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Let’s Talk About What Happened to Music – Why Music Doesn’t Sound Like Music Anymore

Umair Haque wrote . . . . . . . . .

Let’s talk about something completely different today. Something near and dear to my heart. Music.

If you’re above a certain age, or even below it, but you listen to a lot of music from times gone by, you’ll notice something. Modern music sucks. It doesn’t even sound like…music…anymore. Not to me. And not to, well, a lot of people. Rick Beato did a very interesting series of videos about it on YouTube. They were “controversial” — but only in the way that pin-sharp observations so often are.

Caveats. This being the internet, let me insert a few, for the nitpickers out there. Obviously I don’t mean all music. Sure, there are pockets here and there. But music lovers, and music makers, I think, know there’s a problem. With the state of this…sphere. Domain. Field. Industry, though I don’t like that word. Just call it a space of artistic endeavor. You can qualify it however you like, if you need to. “Pop” music, though I think it’s more that just that. The stuff you hear on the radio, see at the top of the various streaming platforms. The stuff that just makes up the soundtrack of an age — you know? Periods of history always have soundtracks. But ours? Something’s wrong, because this stuff sucks.

The sound of modern music. Have you heard it? I mean really listened? Nobody does — but I’ll come back to that. Let’s begin with just…the sound. It’s…bad. Listen to recordings from the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s. The sound of music sounded better. It sounded noticeably, jarringly…richer.

Recently, I went to the cafe that I always go to. One of them. Zoomers clad in Crocs work there. I tease them about it. They’d put on a 90s playlist. Oldies. LOL. I didn’t like the stuff on the playlist back in the 90s. It was just a medley of hits. Oasis, Alanis Morrissette, Bush, I think — it doesn’t matter. What does is how I was struck by how much better the music sounded.

It didn’t have the sound of modern music. What is that sound? It’s hard to describe, and yet you know it exactly when you hear it. Nobody would ever mistake a recording made now for one made in any other era. It feels like needles are going into my ears, for a start. Everything’s too sharp, grating. Everything’s too loud. There’s very little range — expressively. It’s screechy and hyper-digital. Everything pumps and sucks and breathes and gasps like it’s spasming.

It’s not pleasant to hear. Sure, it may be an acquired taste, for some. But it’s hardly like I’m making this up.

Why is it that the “sound” of the 80s is back, in a big way? Why is it that disco — the sound of the 70s — is seeing such a big revival? Or why folk music is, too? Because modern music sucks. This isn’t just some kind of random set of events. It’s a rebellion against the tepid, cold, joyless sound of modern music. All these various forms of music were hardly chosen at random. If you wanted something that sounded less like modern music, you’d be hard pressed to choose something more diametrically opposed to it than the 70s, 80s, or way back to quasi-medieval folk.

Modern music is a really, really strange thing, when I think about it. Because…this is hard to explain, but let me try. Everything’s in the right place. The notes are right. The harmonies are nice. The chords are just fine. And yet…it has no emotional effect. Zilch. I hear it, and…nothing. I don’t think it really affects anybody. At least not on the same level the music of the past does.

Don’t you think that’s weird? I do. The notes and chords haven’t changed one bit. The same chord progression — 1–5–6–4 — is the basic sound of Western pop music, and even global pop music at this point. It’s been around since barbershop quartets. It used be called the “doo-wop chords.” It’s practically immortal in cultural terms. Journey used it, and so did Fleetwood Mac. Go your own way. Don’t stop believing. The chords and notes are the same. But nobody, and I mean nobody, as cheesy and funny and cliched as it is, hears Fleetwood Mac or Journey, and doesn’t feel something. Modern music, on the other hand…have you ever felt anything listening to it? Anything?

Something is deeply, deeply weird about that. Something’s wrong. How can the notes and chords and harmonies and melodies be perfectly fine and nice and acceptable…and yet there’s no emotional effect? Music is about that, after all, emotion.

What’s gone wrong here, I think, is computerization. Listen closely to modern music. It has a lot of what even sound like real instruments sometimes. The lineup of a song hasn’t changed, after all — it’s still bass, guitar, synths, drums, and vocals. Something like that. It’s not as if modern music is about guttural Tibetan folk singing over didgeridoos. The raw stuff of it is the same. But it’s not the same at all.

A lot of this stuff now is the sound of “virtual instruments” in a computer. And virtual instruments are programmed, rather than played. Modern music all sounds the same because everyone’s using the same virtual instruments. That’s not the same as every rock guitarist playing a Les Paul, or every funk guitarist playing a Strat, or every synthesist playing a Moog. Not remotely the same. Why not?

