The Paradox of Music Technology

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Eric Mobley

Eric Mobley

Research and Development

Most trained musicians (those who have devoted their life to or acquired mastery on a particular instrument, voice included) have a precarious relationship with music technology at best.   They prefer to remain within the confines of the established musical canon.  This creates a paradox in music because if musicians are not using music technology, than can it still be considered “music” technology?  This paradox can of course be proven as obsolete if it is understood that music is not necessarily something only created by musicians, but it brings up an important point.  If musicians are not willing to dab into the sphere of music enhancing technology, it leaves untrained people to fill the role of musicians in our society since our culture is shifting towards more electronically influenced music.  This does not mean that musicians will no longer make music, but the music they make will not be ingrained in our society as it has been in the past.  Now people who are producers or editors are accredited with the name of musician, changing the very meaning of the word musician.  By not being willing to blend their mastery of music with mastery of technology, musicians leave music in the hands of those who simply have mastery of technology.  In essence music becomes a science, something to be engineered, not an art, something to be imagined; this a trend that is quite rampant in our culture, the de-evolution of the arts and humanities, in favor of the sciences. 

There is no such thing as a “music technologist”.  But there are recording engineers, acoustic engineers,  sound designers, producers(who actually have an education in music), and others.  The thing about modern music technology is that it covers such a broad range of disciplines that in actuality it is hard to pinpoint just what music technology is.  People do not understand that as a major at a university, Music Technology is an interdisciplinary degree, requiring knowledge in acoustics, music performance, composition, engineering, and a wealth of other fields, depending on the university.  There are many degree names that fall within the realm of music technology: Media technology, electronic music, sonic arts, “creative” music technology, audio technology, music production, recording, sound engineering, and others.  All of these degrees have the word music technology in their description.  So music technology permeates into a lot of different aspects of life.  Without music technology, there would be no acoustic engineers to build concert halls that produce the best sound for orchestras to play in.  There would be no recording engineers to salvage the sound of great musicians to be heard decades from now.  For our purpose though, when music technology is mentioned, it is referring to the use of technology to create music or new musical instruments.

Part I

In music history, it has been the rule rather than the exception that sets of technological and cultural circumstances are critical to the production of music.  Look at the advent of the piano.  Before the piano, the harpsichord was the main keyboard instrument.  The first piano is dated in 1769 and offered a whole new range of possibilities for composers.  Objectively it allowed them to play in 12 different tonalities, but subjectively it gave them a whole new palette of expression, a palette that would define European culture in the years to come.  By 1800, harpsichords were far and few between and European culture had adopted the piano.  As such, many pieces written leading up to that year abandoned citing the harpsichord in its titles.  The harpsichord as a practical musical instrument was all but lost and had become a musical relic.  As a result, pieces written before 1800 that were written with harpsichord in mind, became fluid, and took on whole new meanings and styles, as they were now played with piano instead of harpsichord.  This is not surprising though because a sound or voice found in one technology, may warp when used to perform music that requires another. 

            This same phenomenon can be seen with other transitions in instruments: the Baroque trumpet to the modern trumpet, the piano to the synthesizer, the field drum to the snare drum, and countless other examples.  When these new musical technologies were created, they became a part of the culture and composers started to write with these advancements in mind.  Not only that, but people also seek to repossess musical works from earlier times and apply their cultural standards to them, regardless of the work’s original intent and format.  This blending of contextual time periods creates a new relationship between composition and the time of listening and performance.  This relationship is one of the most prevalent affects of music technology.  A new balance between composer and performer, performer and audience, piece and context, is established.

Part II

Despite there being a clear relation between technological and cultural contexts, and the production of a musical work, conservatories unwisely do not re-examine the curriculum they enforce, and teach almost the same range of disciplines they did more than a century ago.  They want to preserve tradition, which is a good thing,  but they do it at the expense of their students.  Much like the gender gap is a discrepancy in opportunities and status between men and women, a “music” gap is being created between musicians and non-musicians as musicians are less and less able to penetrate into the world of music because they simply have not been prepared to be successful in the music environment that is prevalent in our culture.  Whether this environment is right or wrong is a non-factor.  It exists. 

