Homogenization and Quantification of Music

Thursday, 23. February 2017 7:22 PM

I played in a concert recently where the concerto offering was a very difficult, technically challenging piece. The soloist managed all the notes very well; they observed all the dynamic markings, tempo fluctuations, and played with a beautiful sound. But it was SO BORING! As if it were a robot playing, not a human being.

The movie images I remember from the fifties and sixties of robots staying at home, doing the dishes, the washing, the vacuuming, had the robots looking like warm, cuddly, round beings. The concept portrayed was that things would be so much better if all the trivial daily tasks were to be done by this little machine. We would have so much more time for quality of life pursuits.

Unfortunately it appears that, rather than having robots/computers/machines emulating our actions, we are striving to emulate theirs. Compare the jerky dance antics of modern rock music to the dance sequences of Fred Astaire; factory robotic machines to manual workers.

At a recent gathering of trumpet elders, it was acknowledged that there will not be the type of stories (true or false) about the current crop of trumpet players that exist about trumpet personalities of the past - Harry Glantz, William Vachiano, Adolf Herseth, Mel Broiles, to name a few.

Our world and the music world has been homogenized. In our quest for digital perfection we have invalidated the individual musical personality. Any substitute player for a Broadway pit must be a clone of the regular player. It is no longer possible to play a recording and hear which orchestra is playing by identifying the characteristic sound of key members. There are no characteristic sounds, everyone has been taught to play and sound exactly the same. Trumpet sound has become a generic rather than specific term.

Prediction in 1906

The prediction of John Philip Sousa seems to be coming true. In a submission to a congressional hearing in 1906, he argued:

These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy, in front of every house in the summer evenings you would find young people together singing the songs of the day, or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.

Judgment and Quantification

Not only do we have this homogenization of music performance but also the quantification of music performance. Presumably in an attempt to be able to justify their profession and their job, music teachers have created systems to measure the progress of their students.

Examiners rate the accuracy (!) of a performance by such criteria as Pitch, Rhythm, Tone, Performance, Interpretation. For the first four of these, the only possibility of full marks is by a computer controlled synthesizer, and, if it has been programed correctly, the maximum score is the only possibility:


It is not possible for a human to play a wind instrument perfectly (plus or minus 0 cents) in tune. Only a computer can achieve that.


It is impossible for a human to perfectly dissect rhythms. Only the computer can achieve that.


It is impossible for a human to play with perfectly constant tone. Only the computer can achieve that; one has only to program the parameters and the computer will flawlessly recreate them.


Only a computer can perform with 100% accuracy.


This is the only human quality being assessed, although I do not know how it can be quantified. The minimum mark (for just participating) is 10.

Here is a Computer’s probable score card:






Total        130

Pass = 100, Merit = 120, Distinction = 135

Is it any wonder that the student is encouraged to emulate a computer to gain the highest possible marks? Rather than relying on our feelings, we are encouraged to obey computer measurements.

Would we allow a computer to irreversibly and unilaterally choose our life partner?

Please don’t misunderstand what I say. I am certainly not against striving for musical excellence. But I do not condone examinations, competitions and auditions that result in the unsuccessful players giving up.

As I have said many times:

If you have a good sound, people will want to listen to you no matter what you play


If you do not have a good sound no-one will want to listen to you, no matter what you play.

Focus on the substance, not the frills.

Play the melody, not the technique.

Music is feeling, not science.