Music Matters

Those of you who know something about modern production techniques know that music doesn't count for much these days.

Sad, sad, sad.

Music tracks can be purchased by the bushel, like cheap plastic baubles selected from endless market stalls. There are fine jewels out there if you know where to look, but most never catch the light. They just play in the background, adding volume but limited mass.

Part of the problem can be described by a strange paradox. As content of all types becomes easier to produce with the advent of cheap, powerful software and hardware, the signal to noise ratio rises. It used to be that people who created music were musicians. But that's not necessarily the case anymore. Plenty of people can now create complex, even specialized music tracks with only minimal musical training. Orchestration, arrangement, performance: the skills for making music only a few years ago have largely transformed into a different set of skills today. People still play, no doubt, but in terms of those vast bins of music for sale, playing bows to programming, or even lower down the food chain: knob fiddling. I'm not saying programming is easy, and good programming is even harder. But what of great music?

The question is one of need versus desire. For many purposes, adequate is more than enough, and in an age of ubiquity, adequate is everywhere. Virtuosity is much, much harder to come by. Ironically, it also has more limited purpose. Virtuosity either facilitates some sort of qualitative measurement that presents it subjectively "better" than other similar works, or virtuosity completely changes the rules by radically leaping forward. The second purpose is more exciting, of course, but it's also the most precious, most elusive thing of all. In terms of leaping forward, objective, qualitative comparisons are irrelevant. Virtuosity speaks a special language.

Goodness, greatness, and irrelevant ordinariness extend beyond the ear, of course. It's simply that because of music's untethered nature, the subject is more ripe for examination. Photography, video, graphics, animation: ease of content creation does not confer greatness. The challenge is to recognize and appreciate what's truly superb amid the clutter..

But should any of us ever care? If adequate is good enough--if what you need built on your property is an ordinary garage and not the Sistine Chapel--is there ever a reason to care about virtuosity? Everyone needs food to survive, but nobody needs to dine in four-star restaurants.

Don't believe it.

Virtuosity redefines the middle. It sets the bar, it shapes the culture. Without any judgment I make the following declaration: the great and vast aesthetic middle describes the mass of most people's days. Most music you hear--on the radio, in commercials, in movies--keep the pace moving perhaps, but doesn't do much to change the conversation. Same goes for middlin' photography, video, food, architecture, and everything else in the purview of creative human effort.

But as we all know, it can. Music matters because it's intangible. It's a proxy for the intangible nature of our own lives, descriptive of our moods and our endless lists of things to do and sometimes even our dreams and hopes. I don't know anyone who doesn't dream in some way about his or her own future. The value of great music rather than simply ordinary music, particularly in multimedia production, is as much a statement about refusing mediocrity in life as it is about also finding a great beat.

As far as I'm concerned, that's why the beat goes on.

--MS

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