Electronic dance music (EDM), a style of popular music that has gone from niche popularity to ubiquity in the past couple of decades, has developed a reputation for drawing a significant amount of criticism. Too simple, too loud, no “real” instruments; these rank among the commonly spouted critical assessments of the genre, but perhaps the most common criticism of EDM is that both the production and performance require limited musical sense as the act of creating EDM involves little more than “pushing buttons”. Whether these buttons are on a mixing board, a computer keyboard, or some sort of MIDI controller, scores of self-professed “real musicians” and music connoisseurs seem to be scandalized by the allegedly talentless phalangeal finesse of EDM producers.
So what’s the deal? Is EDM just an elementary exercise in mashing buttons, or is there more to it? And what is with the judgment? Have we witnessed similar judgments in the history of music? To answer these questions thoughtfully we need to step away from EDM for a moment and briefly examine the history of music technology.
Speaking purely anecdotally, when I ask people what comes to mind when they think of music technology, most respond with an answer that involves digital technology (computers, digital audio workstations, MIDI controllers), or some form of analog technology such as recording studio equipment or voltage controlled synthesizers. These answers are certainly not incorrect, but they do represent a limited historical scope. When pressed to think a little harder, some people will mention the development of the electric guitar, or perhaps even that of the theremin, but it is unusual for someone to answer my question with any example that predates the 20th century. After all, technology is just another word for electricity, right? Well, as it happens, no. Think of the cotton gin, the loom, the windmill. All of these tools predate our use of electricity, and yet they are all examples of technology (and each of these were dismissed in their respective times by naysayers and luddites, but with even a bit of historical perspective we are able to see the benefits of these advances). So then what is technology? In a broad sense, technology can be thought of as anything that has been developed from the application of scientific knowledge, with the goal of assisting or enabling a particular task. So, basically any kind of tool, machinery, or equipment. A lever is an example of basic technology that allows us to apply a degree of pressure that would be impossible for us to apply by simply using our bodies. The scientific concept of leverage is applied to a situation, a sturdy pry is employed, and the combination of that piece of knowledge with that object yields a piece of technology that enhances our natural physical capacity. Similarly, consider the process of spinning fiber into thread. A small piece of technology called the spindle was developed to make this process more time efficient and slightly less labor intensive. The spindle gave way to the spinning wheel, which automated the process slightly and allowed greater amounts of product to be produced in less time. Eventually the spinning wheel was replaced by the spinning frame and spinning jenny, both of which made the thread making process even more efficient. And so time goes on and technology does its best to continue to help us maximize what little time we all have on Earth.
Now let’s talk about music. The most natural method for humans to produce pitch is through the use of our voices. This ability has allowed our species to develop complex languages, but it has also provided us with the means to develop what we call music. The human voice can be quite accurate and flexible, and indeed remains in use as a musical instrument to this day. However, there are many limitations that we have had to contend with. An obvious one is range: how often have you been involved in a group sing along (perhaps someone had a birthday party and you and all of the other guests sang a rendition of “Happy Birthday to You”), or been singing along with a catchy song you were listening to only to discover that you couldn’t quite reach some of those high (or low) notes? It happens to everyone; there has never been one human being whose voice could produce all of the frequencies in our audible range (20Hz-20kHz). Fatigue is another issue, as any professional singer will attest to. No matter how experienced, eventually every singer’s vocal mechanism will become tired and require rest, so as to preserve the health and integrity of the instrument. Perhaps the greatest musical limitation that we as humans experience is the inability for us as individuals to generate harmony with our voices. Of course there are a few exceptions, namely those within the tradition of Tuvan throat singing. But even then, we are talking about a dyad (two simultaneous notes) at best, and the timbre of Tuvan singing is so specific that its potential for application is limited.
As music became increasingly complex, humans assembled choirs so that we could produce distinct harmonies with a high degree of accuracy and consistency. Although both clever and impressive, this solution was not a practical one for most (when was the last time you had a roomful of singers ready to cater to your musical whims). And so, with their noses back to the grindstone, humans initiated a legacy of musical instrument design that continues to this day. From early flutes and lyres, to slightly more complex ouds and medieval fiddles, to the fretted wonders of the European Renaissance and the North Indian Classical tradition, to keyboard instruments and beyond, at the heart of our musical instrument agenda has been the desire to enhance and even correct our bodies’ physical musical limitations. Musical instruments allow us to produce frequencies out of our vocal range, with a variety of timbres, consistently, accurately, and with simultaneity. This is a big deal, and indeed many of humanity’s more ingenious moments have occurred within the context of musical instrument design. Of course, these technologies do not do all of the work for us; each instrument requires the cultivation of specific techniques in order to achieve a functional degree of facility, a pursuit which can occupy the better portion of a lifetime. Once string players develop callouses from hours of playing time, they must devote countless amounts of time to developing and refining their intonation. Brass players have to carefully develop their embouchures and constantly be preemptively guarding against jaw/mouth/face fatigue. Instrumentalists seems better off than they would be without their instruments, and yet they still have their struggles. Clearly the technology has not finished evolving.
