Richard Mansfield, Senior Editor
Until very recently, automation has only crushed the minor arts, the crafts: candlemaking, weaving, pottery. Now music, a major art form, is about to become automated. This raises serious questions. What about musicians who've spent their lives practicing the violin? And if music, one of the most complex forms of human expression, can be made on a machine—what's next? Literature? Justice?
We've watched a rising tide of mechanization over the last century. The benefits of tractors were so obvious that few bemoaned the passing of hand plowing. Indeed, until recently, most automation has replaced unpleasant or dangerous physical jobs. Now, though, machines are proving adept at some of the more delicate mental activities upon which many people base their definition of human value.
The Fairlight, the Synergy, the Kurzweil—today's most advanced computerized music machines—can now automatically play as beautifully, for all practical purposes, as many musicians.
What's more, these synthesizers aren't just threatening to replace individual artists. A synthesizer can reproduce the sound of any instrument, even the sound of an entire orchestra playing in concert. Containing digitized recordings of real acoustic instruments, the new machines are the sonic equal of the finest handmade pianos, the best violins.
Synthesizers can be played like a piano: There's a keyboard, traditional sustain pedals, and so forth. In that mode, they still require an experienced keyboard artist to sound good.
But they have another mode: Driven by sequencers, a synthesizer can be preprogrammed. You sit down and teach the machine to memorize the music just the way you would program a computer. This programming can be done either by playing the pianolike keyboard or by typing into a computer keyboard. And you don't need dexterity. You can enter the notes at any speed. You don't even need a sense of rhythm. You can instruct the instrument to resolve the music into the degree of rhythmic accuracy that pleases you. Since total accuracy sounds mechanical, it's best to quantize slightly off the beat to create that human quality we've come to think of as warm and pleasing.
You can even buy entire musical pieces on floppy disks and just insert them into the synthesizer, push a button, and stand back. The instrument plays itself. And you'd be hard-pressed to tell you weren't listening to Bach on a concert grand.
It seems likely that synthesizers will follow the traditional path of most new technologies. Right now the best synthesizers cost between $10,000 and $40,000. Soon, however, the prices should be in the hundreds of dollars, and consequently, millions of people will have unprecedented access to creative play with music. It won't be necessary to struggle for years to learn to read musical notation, to play a difficult instrument, or to learn harmony or rhythm. All those things will be waiting behind buttons on these machines.
It won't be necessary to find others to form a band. You can, like Prince, play all the parts yourself. If you come up with something lovely, you won't need to buy an expensive multitrack tape recorder or, worse, spend a fortune at a professional recording studio. Inside these synthesizers is a full, multitrack, digital recorder. You become the engineer and can do everything from the editing of a single note to the transposition of the entire piece.
There is pain here though. Conductors, recording engineers, and professional musicians will be less frequently called upon. There will, of course, always be traditional instrumentalists, just as there will always be people hand-dipping candles and climbing mountains. But their efforts may be increasingly thought of as a trick rather than a talent, something pleasantly nostalgic, but, ultimately, eccentric.
Becoming a truly expert violinist has always been a kind of personal torture, but it had great value to society. Master violinists of the future will likely be admired in that strange way we admire people who can climb difficult mountains: admired more for their self-discipline than for any practical results of that discipline.
Nevertheless, with all the tools of music in every living room, with musical skills at everyone's fingertips that previously took a lifetime to develop, who knows how many now-silent Beethovens will suddenly rise and be heard across the world?