(I originally wrote this post for the Poison Ivy Mysteries blog, but I wanted to post it here, too. Also, I edited the earlier SONAR post so the music is working again, too, since the two later examples I use in this post are indeed those songs.)
This is my third time trying to make a coherent blog post on this subject. I find that the qualities I most enjoy in music and the qualities that most people I associate with enjoy in music are often not only different, but quite at odds. For example, let’s take this remix of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. This was created using the same hardware that powers the sound system of the Atari 8-bit line of computers (comparable to the sound of the original Nintendo Entertainment System). I would imagine that even those people who kind of like the sound of this remix would consider it obviously inferior to the song as performed by Nirvana. Why?
Some people would say because it was the original, and therefore remixes aren’t as original. Fine. If Nirvana or some other well-known band remixed this piece (an original tune using the same hardware), however, I would venture that most people would prefer the band version over the Atari version. So that’s it, then? Other things being equal, live instruments always beat synthesized sounds, right?
Not for me.
Quite frankly, I really enjoy that original Atari piece, and any attempt to recreate it wouldn’t be able to capture the essence that makes it what it is, just like that 8-bit remix of Smells Like Teen Spirit fails to capture the spirit (no pun intended) of the original. Now, I admit, I may be influenced by the fact that I grew up with and spent a lot of time on our old Atari, and I have a certain affinity for the sound. Your mileage may vary if not affected by the nostalgia I feel.
I think the problem many composers have with not being able to enjoy many forms of synthesized music is this: they make the mistake of trying to compare it to previous kinds of music, or components of music, as a reference point. Therefore composers may try to make their synth music sound as close to live music as possible, creating an uncanny valley sort of effect where people know it’s supposed to sound like a violin but it doesn’t quite get there. Consider this, which is a song that my brother wrote a while back in high school. It was supposed to be performed by an actual band but never was, and as a result the song itself sounds cheesy and synthetic, in all the wrong ways. People listening would say, “Hey, I know what a trumpet sounds like, and that ain’t no trumpet. Therefore, it’s crap.” Now, consider this. Same exact song. The only things I have changed are the sounds. Instead of sounding like a trumpet, that same part is its own unique sound (a processed square wave with built-in delay, for anyone keeping score). Is it better? I would venture that most people would say that it is. Would it be better than a live band playing the same song? I would still venture that it would be.
But wait. Didn’t we decide earlier with the Teen Spirit and Atari song examples that, other things being equal, live instruments trump synth? Is music played by, or simulating, live instruments, the only good “real” music? For some people, that answer will always be yes, it does, but I don’t believe it to be the case.
What’s better, a Beatles song, or an orchestra playing a suite of Beatles songs? A child singing a hymn quietly to him or herself, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing it, backed up by the Utah Symphony? A Bach piece played by a rock band, or a rock song played on the organ? On a broader note, who are we to define what good music is and isn’t? Who are we to tell people that the music they like or they music they don’t is inferior or superior to any other kind? What defines “real music?” I read once that the definition of noise is “unwanted sound.” Well, I would venture to define music as “wanted sound.” It’s all subjective. No music is more real than any other kind. And in this day and age, with globalization and the Internet, there will be a market for nearly any type of music, whether it be live, synth, singing, non-singing, produced with millions of dollars of equipment or with a guy playing a guitar in his garage into a mic.
I do think I have one thing that may globally separate good music from bad, and that is simply this: how much heart did the composer/performer put into it? And, more importantly, how much heart is the listener willing to put into it? I’ve redone this blog post three times now and I still don’t think I’ve put across the message I want as clearly as I want to, but I guess it comes down to urging people to step out of their comfort zones when it comes to music. Listen to thing you never thought you’d like. You may be surprised that the qualities you thought defined good music for you were, in fact, off-base, and you may grow to love something you never thought you’d touch with a ten-foot pole. That’s all I’m trying to say.
(All Atari songs came from the Atari SAP Music Archive)