            For instance, the meta–trumpet, hyper-flute, and other hyper-instruments are instruments that take advantage of electronics but they are not widely known or used.  The problems with these instruments is that many musicians do not take the time to learn how to use them although they are simply an extension of their classical counterpart.  These hyper instruments are then confined to the player, meaning composers do not write parts for the hyper flute and meta-trumpet because these instruments and others like them are not universally understood among musicians.  There is not a large pool to draw from of musicians that know how to play them, so why write pieces that require it.  This goes against the trend in music history, as these instruments offer a whole new range of possibilities while keeping the essence of the original instrument, much like the piano to the harpsichord.  Our technology and culture are moving towards these types of instruments, but our musicians are not.   

Part III

This difference occurs because, frankly, our society reduces music technology to “merely” commercial music production.  But music technology, in its basest definition, is simply electro-acoustic composition.  The reason music technology is often cited as being commercial music is because popular music has ingrained electronic means into making music, meaning these often untrained practitioners are the ones that are taking advantage of the technology available.  Music technology does not create commercial music, people do. 

            If freed from these internally imposed “rules”, musicians can develop a whole new relationship with music, the relationship that is developed as a result of music technology, the relationship between composition, and the time of listening and performance.  People are allowed to work with the raw materials of sound to push the limits of existing knowledge and to find new and exciting ways of composition and performance very much like artists and the works of art that are created when they are allowed creative freedom. 

            There is a problem with all of this though, as a result of the technology that is available.  Computers have changed the very fabric of music production.  Computers allow people to create music that they physically cannot play by allowing them to build a song layer by layer and edit factors such as tempo and dynamics.  Computers allow people to sample, sequence, and edit music, blurring the lines between original composition and arrangement.  Computers allow people to offer music technology in place of live performance.  Then the question becomes what is the relationship between performer and listener when the performance is mediated by a computer?   

Part IV

This is where a change in music education comes to play.  A whole new view of music education should be created, one that includes these new technologies and places music technology within the curriculum.  Not just at the college level but in grade school, when students are required to take some sort of music class.  Sampling and sequencing can provide meaningful, educational encounters with music when used responsibly, when used in accordance with some larger goal.  Not offering these technologies in replacement of traditional curriculum, in replacement of learning an instrument and the theory of music, but as a supplement to.  Manipulating music can sometimes be just as good a tool of learning as composing. Instruments and instrumentation are representative of the musical language in which they are found, so it stands to reason that technology is a key component in developing the language of music, of expanding the vocabulary within that language, of expanding and changing the meanings of words within that language.

            This does not mean that all musicians, classical or otherwise, have a precarious relationship with music technology.  A line of Serialist composers in the 1960’s were among some of the first to dive into electronic music in the classical world.  Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, and Luigi Nono are known for their extensive work with music technology and raw sounds including the voice.  Stockhausen actually predicted that the next instrument in the lineage of keyboards would be the synthesizer, replacing the grand piano.  Although this has not happened yet, history seems to be heading that way.  More modern classical composers such as Jacob Ter Veldhuis, Hannah Lash, and Kaija Saariaho have all received critical acclaim for their works.  So why aren’t these composers more integral to our society?  Because music technology in itself is not sufficient to create palatable music.  All of these composers are in the field of abstract music, and while abstract music may be great to study, it is not something to which the common ear is attuned.  These composers require extreme concentration and an open mind to appreciate, polarizing even the most musically academic audiences at times.  So while these composers are integrating music technology into their work, they are not creating music to be enjoyed but rather music to be appreciated, of which there is a distinct difference.  Music written to be appreciated is written for other musicians.  Music written to be enjoyed is written for everybody.


A majority of people in our culture do not value music written by Beethoven and Mozart, but in looking at their contextual time periods, the people who were alive at the time enjoyed the music.  The composers understood the type of music their audience liked and wrote music that was appropriate for their culture.  People today do not enjoy the same type of music as they did 300 years ago, so it is the responsibility of musicians today to make music that incorporates elements of our culture so that music can achieve its most basic goal: to stimulate the senses.

            New definitions of musical literature are not possible without music technology and neither are new ways of making music. 


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