When I was growing up, my father had a rather extensive collection of 78 RPM records, the ones made of shellac in the first half of the twentieth century before vinyl took over. They were about the same size as later vinyls, but held only a few minutes of music per side. Longer pieces might feature sides one and two on the same record, and sides three and four on the next. And we had to change the needles periodically as they tended to wear quickly.
Then came the vinyl 33⅓ RPM. This revolutionized our musical experience: we could listen to music for nearly forty-five minutes at a time without having to change the record. I was a teenager when I started collecting my own vinyls. I still have (literally) thousands of them. But I rarely play them today, because along came the cassette and then the compact disc. I own shelves full of CDs. But now even they collect dust alongside my records because I use MP3s and YouTube. My children and grandchildren prefer Spotify. My dad’s 78s were originally designed for the gramophone, but today people are more likely to listen on smart speakers or wireless headphones via Bluetooth.
What is the effect of these changes? Like every innovation, there is good and bad. The good is that we can listen to what we want, when we want, and for however long we want. And things are relatively easy to find. For years, I searched for the great Don Lambert’s recording of Grieg’s “Anitra’s Dance” in ragtime, rummaging through record stores without success. Then I thought to check YouTube—and there it was, a live performance no less!
Are there negatives? Yes, and I’d like to touch on a few of the most theologically significant. First, contemporary music is often experienced apart from its native context. Listening to your headphones in your bedroom is nothing like being at a concert hall or in a church. I listen to a good deal of sacred music, including Gregorian chant. But much of the music is liturgical—made for a cathedral—and it is somewhat artificial to listen to it on a personal media device. This does not make it morally wrong, but listeners should at least be aware of isolating the consumption of worship music from participation in actual worship.
It is a bit illusory to listen to isolated pieces without context, whether or not it is worship music. Cherry-picking our favorite tracks from albums is a bit like having only dessert at a meal or settling for a TV dinner. It is true that Spotify and the like will suggest other pieces “you might also like.” This is a form of context, created by algorithms. An algorithm is a sophisticated way of collecting data and solving problems. It has multiple uses, including market research. It can help people, buyers or sellers, sort through information. Amazon uses them to decide the range of books a particular customer may be interested in. But this brings with it its own problems.
YouTube will often show recordings related to the ones you have enjoyed to keep you listening. Or it may list items in a particular category. For example, RapCaviar selects top hits in the rap genre for listeners to sample. VivaLatino selects Hispanic bestsellers. Ironically, though, this may deprive the listener of the hard work of research and discovery. It also keeps us from being exposed to things we weren’t already looking for. It’s a bit like using Barnes and Noble on a computer rather than going into the store and exploring the bookshelves.
Ted Gioia, one of my favorite music critics, has written about the eclipse of new music among today’s streaming listeners. Using carefully researched statistics, he shows how fewer and fewer listeners are paying attention to exciting new musicians and compositions available. I can testify to this phenomenon from my contact with students. They can hum or sing Beatles songs or “Message in a Bottle” by the Police but have no idea what new artists are creating. Gioia notes the underwhelming reaction to the suspension of the Grammy Awards, compared with what would have happened if the Superbowl had been suspended.
The digital disruption of technology is true not only for music listening but also for music creation and distribution. Years ago in music school, I remember composing songs using pencils (and lots of erasers!) on score paper, which the professor corrected with red ink. Today, thanks to music notation programs such as Finale or Sibelius, anyone can produce a perfectly printed score. If by accident you have the wrong number of notes in a measure, these programs automatically correct you. There are parallels. With increasing use of calculators, we have forgotten how to add and subtract. By typing on computers, we have forgotten handwriting skills. In music, it is the same. With sound samplers and music writing programs, who needs to practice their scales? With drum machines, who needs to hire percussionists? Analog skill with instruments, microphones, and magnetic tape has shifted to digital skill with MIDI triggers, emulators, and recording software.
Electronic music is controversial. Though there are earlier precedents, mainstream electronic music was developed in the mid-twentieth century. The French composer Edgard Varèse specialized in “organized sound” and used a computer to generate sounds not produced by analog or physical instruments. Musique concrète, pioneered by Pierre Schaeffer, explored things such as speed variation (allowing pitch shift) and tape splicing (allowing combinations and recombinations not possible with musicians playing live from scores).
Some composers combine electronics with traditional sound generators. Karlheinz Stockhausen is a leader in this field. For example, his “Mikrophonie 1” for tam-tam, potentiometers, and filters is now well known in the field. His “Mikrophonie 2” adds a choir, a Hammond organ, and four ring modulators. I find a certain beauty in these strange new resonances. (The old days of painstaking scoring at the piano with a pencil in your mouth are gone, too, though I suspect most of us won’t miss them.)
