Song is the new Chord, as Chord was the new Note

May 13, 2009

(This is in response to an email from “Anton” suggesting that we’re at the dawn of a new type of “dynamic recording.”)

I actually really agree with you, if not on the specifics, but on the potential for a genuinely new type of music originating on the internet that is structurally unlike anything before — and that is intrinsically incompatible with and stifled by copyright.

For example, remember that even the concept of “notes” was once an innovation.  Prior to that, music was a collection of sounds at various frequencies, without an awareness that certain frequencies just sound “better” (nor a mathematical understanding of why that’s the case).  When “notes” were invented/discovered — along with the technology to produce them reliably — music itself fundamentally changed.

Similarly, some might have thought notes were the end of the line, but then came along chords.  Again, it was a real discovery that could only be enabled through technology: you simply can’t do chords until you have the technical ability to generate multiple “notes” reliably and simultaneously.

(And if you haven’t yet invented notes, then chords are simply impossible.)

Then the pianoforte comes along — again, a technical innovation — that opens up an entirely new type of music that simply couldn’t be done prior.  I’m sure we could come up with a thousand examples (including the use of distortion as an instrument, which gave rise to heavy metal) of how technology not merely extended music, but genuinely changed it.

I think computers and the internet present another innovation in that sense.  Prior to the digital age, it simply wasn’t possible to — for example — mash up hundreds of videos or thousands of songs to make a new song.  But that’s now possible, and its core “building block” isn’t frequencies, notes, chords, or even instruments.  Its building block is whole songs/videos.  It’s an entirely new building block that couldn’t technically be considered before.  It’s an entirely new type of music — sampling taken to the extreme — enabled through an entirely new technology.

And next?  As Anton suggests, prior to the internet, making globally interactive music — whatever that might mean — simply wasn’t an option.  We can’t even imagine what the consequence of that will be, nor what new type of music that might enable after.

But what I *can* imagine is all that might be fundamentally incompatible with today’s notion of copyright.  Indeed, we might look back on the attempt to copyright individual songs as silly as trying to copyright individual notes or chords.

Indeed, maybe the reason all music seems to sound the same today is because we’re discovering there are certain classes of songs that actually *are* the same, and sound better, for reasons we don’t quite understand now but someday will.  This might be the same process early musicians grappled with when first discovering the core notes and chords that we now view as so fundamental to music.

Maybe far from witnessing the death of music as the industry would have us believe, we’re seeing the birth of a whole new generation?

After all, those prior building blocks were perceived as innovative, radical, or even threatening back in their day.  Why should our day be any different?

David Barrett
Follow me at http://twitter.com/quinthar

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