animals that were born sick, weak or with some kind of  defect usually die. The humans that are cured or treated to make their life longer and healthier, if they have offspring many times will pass their own sicknesses and defects to their children. Is this good or bad? From a certain perspective it is bad, because it makes us weaker as a species, overtime most humans will carry within their DNA some kind of disease and some would be in need of constant medical attention, if our medical technological advancements were not there, a lot of people would perish in a matter of few years and thus keeping a healthier gene pool.

Now, with music, it is different. Because music is a means to express something or to entertain and socialize, there can not be much of a “disadvantage” to this, there can be bad designs that are not as refined as other designs, but actually, mistakes in most cases create better instruments, yet this does not mean that the older or less refined instruments are not used, many are actually still are in use. Drums are one of the oldest and most widespread musical instruments throughout different cultures and the basic design has remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years, but, when the violin or any other instrument came to exist, they did not take the place of the drums, in all honesty, in a modern classical orchestra we have the timpani, which are from the same drum family as any older design or type of drums. More instruments, creates more harmonies and sounds which enrich our musical history.

Nowadays, technology is closely related to commercialism, since the people who create a device heavily study how popular it would be and if it satisfies a certain need, although some times they even skip this last step and simply create a need. In the romantic period, with the rise of kitsch music due to the piano being present in almost any middle class household, this made the music composed for such public rather simple and devoted of any interesting material, yet Mozart was a person that had the public very present in his mind, he was commercial, that did not stop him from creating great music, so it is not necessarily a rule that music should be worse because of this. It is true on the other hand, that “artistic potential tends to depend strongly on what is not common while commercial potential tends to depend strongly on what is.”(Moore). The success of  “Gebet einder Jungfrau” (The Maiden’s Prayer) by Baranowska was due to the high demand in simple yet show off pieces for piano in the 19th century (as previously mentioned), this music did not succeed because of artistic reasons, but rather commercial, the demand for it.

  • Does technology make music better/worse or does it help it?

Technology helps music, whether it is worse or better it depends sometimes on the person, because, not so long ago, people disliked the electronic music, it was still being developed, and as Richard Moore said in his article A Technological Approach To Music, “…the poor quality of early computer music was attributed more directly to the ignorance of its makers about the inner workings of musical sound.” Once they learned those inner workings and discovered more and more the potential of working with electronic devices, the music changed, it was more refined and more things could be done with it.

In the early 2000s Kenmochi Hideki led a research project to create a singing voice synthesizer called “Vocaloid”; this was successful and in 2004 it was released with the backing of the Yamaha Corporation. The software lets users synthesize “singing” by typing lyrics and melody in it, you can only create a song by doing this. It uses synthesizing technology with specially recorded vocals of voice actors or singers. Is this music? Does this make music better? To some people, it does not, it is not a real singer with all the training to perform music with all its intrinsic details and with the ability to express emotions with it, it is a computer that does the job for you (and not even well!), however, a group of people created the software, and the users of it (musicians or not) create songs from it, you need a certain degree of musical knowledge and of computing skills to make a good song from it. I will agree that the softwares that make everything easy for the user do not offer that much to the person using it, because the best asset of the computer is its programability, as Moore well said. Yet, there is someone behind it, same way there was and is a composer behind the electronic music that was being developed in the beginning of the 20th century, yet everybody was appalled with the sounds and changes to the musical tradition that had existed until then.

The piano is part of our technological development in the music world (my beloved started playing it once he met me).

Before the 20th century there was no tension between the people who were traditional in their ways and those who were modern. Art and technology grew and developed closely together, the problem that rose with the electronic advancements was mostly the speed at which the changes were coming, the people and surrounding could not keep up, they tried to connect with the music but they were rather reluctant at the same time. If we manage to work out this difference in speed, technology (as always), will be helpful.

  • Does technology limit or expand our capabilities as an artist?

It does a bit of both. It does not limit you directly but what limits you are the bad habits that we develop when using certain tools that are a product of technology. For example the tuning machine, it can be very useful, but it also can hinder the ability to tune an instrument by ear or in accordance to the instruments around you.

If we take in account the big development that occurred in music back in the Middle Ages with the music notation, or later on in the Renaissance with the development of mathematics which enabled the equal temperament and the anchor of music theory that could now make instruments be more compatible with each other, technology has expanded our capabilities, because from all this, new instruments, bigger orchestras and many other things were possible.

  • Is the relationship between technology and music going in the good direction?

I think it is, but I can also understand the worry that some people have, because when we think about technology, we immediately think of the role that computers and digital machines have started to have in the musical scene. Some musicians think that their role of playing music will be taken away, their means of surviving in our society will decrease or cease to exist. I believe that this can not happen to such degree, because no matter what, society tends to give a bigger value to things that are handmade or a live performance. We live in an age in which we can print a painting yet we will in many cases prefer the original or a hand made replica rather than a machine printed one; the same can be applied to a CD or DVD of an opera performance, even if you can watch it at home, many people will pay and put the effort to go to a live performance. We can produce musical instruments in factories, but the most expensive and recognized worldwide are handmade by skilled craftsman (e.g. the Stradivarius violins).

However, computers and electronic devices do not affect music negatively, they help a lot in the process of bringing new sounds to the musical sphere, as well as being able to record sounds so we can listen to music in our own home or let other people from other parts of the world about our musical culture. There are even programs that train your theory and aural skills. These tools, if used effectively, they are very useful, computers for example, speed up the processes of many aspects in music. What we should take care is to not fall into the lazy side, if we use a program to transport a score to help us lighten the process, we should on the other hand be able to do it also on our own.

Technology is there to help us, it opens more doors for us to express ourselves and make music, it enhances certain things and constantly modifies what goals are possible. Ultimately we are the ones that drive and decide how technology will affect music, if we push it in the right way, it will be beneficial for music, if you direct it in the wrong way it can affect the music world in a negative way, a “bad” path could be taking its reason and meaning from it, some music will be simple and just for the sake to entertain but the good music that survives centuries are the ones that brought some kind of musical innovation, it could be the letter games that Schumann did or the ability to create music that could be enjoyed both by amateur and connoisseur public like Mozart did. Whether a farmer uses his hands, his gardening tools or his tractor, it does not change the fact that he grows crops or his role within that process. This example can be used for musicians as well, whether they clap or play a specific instrument or use a computer to synthesize sounds they are still creating musical pieces and performing them.

I think that technology and music will continue to develop alongside and expand their capabilities even further.


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