Monthly Archives: July 2012

Listening for the Future of Musicianship

Continuing our series of guest posts, Christopher Sutton writes about his views on the future of musicianship. Christopher is the founder of Easy Ear Training, a company looking for new ways to help musicians develop their aural skills with a range of popular iOS ear training apps and downloadable training packs. He is passionate about the power of ear training for musicianship and excited about the new potential today’s technology brings. He attended our Future of Musicianship event in May; a full audio recording of the event is available for download.

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Technology has supported music creation for the last 50 years. But in the last 5 years this has quickly changed from supporting and enhancing traditional music-making, to transforming it completely.

Where once we had reverb effects and auto-tune to enhance our vocals, we now have completely synthetic virtual singers. Where once we had programmable drum machines, we now have automatic accompaniment generators.

Traditionally a young musician had to learn his 24 major and minor triads to be able to play a I-IV-V in any key. Now at the touch of a button he can create and manipulate chord progressions as easily as tapping out a text message.

In this transformed world of music creation and self-education, is there still a need for traditional music theory? Will young musicians still practise traditional orchestral and rock instruments for hours a day in 2020? What about 2050?

These aren’t questions I have an answer to, but I think they’re essential to consider when we talk about “the future of musicianship”.

If you were raised in the traditional Western music education system, it probably seems radical to imagine it undergoing significant change any time soon. But we’re starting to see the emergence of a new generation of musicians, who don’t care about Hanon exercises for piano fingering, learning endless scales, or polishing up centuries-old repertoire for performance in front of an examiner. Who maybe don’t even care about slinging a guitar on their back and playing down the pub or casually strumming in the park with friends. To the kids growing up now with Rock Band on their Playstation and music apps on their iPad, the idea of working day after day to figure out how to play a real instrument must seem somewhat crazy.

It’s easy to scoff at a game like Guitar Hero or Rock Band, and say “that’s not really making music”. Perhaps not, at its simplest level, but watch an expert play and you can’t doubt the manual dexterity it develops. Watch someone play Rock Band with a real Fender Strat, or the keyboard controller and it’s not so easy to see where the line divides game playing and music making.

In the world of mobile apps it’s even trickier to draw a line. While there are still the ‘support’ apps which let experts do complex musical tasks, there are also introductory multi-trackers like Garageband which make it incredibly simple to get started in music making with zero prior knowledge – just a set of ears. There are song generators and game-like instruments which for the first time put music composition into the hands of non-musicians.

Until now, the act of music creation has required musical training. A student developed their musicianship and their skill with an instrument, and in the process became able to create music.

That’s changed.

Music creation (and not just toy-like, simplistic, robotic music creation; we’re talking sophisticated, expressive and interesting composition) is now in the hands of every man, woman, and (literally) child.

The only thing that’s required: your ears. If you can hear the difference between good musical sounds and terrible noise, you can start making music right now.

It’s an exciting time to be a musician or a music educator. There’s more enthusiasm for music-making and experimenting with music than ever before, and it’s spreading from the traditional world of musicians to the broader population, which can only be a good thing. Things are changing incredibly quickly.

I don’t know what musicianship will look like in the future. One can argue that if it’s changed little in a few hundred years, it will probably stay much the same for the next century. But I think that’s naive. Yes, there will continue to be important core skills which set good music-makers apart from bad. But I think the arrival of technology which removes the need for endless instrumental practice before one can create music is a total game-changer.

It strips ‘musicianship’ down to what is really core to music creation:

  • Expressiveness.
  • Playing live with other people.
  • Innovation and originality in improvisation and composition.

Ultimately, what it all boils down to is listening. Whatever technology may do for the 21st century composer, every decision in sound creation or manipulation has to come back to a judgement from a human pair of ears. As long as music is being made for humans to listen to, strong aural skills are going to be at the heart of being a good musician.

I don’t know what the future of musicianship is. I’m confident it’s not going to look much like it does today.

One thing I do know for sure: Listening is, and will remain, the fundamental basis of musicianship.

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What do you think?

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