The Future of Music is Up in the Air

April 04, 2016 Staff 0 Comments

There are several technologies that are being developed that have the potential to change the landscape of electronic music composition. One of the biggest barriers for composers who want to get involved in sampling at a professional level is the cost of hardware, software, and samplers.

A professional setup can cost several thousand dollars, and then you have to continually maintain your digital audio workstation (DAW), spend time applying updates, installing new software, and then upgrading your computer when it's no longer up to the task or when you discover you need more computing power. It's a vicious cycle, and it puts the best technologies for music composition out of the reach of your average, fledgling composer. Ironically, some of the most talented composers out there are barred from technology simply because of their income level.

Much of this will likely change as cloud-based technologies are beginning to change the landscape of what is possible. Microsoft Office used to cost several hundred dollars, and now it can be had for the cost of a Netflix subscription. I believe the same is going to happen with sampling technologies. Though, I've found that electronic music is often behind the times when it comes to technological innovation.

However, with the advent of any new technology, there is always the possibility of that technology making composers less inclined to study and learn the basic tenets of music. This is an issue because composers still need to have the technique and knowledge that's necessary to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors.

A little-known fact is that Arnold Schoenberg started out composing romantic music, and many of his early works sounded like they were straight out of the Romantic period. As Arnold Schoenberg stated, "To hell with all these theories if their positive achievement consists in nothing more than helping those who would compose badly only to learn it quickly." My point? He understood the music of his time and the music of the past before he went on to essentially disassemble the framework of music.

Before Schoenberg built something new, he first took the time to learn about what was already out there.

Making technology that makes it possible to play with sound rather than learning to read and notate music is not bad in itself, but it does mean the doors of music composition will become open to a larger subset of the population. In much the same way as the hobbyist with a camera considers themselves a professional photographer. Still, this is always a concern with progress, and there will always be those composers who strive for balance.

The Cost of Samplers

Samplers can cost several thousands of dollars, and this can often make it very difficult for composers to access the high-quality sounds they need to create realistic compositions. Companies like Garritan have done a very good job of creating samplers that run on your average machine. However, many of the samples require a large amount of processing and editing to achieve a realistic sound.

I remember one of my first programs from East West, the instruction booklet stated that I could use a special "disk-streaming" feature to improve the quality of the sound. Additionally, you could connect several computers for additional processing power. It also suggested that you divide your sample libraries up onto several different hard drives for optimal performance. While this is still done for many extensive sampling collections, such as Vienna Strings, you could run almost any of those libraries from a single computer today.

Companies that manufacture sample libraries have made it easier to run their programs on most computers today. However, the concept of 128-bit music is still a ways off. Cloud-based computing could help to make this a reality and at a lower cost than traditional models.

A subscription-based option using the Software-as-a-Services (SaaS) model could make it more affordable for composers who only need to use the samples for a few months at a time to complete a project by using tools designed for composing online. This could solve the problem of having to fork out several thousands of dollars for professional-level samples. With so many composers going the route of giving their music away for free, this can help them to absorb less of an impact on their finances, and they would still be able to produce recordings to submit to contests and other money-making endeavors.

Bouncing to the Cloud

One of the methods of dealing with a computer that isn't up to the task of mixing down a composition that would be too intensive for the computer to record in real-time is by bouncing audio tracks to disk. This allows the computer to use plugins and samplers in the background and it can use much less processing power. The result is that you can create an electronic recording that uses samples without having to overtax your computer. If you have enough RAM and a fast enough processor, you'll be able to get more out of a lower-powered machine. However, the cloud has the potential to solve this issue completely.

As Internet speeds begin to increase, sending data to the cloud for processing is becoming easier than ever. The cloud is instantly scalable, and composers will be able to upload their MIDI files to a server, select the appropriate instruments, and then compile their creation in the cloud with virtually no limits. This has several potential boons to the process of composing online with electronic music.
  • Sampler companies will be able to create 64-bit and higher samples that can be used to create more realistic-sounding audio samples. Additionally, they will be able to create more complex algorithms for interpreting sample data without having to worry about the end-user. This is huge because companies always have to balance what is possible with what is practical. Practicality will become less of an issue with cloud computing. This also allows for a higher ceiling and there is less need to worry about clipping.
  • Even with bounce-to-disk technologies, computers can still over-extend their processing capabilities and the computer can crash. This results in a loss of time for the composer, and it can be frustrating to have to water down a composition to make it work with their computer. With cloud-based technologies, the only limitations will be those placed on the end-user by the software company.
  • A SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) model can be adopted for composers with meager means to realize their compositions. This will open up the playing field to composers who don't have the money to build a professional-level recording studio.

The Dark Side of Technology

The downside to all of this enhanced technology is that we're going to have to wade through a lot of really high-quality recordings by composers who haven't developed the musicianship skills that were so important in the past. Studying modern music, romantic music, classical music, and even baroque music can help to make you a more effective composer. On the other hand, the more people who can get engaged in the craft of music composition, the more educated a composer's audience will become. Music composers who have something to say will still be able to find a foothold and secure their niche if they can find where their listeners are.