Because there’s very little musicianship in it. Remember musicianship? I do. Take a listen to, I don’t know, one of my favorite examples is “Love Hangover,” by Diana Ross. (Editor’s Note: Or, my personal favourite for the same reasons, “I Don’t Know If It’s Right” by Evelyn “Champagne” King.) The band is jamming. They are playing like the world is about to end. And nothing is ever the same twice. Every member of the band is playing their part. But they’re playing it. It’s not just a programmed…thing, cycling around, in a forever loop. Is that even music?

But almost any record that’s not modern will do. It doesn’t matter what it is. Grateful Dead? Sure. Van Halen. Yup. Aerosmith? Chic? The Beatles? Coltrane? The genre doesn’t even matter. From disco to rock to funk and beyond…music was about musicianship. People could play their instruments, and some people could play them in miraculous ways. Think of the way Nile Rodgers just slew the world with his guitar riffs. Freak out!

The interesting thing is that you can replicate even that in a computer — or even Eddie Van Halen’s scorching guitar solos — but something’s missing. It can even sound right. But something’s missing. You don’t feel anything. But put on a record from real musicians — doesn’t matter which or who — and instantly, the feelings are back. What’s that about? A lot of little things, all adding up to a very, very big one. Groove, expression, microtiming, the way a band locks together, builds, crescendos, falls.

You can even replicate a whole goddamned symphony in a computer at this point. We’ve all heard it a million times. It’s so cheap and easy to do that every soundtrack for every low-budget show is this marching symphonic Grand Orchestra of Doom stuff now. That’s not a real orchestra, it’s a computer. And though it sounds the same, the problem remains. It doesn’t make you feel anything. Nobody, and I mean nobody, in their right mind, would go to hear a concert of these simulated orchestral reality TV soundtracks, right? Would you? But a real orchestra? That’s still a breathtaking experience.

They sound the same. But their effects on us are completely, completely different. That is because our emotional centers are hearing more than our conscious brains. Our conscious brains — especially people who are untrained at serious musicianship — just hear “a guitar” or “a violin” or “a piano” or “the drums.” But it seems that the inner part of a person, the emotional core, the center, the soul — it knows. When a human being who’s a musician is part of the process — and when it’s just a computer that’s been programmed to sound like a musician.

Music today is made by “engineers” and “producers” who don’t get this. They’re obsessed with something that’s funny, if you understand all the above, at least to me. “A/B tests.” They’ll endlessly test if a virtual instrument or a software replication of a certain kind of equipment can “pass an A/B test” — meaning: can it fool the conscious ear? And often, they can. The software can fool the conscious ear. It’s hard to tell which is which, the real violin or the software, the real orchestra or the program, Nile Rodgers or the computer algorithm. But the soul knows. Emotions don’t lie. You can fool the conscious ear, but can you trick the heart?

The answer seems to be: nope, not really. Because mostly, we all hear modern music, and we feel very little. It’s not even music anymore, much of it. It’s just…decoration. What wallpaper is to art. Nice to have around, but not something we pay much attention to. Just an ambient din that’s…around. Don’t really have to listen to it. Just put it on. Doesn’t matter what it is. Because it all kind of sounds the same.

Nobody’s really listening much anymore, because, well, what is there to listen to? Music, even a decade or three ago, was different. It was an incredibly, intenseful meaningful thing when a new album came out, from that group or artist you respected and maybe even loved. You’d sit there, and just listen. You’d think about it, reflect on it, try to understand it. What was it saying? What was it making you feel? You’d listen over and over again — even if it challenged you.

Who really listens to music like that now? In that sense, music is barely music at all now. Its cultural function has changed. It doesn’t really glue scenes together anymore — remember those — scenes, or locales where entirely new forms were emerging. Grunge, disco, funk, punk. What was the last kind of music that happened? It all sounds the same now precisely because music isn’t a cultural linchpin, a thing that matters. It’s low-level noise that we use to distract ourselves from what feels a lot like the end of the world.

Music should be better than that. It should matter. It should matter intensely and immensely. It shouldn’t just be something that we barely listen to, because, well, mostly, it’s unlistenable. Because it’s barely music, and mostly algorithms, bereft of the raw stuff of music — musicianship, thought, ideas, skill, a desperate need for expression.

Now, it’s easy to take some of these criticisms — just thoughts, really — and apply them to bygone eras, too. But Motown was just an assembly line! Hey, people thought Black Sabbath was unlistenable noise, too!! Wrong and wrong. Motown was not just an assembly line. The first Motown studio had dirt floors, if I recall correctly. Motown was incredibly skilled artists and musicians coming together in the only form they had available to them as black people — capitalism, in America. They made it work. Black Sabbath, noise? Are you kidding me? Listen to the musicianship on the first few albums. It’s still unmatched today, mostly.

Music today really is different.

Part of the problem is technology replacing skill. Think about the way that “80s music” has come back into fashion. Then go back and listen to some real 80s music. Does it really sound the same? It shouldn’t, because it doesn’t. Sure, the 80s was the decade of synthesizers. But those synths were played by incredibly skilled musicians. Listen to, I don’t know, something as mundane as Thriller, and tell me there’s no musicianship going on there. There’s layers upon layers of it. Even if it was drum machines and synthesizers — musicianship separated the wannabes from the masters.

