Robots are Making Beautiful Music — Without Us

We love our electronic sounds, but don't we need the human spirit to make 'art'?

Dave Grohl is as close to being as universally liked as anyone you’ll find. The Foo Fighters frontman is talented, smart, funny, thoughtful, generous to his fans, a family man — you name it.

But Grohl was hit with a wave of criticism a few years ago. After the Foos won the 2012 Grammy for Best Rock Performance for the song “Walk,” he accepted the honor by saying, “To me, this award means a lot, because it shows that the human element of music is what’s important. Singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument and learning to do your craft, that’s the most important thing for people to do. … It’s not about sounding absolutely correct, it’s not about what goes on in a computer.”

While some celebrated Grohl’s statement, electronic dance music (EDM) fans — along with some music critics — considered it an attack on the genre, and they quickly expressed their outrage on social media.

Grohl was quick to clarify what he meant. On Facebook, he explained: “I love all kinds of music. From Kyuss to Kraftwerk, Pinetop Perkins to Prodigy, Dead Kennedys to deadmau5. … Electronic or acoustic, it doesn’t matter to me. The diversity of one musician’s personality to the next is what makes music so exciting and human. That’s exactly what I was referring to. The ‘human element.’ That thing that happens when a song speeds up slightly, or a vocal goes a little sharp. That [imperfection] that makes people sound like people.”

In subsequent years, Grohl’s argument has gained strength. Electronic music is more popular than ever, and all sorts of musical elements — particularly vocals — (we see you, Kanye) — tend to be “sweetened” by computer software. The “human element” Grohl enjoys is virtually absent in many of today’s Top 40 songs, which commonly sound like they’re being performed and sung by robots.

Actually, thanks to today’s technology, some music is being performed by robots. In recent years, musicians and engineers have teamed up to create robots that can perfectly replicate music produced by both acoustic and electric instruments. By following specifically designed software programs, some can compose their own unique music.

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That’s in addition continually improving software that lets people reproduce sounds from all sorts of instruments using a basic computer. Today, people who have never touched a physical musical instrument in their lives can “play” instruments and mix tracks together without ever stepping foot in a studio.

On one hand, this technology opens the doors for virtually anyone to create music regardless of resources or geography. With that said, do we lose something — the “human element” Grohl spoke of — when we rely on electronics and software for making music?

According to Gregory Pavliv, a musical education speaker and author in New York, that proposition “can only be true if your perspective is limited to music as a historical artifact. It is not an artifact. Music is a living, breathing thing, and if allowing young people the opportunity to explore music electronically is the way to generate interest which then transfers to an instrument, I think that is great for everyone.”

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Pavliv told LifeZette it’s unfair to necessarily consider a musician less talented simply because he or she happens to create music electronically.

While Pavliv wouldn’t say EDM star Skrillex necessarily has “the same level of musical genius as Mozart,” he contends it’s critical to consider the tools available in each performer’s lifetime: “Computers are a new invention on our timeline. If Mozart had a computer, he may have been Skrillex first!”

Pavliv said he sees music technology as being “the great equalizer of music education.” Just because you might not be gifted at performing a physical instrument, he said, that shouldn’t prohibit you from making music.

Today’s technology lets young children reproduce music they hear in their head, he said. It also lets people with certain physical disabilities “play” instruments they otherwise wouldn’t be able to operate.

Pavliv recounted the story of a wheelchair-bound student who was not physically capable of playing drums, but “she had the facility to express herself, and to convey emotion, and she wanted to make music. … I can’t recall which app I used at the time, but I hooked up the headphone [to] an amplifier in the classroom. The girl was playing drums, and her eyes lit up.”

It’s important to realize that creating great music isn’t as simple as pressing a button, explained kStarMusiK , a musician and producer in Jacksonville, Fla.

“Whether you are using instruments or creating a track on the computer, you still [need] at least a decent amount of knowledge surrounding music theory as well,” he told LifeZette. “You have to understand how to create and manipulate chords either way.”

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As a computer-based musician, he said, he has to “learn how to use many different tools to create one track. … Then I still [need to understand] how to put it all together and create a complete track with all of the necessary elements.”

kStarMusiK disagreed with the notion that electronically created music necessarily lacks heart.

“It seems as though the music industry today lacks heart not because of the movement towards computer-based sounds, but because of the movement towards creating whatever it takes to appeal to the masses and earn the most money,” he said. “Every song that I create on the computer is still something that comes from the depths of my soul.”

Mella Barnes, a Detroit-based singer-songwriter and producer who performs as “Mella,” said the particular type of music should be considered in the debate. “I don’t necessarily feel that computer music lacks heart and soul, but it is quite different,” she told LifeZette. “The best example I could think of would be jazz music, where live instruments are crucial to the performance overall. Replacing those with synth instruments, in my opinion, would not sound the same. However, EDM would sound equally strange with real instruments, so I do believe there is a time and place for both.”

Taunia Soderquist is an L.A.-based trumpeter and vocalist who performs as Diva Taunia. She said there’s certainly a place for electronic music, but it’s not for everything, particularly her band’s specialty: jazz.

“A lot of our music is created and improvised on the spot, and the audience is included in that, so that’s something that just can’t be replicated or created electronically,” she told LifeZette. “And without getting too artsy and goofy about it, there truly is an aliveness and energy that only real instruments can produce.”

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