Not Just a Beatbox | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 22.10.2004
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Not Just a Beatbox

Since the advent of computers, much of music is produced synthetically. Nowadays anyone can compose a symphony even if they can't read a note of sheet music. But that doesn't necessarily spell the end of quality music.


From sheet music to monitor music

The spread of electronic devices has made music omnipresent in modern society. Mobile phones ring little digital versions of popular melodies and the Internet has made millions of songs available in seconds in our homes. Anybody who has basic computer skills can even compose his own music without much fuss. Taken together, these technological advances have dramatically altered the way we relate to music.

"Music is no longer something that is special," said Tobias Pfleger from the Institute for Music at the University of Freiburg, alluding to the cheaply and quickly mass-produced pop songs that fill the shelves of most records stores these days. Music is now reduced to short snippets, or "time diminished" pieces as Pfleger puts it.

But the changes are affecting various types of music differently. A pop song might fit into society's short attention span, but classical music doesn't, complained Rainer Lorenz, an instructor at the Karlsruhe Music College. "People aren't used to concentrating for longer than three minutes at a time anymore," he said.

Tontechniker im Studio

Today, making music is no longer left to privileged artists. To compose you don't need the ability to read sheet music. Nor is an orchestra required to play what you compose. All you need is your trusty computer. "Around 80 to 90 percent of pop music is produced on computers," said Lorenz.

Expanding horizons

That doesn't mean all the music made in that way is bad, he said, conceding machines can also expand artistic horizons. "But it also enables people to make music who don't even know what a triad is. The just cook up some virtuoso passage without being able to play it," said Lorenz.

However, not everybody manages to turn a few beats into some magnificent work. And certainly not without putting the time in. "Making good music is still hard work," he said. Only the keys have changed: instead of piano ivory they've become PC plastic.

And Lorenz cautioned against thinking music made from bits and bytes is only rubbish. "The computer is a fantastic aid for production and marketing," he said, pointing out how you can now compose without years of instruction. "You can almost talk of a democratization of the means of production."

Benefiting both classical and pop

Frauen spielen Querflöte in Universitätsorchester

According to Pfleger from the University of Freiburg, computers have also helped the diversity of music. Instead of only benefiting modern electronic or popular music, hard drives and processors have opened up new opportunities for classical music as well. "There are modern composers who work with computers to analyze sounds," said Pfleger. "If you fade out certain frequencies from a flute, you come up with a completely different tone," he said.

In the studios of the Karlsruhe Music College and elsewhere, students learn to use computers to make exceptional sounds and music. They become tools just like any other musical instrument. That's an entirely different situation than most hobby computer composers are used to.

But the people using computers to make cookie-cutter music aren't so much the problem as are average consumers, according to Lorenz. "People just don't listen to what they are listening to anymore. They really don't care at all what's playing," he said.

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