Today’s music is often called “electronic,” but that’s wrong. Very wrong. It’s not electronic music. When Moroder laid down the legendary synth line to “I Feel Love,” it still sounds like the future, doesn’t it? That was almost fifty years ago. How can that be? It’s not because he played it by hand, obviously — it’s locked to a “sequencer,” a machine that clocks the synth. But even there, there are layers and layers of musicianship. The machine’s playing the groove, and Moroder’s adjusting layers of filters, echoes, all sorts of things in the background. Dub and Krautrock came together in this, if you know your musical history.

It still sounds like the future because Moroder was playing the machines. The machines weren’t playing him. And then there’s Donna Summer’s voice floating over the top.

No autotune. Do you know that most singers, every word and syllable they sing today, are tuned…by an algorithm? No wonder it sounds so dead. One of the main jobs that engineers and producers do in music today is… “tuning vocals.” LOL. That’s a job that never used to exist. And music was way, way better without this particular job. You know the horrible, cheesy effect in Cher’s “Believe”? That’s the sound of autotune. The T-Pain effect, it’s sometimes called, after the legendary genius who wrote the masterpiece “I’m in Love With a Stripper.” I kid.

Autotune changes the sound of a vocalist even if you don’t do anything. Just run it through the algorithm, and bang, it sounds a little unnatural. Press the correct button, and suddenly — presto — you’ve got the sound of modern music. Engineers and producers will sit there, and “tune vocals” by hand, painstakingly correcting this and that. But what purpose does this serve?

At the end of the day, this results in lifeless — and I mean that literally — vocals. Vocals which sound weirdly dead. Which do that thing — it sounds right, every note is in the right place, but you feel nothing. That’s because it’s too right.

A really good singer? They’ll hit little blue notes, go just that far off the absolute pitch of the note, expressively. They just know. I work with a singer that does this with zero formal training. She just…can. When people hear her, they’re blown away. Because this is singing. It’s not about hitting the right notes, as in the perfect ones. It’s about dancing with the notes, singing around them, feeling something, expressing it. A good singer can hit the notes. But a really good one knows when to deviate just that little bit.

No engineer and no producer can ever — and I mean ever — touch this. They can try to do the job of a really good singer, and sit there tuning vocals by hand, literally adjusting micro-percentages of each last note. But what are they really doing? They’re trying to simulate a great vocal performance, full of expression, life, funk, joy, attitude, emotion. They’re trying to fake it.

Instead of just finding really good singers. The singers are out there. But they don’t get enough work these days — because in this music industry, it’s about your looks first. That’s always been the case, sure — but it’s so, so, so much worse now, because a singer’s voice has literally almost ceased to matter. When you can autotune anyone a million different ways, why would it? So engineers and producers barely even bother looking for really good singers — which is why nobody much hears them these days. It’s the last priority on their list. The first ones? Finding singers who can hit the “right” notes, who are “easy” to tune, who look good on Instagram.

And the result of all that is lifelessness.

I’m not saying “using a computer is wrong.” Far from it. I use a computer in the studio. We all do. But the computer has its place. And that place is limited. It should be kept limited. Where and when it helps make music, that’s good. But when it becomes a substitute for music — when it’s just programming, and creating something that sounds like music, but isn’t, not really, is just a simulation of music, bereft of musicianship, expression, yet at the same time, ironically too perfect, too polished, too overdone, only made palatable by pumping it to maximum volume and making it gasp and spasm, demanding, shouting, screaming to be heard — that’s how we end up with this haze of meaningless, needles-in-your-ears stuff called modern music.

Which isn’t music anymore, or barely is. It doesn’t sound like music to me. It sounds like it should sound like music. Chords, notes, harmonies, melodies — all in the right place. But nothing happens. No emotion. Nobody cares. No scenes amalgamate around it. Feeling nothing, entire generations have lost the experience of music mattering. It’s just become one Great Ambient Wash. A Great Ambient Wash of Virtual Instruments and Autotune.

You’re not listening to music anymore. You’re listening to an algorithm. A series of them. One is an “instrument,” the next “tunes the vocals,” the next ranks the song itself according to its “listenability,” and so forth. Is that even music? And is it any wonder music doesn’t matter anymore?

This isn’t a manifesto or a set of complaints. Just a few little observations. I don’t like the way music sounds these days. Yes, there are pockets of interesting stuff here and there. But broadly speaking? Music has lost its way. All this nostalgia for the 70s, 80s, 90s — it isn’t just about fashion. It tells us that even young people long for music. Not this algorithmic, computerized dreck. They miss a thing they don’t even really know. How funny — and how painfully human — is that?

Source : E&CO

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