A step too far?
We’ve spoken before on this blog about how music is now much more democratic these days. By this, we mean it is much easier for people who wouldn’t class themselves as musicians to start creating their own tunes using techniques which are perhaps different to how music was in the past.
Purists can argue about the authenticity of someone hammering out a beat and some basic chords using entry-level automated software. However, the simple fact is that many people have a creative itch they need to scratch.
Lowering the barrier to entry
As many readers will know, the traditional route to learning to make music involves years spent learning scales, notes, chords and modes as a way of bringing some semblance of order to what is, essentially, quite a free-form mode of expression. Sure, there is no ‘right or wrong’ with making music, but certain rules do apply if you want your music to make sense. Nowadays, however, you don’t even really need to understand the difference between a pentatonic and a dorian to get you started because modern tech has lowered that particular barrier to entry.
Make way for the Step Sequencer
One instrument – using the word in a loose sense – which has had more impact than most at simplifying the creation process is the step sequencer. A step sequencer allows the user to programme in their music using a visual grid format, either on a screen or using a piece of hardware. It’s music broken down almost into code, ready to be manipulated and ultimately cracked to your own ends. But do step sequencers ‘dumb down’ the creation of music?
Step sequencers broken down
It’s perhaps useful now to describe a bit more about step sequencers. If you’ve never used one, the concept is pretty straightforward. As you know, we read music as we read sentences, i.e. from left to right. Musical notation then adds a further axis to this, with notes running from low at the bottom to high at the top. Picture a grid; along the left hand side, running vertically, is the notes of a piano, and running horizontally is the timeline at your chosen tempo/bpm setting. From here, imagine ‘drawing in’ the notes you want to play. The step sequencer will travel horizontally, playing whatever notes you’ve input in the order they were input. Simple.
Sequencers vs. samplers
As an aside; there is some slight crossover between step sequencers and samplers. Put simply, a sampler, like the Akai MPC Touch, is a sound source and a sequencer is merely a method of interpreting the sound. There is plenty of crossover though; most modern samplers will include some sort of sequencer with which you can compose your music. Native Instruments Maschine is a superb example of one such hybrid.
As someone who doesn’t have a theoretical or classical grounding in music, this easy-as-you-like method of making music completely changed things for me. The first time I experienced Ableton Live, with its intuitive grid system, it blew my mind. I’d struggled with ‘traditional’ instruments, finding it hard to get my head around music theory to the point where I began to lose interest. Yet here was a system so foolishly easy that I could tap away at my laptop and come up with increasingly complex compositions without the need for theory.
A (real) artist who took this concept and ran with it is Scottish electronic musician Hudson Mohawke. Way back in the days when Sony’s PlayStation 2 was the console to have, Hudson Mohawke spent no small amount of time using a rudimentary game called ‘Music’ to learn his chops. This particular game offered users a basic step sequencer, a library of sounds and the blank canvas to create their own tunes.
HudMo is now kind of a big deal in the music world, creating tracks for Kanye West among others, but it’s interesting know that it all started for him with a basic step sequencer.
So have step sequencers changed the music industry? It could be argued they have certainly opened the door for more people to get involved with the creation of music. It’s almost, in essence, quite a punk ethos at work. Making the best of what you have. For the people who don’t have the time, skill, inclination or motivation to put in the hard yards and properly learn about music, step sequencers have given them a simple to use, logical tool with which they can create. But maybe that logic, the almost emotionless pragmatism that comes from writing using a step sequencer, is what marks the difference between the trained musicians and the chancers. I include myself in that last bracket.
It’s easy to picture a situation – again, from my own experience – where the step sequencer artist gets to a point where they start to see the benefits of learning some theory. One downside to writing using a step – if you’re not what we’d class as naturally musical – is that there is a lot of trial and error. Particularly when writing melodies or trying to transcribe a line you can hear in your head. A trained musician would quickly and easily be able to tell the right key, the right progression and get themselves further along in the writing process than someone who constantly has to battle to find the right notes. They’d instinctively know where to look, and also where they might find those happy accidents we writers love to stumble across.
Easier music production, but….
In summary, step sequencers have made music much easier to produce. That’s the obvious assumption. But what they’ve also done is shone a light on the benefits of learning music theory. Music is a language like any other; vocabulary, phrasing and fluency all work to enhance the abilities we show. We could all use Google Translate to order a beer on holiday, but the student of the language will take so much more from the experience of communicating using their skills and talent. So, while there’s a place for everyone in music creation’s broad church, those with the true knowledge will always have a major head start on the rest of us.