While technologically intense productions should not be summarily dismissed, no one has suggested discarding analog musical instruments either. And because technologies can lead to shortcuts, what may sound impressive at first listen sometimes becomes clear that the machine has trumped the person. There’s no substitute for flesh and blood—or soul.
The mindset and skill set needed for successful distribution have shifted as well. The rise and fall of Napster is instructive. Created in 1999, Napster was a peer-to-peer audio sharing facility using P2P file sharing. In 2002, the company went bankrupt, largely due to the many lawsuits it sustained against piracy. Why? Because artists and record companies made most of their earnings through album sales. Smaller, better protected sharing companies emerged, though copyright issues soon lurked. Either way, income for artists from music sales plummeted, and many musicians have been unable to adjust to the new economics of the music business.
Still, not everything disruptive about the new paradigm is negative. One of my friends writes scores for The Learning Channel, The History Channel, and the like. He built a state-of-the-art studio in his home and composes all his music on keyboards and sound samplers. These TV channels have right of first refusal, and he has done quite well for himself. Without prohibitively expensive gear, restrictive contracts, or record deals, musicians today can easily record anywhere and choose to stream songs everywhere.
What should Christians make of this brave new music world we are in? The answer is to exercise wisdom (or balance). The remarkable sociologist Jacques Ellul wrote extensively on technique. While not a Luddite, he warned against the idol of efficiency. The machine, he affirmed, can make our work more effective but at the expense of the human touch. Just because machines are ubiquitous doesn’t mean they can’t be dangerous.
The most obvious danger for musicians is the elimination of craft. Harvard sociologist Edwin Tenner refers to the (often hidden) costs of pursuing technological improvement as “revenge effects.” For example, if you add more lanes on a turnpike, they immediately fill up with more cars. Word processors are faster than long hand and include tools to help with our grammar; but when we use them, we are not as careful with our writing. In music, such mixed results from the pursuit of technological improvements carry the hidden consequences of ease of access for musicians, but often also loss of effort in musicianship.
Art production, at its best, occurs when dexterous artists wield available materials to skillfully create an object in the world that formerly only existed in their imagination. Biblical examples abound. Chosen by God to create the tabernacle, Bezalel and Oholiab, though filled with the Spirit, had to “exercise wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and all kinds of skills” (Exod. 31:3). David was included among those who played skillfully on instruments (1 Sam.16:14–23). In the New Testament, there is an intriguing passage where Jesus reproaches his spectators for not responding to music: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn” (Matt. 11:17). The flute and song, though well performed, did not evoke the response they deserved.
Must we give up analog skill and rich context in a brave new electronic world? I do not believe so. Advocates of early music attempt to meticulously recreate the purely analog world using traditional instruments and settings. There are some marvelous beauties here, but it is illusory to think we are perfectly recreating the sounds and circumstances of those days. We cannot, as it were, abandon our own embodied selves and contexts in order to recover a nostalgic yet mythical past. Museums are marvelous places. But so are studios.
Either way, the challenges are real. As in every area of life, wise decisions will be required. The proper use of technology is fraught with both opportunities and pitfalls. This is true in medicine, manufacturing, and music. As many commentators have put it, technology is a “flawed hero”: we cannot do without it, but we must not be enslaved to it. We can certainly manage to wrestle it down and use it artistically. Christians need to get into the fray and learn to navigate these high waters. As we discern the ways new technology has changed how we experience music, or create it, we need to learn how “to discern good from evil by practice” (Heb. 5:17) in our use of technology. We will need grace to make the right choices and to ask for forgiveness when we don’t. Our loving God is ready to help us here as in every challenge of life.
A few years ago, the great pianist Arthur Schnabel recorded the complete Beethoven sonatas. Quite an achievement. There were several minor errors. His record company told him they could easily erase the mistakes and dub them over digitally. He refused, telling them that while he could record the entire series again, new errors would doubtless emerge! To be wise in the art and skill of creating and enjoying music requires courage—including the courage to be human.
2. See Jacques Ellul, The Technological System (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2018).
3. Edward Tenner, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (New York: Vintage, 1997).
4. See Rajesh Gandhi, “The Importance of 1 Samuel 16:14–23 for a Sound Theology of Music,” https://apeopleforhisname.org/2014/01/the-importance-of-1-samuel-1614-23-for-a-sound-theology-of-music/.