Perhaps the crowning achievement (at least in the West) in terms of music technology, has been the development of the keyboard instruments. Organs, harpsichords, clavichords, pianos. These instruments, particularly the piano, are amongst the most highly regarded within the Western tradition. Since the piano was developed to rarely require tuning, and to produce complex harmonies with crystalline fidelity, it has become the instrument of choice for the majority of composers, and has been endowed with a remarkable repertoire of masterpieces. Equally important, however, is the piano’s history as an amateur’s instrument. As the Renaissance faded into the Baroque Era, the lute forfeited its position as the household/amateur instrument of choice (a position that it held in part to the fact that the development of frets essentially dissolved a whole series of intonation woes) to the emerging collection of relatively compact (compared to pipe organs) keyboard instruments. Why did this happen? There are many variables to consider when examining changes in cultural preferences, but among these consider the following: keyboard instruments rarely need to be tuned, the types of techniques that are required to play them with a reasonable degree of competency do not involve the same level of physical strain as those required of most of the other common Western instruments, and to top it all off keyboard instruments can produce harmonies as complex as your fingers will allow. The keyboard instruments are perfect for amateurs, since they allow even the most complex orchestral reductions to be played without the need to develop awareness of intonation, embouchure, or callouses. Eventually, even the production of sustain became an automated process through the development of the piano’s sustain pedal. So why are we talking so much about the piano? Well, as stated before, the piano in many ways represents the pinnacle of Industrial Revolution-era music technology; an achievement that reduced the complex process of making music to triggering a combination of pedals, levers, and hammers.
In fact, now that we’ve taken a structural look at the mechanism of the piano, it kind of seems like playing the piano is little more than pushing buttons. Anyone can do it. True, not everyone can play a sonata from memory, but if you sit down and play middle C, you are going to get the same middle C as Sokolov would get if he sat down at your piano and struck the same key. Before we get ahead of ourselves and start applying judgment to this new realization, let’s think about all of the doors this instrument opens. From a compositional perspective, the piano has been extremely important to the development of Western music, and not only piano music. The modern piano was still being developed during Beethoven’s life, and by the later part of his life, the instrument had gained an iron frame and steel strings, features without which many scholars think that Beethoven would not have been able to write many of his later works. Delicate in one moment, deafeningly boisterous in another moment, and utilitarian and accessible through and through, at this point in time it would seem silly to criticize the piano for automating and facilitating so much of the music making process.
And yet this is what many are doing with regard to the production and performance of electronic music.
Is the act of playing a MIDI controller really easier than playing the piano? Well, what musical parameters are NOT automated by the piano? Rhythm, duration, dynamics, and techniques involving a combination of these things, such as phrasing. Even though the piano will play in tune for you, it will not play in time on its own, nor will it autonomously handle changes of volume or intensity of attack. And as long as we are keeping score, these things are also true for a typical MIDI controlled, digital EDM setup. As you strike keys on the controller, samples or synthesized sounds will emerge, but the dynamics, timing, and durations are still on you. Many MIDI controllers are “touch sensitive” as well, meaning that like a good piano, they will respond differently depending on how hard you strike them. At this point in our discussion it seems like pianos and MIDI controllers are more or less point-for-point in terms of automation. So let’s take this discussion one step further. We know where the sounds of a piano come from: there are strings within the instrument which are struck by hammers, and the strings ring out until they either stop vibrating or are stopped by the damper. Where do the sounds come from in an EDM producer’s rig? In most cases, the MIDI controller is either triggering sounds from a sample bank, or the controller is operating a software synthesizer. In both cases, there is usually a good deal of creation that has taken place on the part of the producer in order for those sound samples and synthesizer patches to even exist. Although there are many factory presets included with software synthesizers, there are also many options for customization, and it has become unusual for producers not to customize their software synths in some way. Similarly, sample banks are often meticulously assembled, edited, and processed by producers long before they are incorporated into a live set. Compare this level of attention to that of pianists, most of whom do not tune their own instruments nor even actually know how to tune their instruments (seriously, this is a job reserved for a piano tuning professional).
And so let’s reassess the classic “pushing buttons” criticisms that are frequently dealt to electronic music producers. It is pushing buttons, but if we go off of the model of the modern piano, then this could be seen as a mark of human accomplishment, as we move closer to being able to realize our artistic visions with increasingly fewer physical obstacles between us and the final work. Perhaps these criticisms are actually just masking aesthetic judgments. It seems likely that this is actually the case. But since when has expressing an aesthetic opinion been so taboo to warrant such calculated and harmful avoidance of the issue at hand? Maybe we should spend more time as a society discussing aesthetics and comparing preferences. In any event, the act of pushing buttons is becoming increasingly common in our daily lives. Most new automobiles have ignitions that are controlled by pushing buttons instead of inserting and turning a key. Does this new feature make your new car any less of a car than your old one? What about your thermostat? Twenty years ago you would have had to turn a dial to set the temperature of your heater, while today you press buttons on your climate control’s interface. What about writing? Is a novel that is typed on a computer any lesser than one that is written by hand?
EDM producers are pushing buttons. They are pushing society’s buttons. And this is a good thing. This is what artists do. It might not be your favorite type of music, but you will likely encounter many artistic works through the course of your life that you don’t like. This doesn’t mean that you need to try and dismantle the work at a structural level. Instead, try engaging in an intelligent critique. See it as an opportunity to learn more about yourself. Ask yourself what about the art you do not like. Is the dislike aesthetic? Cultural? Indescribable? Maybe you don’t really know how or why you feel a certain way, but that’s okay too. It’s okay to get your buttons pushed now and again. It’s a sign of progress.