Making “Authentic” Music: Tradition vs Tech

Mar 22, 2017

blog - Making Authentic Music - Tradition vs Tech

Making music has been a part of human society for as long as we have recorded history, and probably quite a bit longer than that. And over the centuries, the ways we have created and developed for making music has gone down some interesting and strange avenues. Some of those avenues have lead us to a place today where the definition of “musician” has become extremely broad. Nowadays, while many people still create music “the old fashioned way,” with physical instruments, many other people use nothing more than a computer, to either “sample” others’ work, adding layers upon layers until they have something entirely unique, greater than the sum of its parts, or those who create entirely original songs using the machine’s ability to synthesizes sounds no instrument can make.

This expansion of the definition of “musician” has lead some to a question of “authenticity.” Can you truly be “authentic” as a musician if you’re not creating your own music from scratch? How much about the physical mechanics of sounds and the instruments that make them do you need to be truly successful? To really be a musician?

There are, of course, arguments for both sides.

Tradition Over Technology

This side of the argument is pretty straight forward: if you’re using a computer, you’re not making the music yourself; if you’re not making the music yourself, you’re not an authentic musician. People on this side of the argument are, obviously, much more interested in the traditional methods of making music. Music is an art, and talent must be learned and practiced. There are no shortcuts to learning to play an instrument, and there are countless benefits that go along with it.

Most of the people on this side of the argument won’t take it so far as to suggest that you should know the history of your instrument, or build one yourself, but there are always people who have to take things to the limit.

Basically, the feeling is that playing an instrument, and making music the traditional way gives the musician a closer connection and better understanding of what they are creating. There is also a more metaphysical belief that “authentic ethnic musical instruments” draw a sort of energy from their long history. Computers and other synthetic music making methods lack this energy of history.

From this point of view, using modern technology to create music is sort of like cheating. The hours of practice are seemingly bypassed. The connection to the history of the instrument and its place in the greater orchestra of time is lost. From this point of view, using technology to make music is sterile, without feeling or understanding of what came before it.

Technology Over Tradition

Of course, people on this side of the fence would beg to differ. On this side of the argument we have accessibility, acceptance of growing trends, and a wider appreciation for music than some give credit for.

The first point is accessibility. In today’s world, a lot more people are much more comfortable sitting in front of a computer than they are picking up a musical instrument. So offering ways of creating music on a computer or mobile device just makes sense. By simple statistics more people will start making music.

And we know this is true. Music apps are everywhere now. People casually make music on the bus or subway on their way to and from work. More expensive, super advanced apps help people who have never sat down in front of a musical instrument, and certainly can’t read sheet music, compose beautiful and unique pieces of music.

Using technology also embraces some growing trends that tradition often overlooks. The first is obvious, and one we’ve already talked about: the prevalence of computers and mobile devices. But beyond the trend of technology use, there’s also the emerging and growing trend of electronic music listeners. There’s no denying that electronic music’s popularity has been growing for decades, and is now more popular and mainstream than ever before (including the ’80s! The era of synth pop!). No one can dispute the commercial success and popularity of artists like “deadmou5” (pronounced “dead mouse”) and Skrillex.

Lastly, this side argues that they have a much stronger and broader appreciation for music than the other side gives them credit for. Maybe artists who make music this way employ the art of “sampling,” using snippets of other people’s music in their own. Pop and hip hop make a lot of use of this. And these samples aren’t chosen by accident. Of course, they have to make sense and sound good in the structure of the song being created, but at the same time, they are often chosen to be homages, or to direct people to songs and artists the sampler thinks are under appreciated.

In The End

When you boil it all away, the only thing that really matters is that you enjoy yourself while you’re making music. Both side of the argument have their points, and both sides of the argument are right. It all depends on your perspective and your own tastes. Success can be measured in many different ways, and can be achieved many different ways. Make the music you enjoy. If that means sampling the work of those you admire, paying homage while creating something entirely new, then have at it. If you prefer to study those that came before us, laying the groundwork for everything to come hundreds of years ago, using the same instruments and tools they used, more power to you!

I’ve always maintained that music is an expression of your own, personal creativity. How you choose to express it is just as important to the process. Today, technology is as much a tool for music as the piano is, and the two are becoming more and more one and the same. Why pick a side? As we continue to develop as a people and a society, the ways we make music will continue to develop and change. Instead, expand your music making toolbox, and expand your musical horizons.