The Dumbing Down of Music: Or, True Music for Life, and Life with True Music

Computer-based recording might possibly be the savior and destruction of music as a true art form. With computer based recording technology so affordable, it is now possible for anyone that wants to record music to do so. The plus side of this is that many poor struggling artists now have a chance to develop and preserve their work. The downside is new affordability has led to an oversaturation of mediocrity. There are over 4 million “bands” on MySpace, many that are terrible. Over the past two decades mediocre music has flooded cyberspace and media in general. Of course there are some undiscovered gems amongst the masses, but the percentage of poorly written and badly recorded pieces of music out there in the world is arguably much greater.

I believe this is part of what I call the dumbing down effect of music within our society. The ability for musicians of minimal proficiency to combine prerecorded loops and samples with less than optimal performances which can then be edited to something half palatable has greatly reduced the necessity for excellent musicianship in the recording process. Before the age of digital recording, most musicians that ever recorded had to have some minimum level of competency. Punching in mistakes and “flying over” whole sections of a performance were not yet practical, and in most situations this deemed it necessary to get it right on the first couple of takes. Of course there were some exceptions to this as there were plenty of recordings made of bands with minimal musicianship.

But aside from a few exceptions, prior to the digital age of recording, if you couldn’t play your ax, you didn’t record. The golden years of recording in America produced and revealed a vast collection of great musical composers and performers, many of whom possessed a depth of emotive ability and some technical prowess. Unfortunately, right around the time that computer-based recording was becoming commonplace, music education essentially vanished from our schools, and this further perpetuated a kind of musical illiteracy within the younger generation in a society that once excelled at it. Today, we have a society of “music-makers” that possess the ability to make musical recordings without necessarily needing to know how to play any instruments.

“Music for profit” is essentially a 20th-century invention, and one of its likely unintended byproducts is an overuse of music in media. Music has always been a big part of television and radio advertising, but the digital age has helped create a new level of oversaturation as generic sounding “computer music”, often the results of one composer working in a small home studio, are the backdrop to our television shows, and once great classic blues and rock anthems have been reduced to bad sounding MP3 ringtones and car commercials. With televisions on our phones and 24-7 connectivity on the web there is no escaping the constant barrage of media driven music. Music is everywhere, but all too often, without purpose.

There is one way out of this downward spiral of musical numbness. Learn to play an instrument. Commit yourself to musical excellence. Don’t just learn proficiency, learn how to express yourself with your instrument, as ultimately your instrument is an extension of your own being. Educate yourself about life and form real opinions. Have something to say and learn how to say it through the art of musical performance. When I was first learning how to play the guitar in the late 1970s, I worked at it. I practiced often. It was hard, but over the years it got easier, and I could eventually see tangible results. By the time I was into my adulthood I could consciously express emotions through musical performance. By the time I delved into computer-based recording in the early 2000s, I had already put a lifetime into the art of musical performance.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for computer-based recording. For it has allowed me to develop my compositional skills in new ways, improve my overall musicianship, and document my work, as it has for many. But the computer, and even the act of recording itself, are only as old as a newborn child when compared to the age of music itself. Music has always been there, and always will be. For music is life itself, as song and dance have always been a part of the human story.

At the end of the day, for music to survive as an art form yielding of true human expression, we must embrace music for music’s sake. Not for profit, but for life, and the expression of life. Music is an educator, a healer, and a savior. Music is the original human form of communication. Maybe one day again we will all use it for those means. True music for life, and life with true music.

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