The Lesson Learned From Music Notation Programs

Music notation programs are fantastic. They make it easier for composers to notate their ideas, and they can save a ton of time when it comes to printing those orchestra parts or making revisions. It also saves a lot of paper.

The main issue I've seen with notation programs is that they tend to make it easy for composers to start plopping notes on the page to fill space. It's too easy to cut and paste an ostinato, whereas in the past, a composer would have to write out each note and they would be more inclined to vary it up and make it more interesting.

Young composers often get caught up in a wash of sound, and they stop thinking critically about their compositions when they use technology to create their music. As an instructor in music composition, I can tell when a student has written a piece using a notation program or when they composed the piece at the piano. The music written for piano is generally more fluid, shows more thought, and is less likely to contain thoughtless notations that often come with music notation programs. 

I believe we are in a time where young composers want immediate results. For sure, it has always been this way. When we're young, we want to move quickly and see progress, and we want it all now. I feel that the drastic increases in technology inspire young composers to skip over some basics that are really necessary to get the skill necessary to manipulate a composition effectively.

It's great to be able to use that "Palindrome" tool and mirror your compositions easily in a notation program, but it takes away the intellectual activity and the actual hands-on approach to music composition that I feel is so important. After all, music belongs to humans, not computers. I firmly believe that a composer who is rooted in classical traditions while still embracing the technology of the future will be able to make a more meaningful, dramatic composition.

Getting Back to Samplers...

Samplers have the ability to change the face of music and make technology more accessible to composers. However, as the case with music notation programs, there is still the issue of actually developing the skill to use these tools well. If a music sampler was a space shuttle, nobody would dare jump in and take it to the moon with little to no experience.

Music samplers in the cloud have the ability to make this technology accessible to anyone, and as with the space shuttle, anybody with a few dollars per month will be able to climb in. Luckily, with music, you'll just have to sort through a bunch of real, high-quality recordings that ramble on with little to nothing to say. So, at least with music, there is less physical harm.

Still, there are positives and negatives to any new technology. If this means there will just be more high-quality "sounds" to sort through, then that isn't the worst possible scenario. I still believe that making electronic music accessible to composers of limited means will result in some truly great works that might not otherwise be realized. That, in and of itself, is worth the pain that will come from every hobbyist in the world fancying themselves a real composer.

In fact, even as I write this, Composer Cloud is the first step toward the realization of a complete, cloud-based digital audio workstation. Composers can download the sounds they need when they want them. It's a subscription-based service that is designed to give composers access to all of the company's best libraries. It's only a matter of time before Steinberg, Cakewalk, or Logic Pro start offering their products online as well.

Hybrid Cloud Models

Recording studios will likely opt for a hybrid model that consists of both cloud-computing and traditional hardware. Final processing can be sent to the cloud where several studios can work on a recording, master, and prepare it for publication. This can help preserve the quality of the original recording, archiving becomes easier, and there will be no need to worry about saving disk space during the initial creation of a recording.

The Chrome Music Lab

Google has been busy creating The Chrome Music Lab. I believe that this is where music technology is headed. Soon, we'll be replacing the traditional recording studio with cloud-based applications. As Internet speeds increase, we'll be able to create real-time recordings in the cloud.

Imagine. All of your data and samples will be backed up and stored in real-time. There will be no more local storage on your computer, and you'll just keep all your audio files available online. This makes your works available anywhere you go, and you can take your online recording studio with you anywhere.

These technologies are just making it easier to get things done, and there is less wasted time and frustration associated with trying to get your digital audio workstation working with your current setup. It's going to take place completely in the cloud, and all we will have to do is log in and create our compositions.

The Future of the Orchestra

So, where does this leave our beloved orchestra? Electronic musicians who believe that electronic music will completely replace the orchestra are not really musicians in my opinion. Even if you could replicate an orchestra in perfect detail, getting rid of the orchestra is something that I think would be detrimental to the arts as a whole.

Orchestra music represents one of our crowning achievements. In much the same way as Olympic athletes compete and we cheer for our favorites, those of us who love the orchestra also look forward to that new interpretation, the showcase of virtuosic skill, and the uniquely human desire to sit on a stage and make all those wonderful sounds. 

The orchestra isn't going anywhere. If anything, an emergence of electronic recordings will just make music more accessible. People will listen to more music, and this could result in more recognition of our top orchestras.

While sampling won't only consist of traditional ensemble pairings, there will likely be an increase of composers without access to an orchestra putting their works online, and even composing online, for the world to hear. This in itself can encourage the desire to hear a real live orchestra, and preliminary findings have demonstrated that this, in fact, could be the case.

