Music is changing. That’s easy enough for anyone to recognize, most people over a certain age have noticed the rise of electronic music with mixed emotions. Even older musicians and fans can remember the rising popularity of electric music. The truth of the matter is that music has always been changing. If music didn’t then, we would still be making music by slamming sticks against rocks and logs. But that doesn’t mean that changes can’t be criticized, though it does encourage some humility.
If you turn on the radio, you’ll notice that more and more music is made using virtual instruments or highly distorted using music software. That’s what we’re talking about; music made with computers versus music made with wind, percussion, and strings. Even if the instruments use electricity, we’ll still consider them classical, since even the most devoted fan of the acoustic guitar will sooner play an electric guitar then use a computer program that recreates the guitar sound without using a single string.
Electronic music is on the rise, but will it replace classical instruments? The short answer is no, and even electronic musicians will tell you this. The long answer is more complicated.
When discussing the “battle” between virtual and physical instruments, it’s important to note that the lines aren’t as clear as they might seem. Most people will argue that a physical keyboard is more human because it is actually responding to the human touch. But what about MIDI keyboards that are played just like traditional pianos? The input is as human as ever; the difference comes from the way that the music is produced. In traditional pianos, the key causes a hammer to hit a string that vibrates in such a way that it produces a certain sound. The MIDI keyboard fires off an electrical signal that causes a cascade of new electric signals that leads to a speaker sending out a vibration through the air. The start and the end of the process are almost the same, it’s only the steps in the middle that make the difference.
In the end, music is sound waves sent through the air. If you were to just look at the waves themselves, it would be almost impossible to tell if they were created by a real instrument or an electronic source. Still, it must be noted that even the best speakers have trouble recreating the exact sound of quality music instruments. The amateur might have trouble telling the difference, but just about anyone can feel the difference.
The lines are blurry, but there are still differences. This is what makes the music world so interesting, the diversity of music-making instruments allows for the amazing variety of musical genres we can all enjoy today. And yet, while differences exist they are often overstated. There is still plenty of overlap.
The Advantages of Classical Instruments
The lines are blurred between virtual instruments and acoustic instruments. Most popular music today is produced completely with computers or with the assistance of computers. So what advantages do classical instruments offer?
We touched on the first reason already, classical instruments are tactile. Even the most sophisticated acoustic instruments make music based on the oldest methods of music making. There’s air blowing through tubes, percussion causing air to vibrate, and strings being vibrated to release sounds. Clarinets, drums, and cellos all harken back to the days when humans made music with reeds, hollow logs, and vines. To touch these instruments is to rest your hands on musical history, producing music in the same basic manner that your ancient ancestors once did. This is a raw, visceral appeal that tugs at our heartstrings even before we learn any of this history.
There is also the social nature of classical instruments. True, electronic musicians can get together and collaborate. But if you look at popular electronic musicians you’ll notice that they often perform alone, or if they do collaborate they provide all the instrumentation while someone else does the vocals. This is a completely legitimate way to make music, but it takes something away from the collaboration process. When you learn a classic instrument, you understand that you can’t do everything yourself. A rock band isn’t the same if it’s just a guitarist or just a drummer, it takes different musicians coming together to create something bigger than themselves.
This is why it’s helpful to encourage children to pick up classical instruments, even if they love electronic music. Being part of a band or orchestra is a great way to learn teamwork skills and make friends. If electronic musicians are like boxers, stepping into the ring alone, then classical musicians are like members of a sports team. No one player can do it all on their own. That’s one of the lessons that you learn playing a classic instrument.
It’s easy to think that electronic and classical music are complete opposites but that isn’t the case. Today electronic musicians create music using principles and terminology developed in the classical world. Creating electronic music often requires the use of controllers that look and operate like keyboards, so many of the best electronic musicians can also play the piano. In fact, most electronic musicians got started out playing with classical instruments and carried over the things they learned into the digital world. If you ask most musicians, they will tell you that the two forms of music making are really complimentary rather than competitive.
It’s no secret that computer-assisted music making has cut into the percentage of music that is made through traditional means. But that doesn’t mean that classical instruments are on their way out! Even many of the most popular electronic musicians use samples of classical instruments to make their songs. Today there are more people learning and using classical instruments than at any other point in world history.
No one can say for sure what the future of music will look like. It might be that popular music will become even more computerized, or it could be that more traditional methods of music making will recapture the pop world. What we can say with confidence is that there’s no reason to think that classical instruments will ever completely disappear. Sure, today you can sit at home and enjoy a high-quality recording of just about any Beethoven symphony, but even hundreds of years after they were first composed people are still journeying out to concert halls to hear them performed rise.
Traditional instruments might not be as dominant as they once were but they still speak to us on a deep level. Any musician who has worked with both traditional instruments and music production programs will tell you that there’s a world of difference between the two. Physical instruments speak to something deep within each of us. The feel of their heft in our hands, their vibrations pulsing through our bodies, the perfectly imperfect sounds they produce. These are the things no computer program can replace.