The suggestion that comes from a Classical Music Consumer Segmentation Study commissioned by 15 American Orchestras and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is that "listening to classical radio and recordings at home and in the car is how consumers grow and sustain a love for classical music, then these are primary arenas for long-term audience development."

The Future of Music

The future of music is alive and well, and the naysayers who believe that classical music is on its way out don't really understand the drive behind the creation of music. Composers will compose even if there is nobody there to hear their notes. Sure, we want an audience, but the act of composition is about more than the audience. While Milton Babbitt was greatly criticized for his article, "Who Cares if You Listen?", there is some truth to his belief even today.

While I disagree with his belief that atonal music is somehow more efficient or superior, I completely acknowledge that it was a method that allowed him to express himself in a way that worked for him. In this sense, if he was truly composing the music he loves, then yes, indeed, who cares if you listen? 

A composer must be confident in their ability to compose new works. When this confidence is shattered, they risk becoming a subject for their audience. While there is nothing wrong with being in service to an audience, this is the realm of film music and music for entertainment. 

I believe the role of a classical composer is to continually push music forward and provide music that appeals to the intellect, emotions, and if we're lucky the audience. However, this doesn't mean that we should get wrapped up in what our audience thinks about our music.

The moment you start caring about what others think about your music to the point where you change it to suit their preferences is the moment where it begins to lose its intrinsic value. While there are basic concepts all composers should understand, you don't need to validate your music by whether an audience enjoys your music. That, in itself, is not a good barometer to use.

I'm not talking about the kind of composer who wants to make a lot of money, create film music, or get large commissions. These are all valid reasons to be a composer, and I'm not putting down anyone who wants these things. However, these sorts of compositions generally don't push the field of music composition forward.

People criticize the Second Viennese School, and they state that they created music that was simply unmusical or undesirable. But, the truth is, while the music may have been more dissonant than the average ear wishes to tolerate, they pushed music forward and opened it up to a large number of possibilities. We will always need composers like this who are willing to push the field forward.

There is an important distinction to be made here, though. If you're a young composer, you have to listen to the instruction and advice of others who have more experience. 

Being a "maverick" isn't about simply satisfying yourself, never studying, and neglecting the centuries of music history and the composers who brought us to today. You must first learn why the masters were considered masters. If you can't replicate a classical-style piece after a little brushing up, then I don't believe you are ready to make the type of judgment call to allow you to brush off all opinions and criticisms of your music. This is something that only comes from experience, but for a composer like Milton Babbitt? He certainly earned his right to make his contentious assertion.

I do believe that the composer should keep his audience in mind, but the act of composing is also an intensely personal one for many of us. Admittedly, there are likely many narcissistic composers out there, but for a lot of us, it's simply about creating music and expressing ourselves. Of course, we need listeners to sustain ourselves, and we can't feed ourselves on notes alone. 

However, there is also a lot to be said for not watering down the world of music with compositions that people already know and love. I can teach just about anybody how to create a piece that sounds like John Williams wrote it, but that's because he has already done the hard work of creating that sound. I could likely teach you to write like Gustav Mahler, but again, that music has already been created. 

One of my favorite quotes is by Gustav Mahler. He once wrote to Natalie Bauer-Lechner that “composing is like playing with building blocks, where new buildings are created, again and again, using the same blocks. Indeed, these blocks have been there, ready to be used, since childhood, the only time that is designed for gathering.”

As a composer, I could take Bach's blocks and I could build some structures with those, and they would sound very much like it came from his music. An expert in his music would quickly be able to identify me as a fraud, but nonetheless, I could be trained to use his developments in music to create a composition. This isn't composing, though, this is simply mimicking.

No two of us have had the exact same experiences and upbringing, and I believe that it is our experiences that make our music unique. No matter what happens with music technology, we will still need to answer the big questions about life, death, and everything in between. 

Going back to my initial point, I believe that the future of music is bright. As long as there are composers who have something new to say, there will be people who want to listen.

Milton Babbitt ends his landmark article by stating the following:

"Granting to music the position accorded other arts and sciences promises the sole substantial means of survival for the music I have been describing. Admittedly, if this music is not supported, the whistling repertory of the man in the street will be little affected, the concert-going activity of the conspicuous consumer of musical culture will be little disturbed. But music will cease to evolve, and, in that important sense, will cease to live."

Perhaps if he were to write that statement today, he would change his mind. Of course, a composer has to be able to sustain themselves and not "starve on his dissonances" as Charles Ives aptly put it. Whether you're writing romantic music or looking to create a new music composition using electronic music, the technology is improving to the point where you will soon be able to create realistic demos while composing online. And, in an era where there is such a huge reach, and people from all over the world are just a click away from hearing your music, perhaps it's now possible to find your niche more effectively, support yourself, and continue to evolve the craft of music in a more honest manner that was not possible in the past. 

There are several technologies that are being developed that have the potential to change the landscape of electronic music composition. On...