Brian Eno Explains the Loss of Humanity in Modern Music

in Music | July 27th, 2016

In music, as in film, we have reached a point where every element of every composition can be fully produced and automated by computers. This is a breakthrough that allows producers with little or no musical training the ability to rapidly turn out hits. It also allows talented musicians without access to expensive equipment to record their music with little more than their laptops. But the ease of digital recording technology has encouraged producers, musicians, and engineers at all levels to smooth out every rough edge and correct every mistake, even in recordings of real humans playing old-fashioned analogue instruments. After all, if you could make the drummer play in perfect time every measure, the singer hit every note on key, or the guitarist play every note perfectly, why wouldn’t you?

One answer comes in a succinct quotation from Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, which Ted Mills referenced in a recent post here on Miles Davis: “Honor Your Mistakes as a Hidden Intention.” (The advice is similar to that Davis gave to Herbie Hancock, “There are no mistakes, just chances to improvise.”) In the short clip at the top, Eno elaborates in the context of digital production, saying “the temptation of the technology is to smooth everything out.”




But the net effect of correcting every perceived mistake is to “homogenize the whole song,” he says, “till every bar sounds the same… until there’s no evidence of human life at all in there.” There is a reason, after all, that even purely digital, “in the box” sequencers and drum machines have functions to “humanize” their beats—to make them correspond more to the looseness and occasional hesitancy of real human players.

This does not mean that there is no such thing as singing or playing well or badly—it means there is no such thing as perfection. Or rather, that perfection is not a worthy goal in music. The real hooks, the moments that we most connect with and return to again and again, are often happy accidents. Mills points to a whole Reddit thread devoted to mistakes left in recordings that became part of the song. And when it comes to playing perfectly in time or in tune, I think of what an atrocity would have resulted from running all of The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street through a digital audio workstation to sand down the sharp edges and “fix” the mistakes. All of its shambling, mumbling, drunken barroom charm would be completely lost. That goes also for the entire recorded output of The Band, or most of Dylan’s albums (such as my personal favorite, John Wesley Harding).

To take a somewhat more modern example, listen to “Sirena” from Australian instrumental trio Dirty Three, above. This is a band that sounds forever on the verge of collapse, and it’s absolutely beautiful to hear (or see, if you get the chance to experience them live). This recording, from their album Ocean Songs, was made in 1998, before most production went fully digital, and there are very few records that sound like it anymore. Even dance music has the potential to be much more raw and organic, instead of having singers’ voices run through so much pitch correction software that they sound like machines. (witness the obscure disco hit “Miss Broadway,” for example, or LCD Soundsystem’s career.)

There is a lot more to say about the way the albums represented above were recorded, but the overall point is that just as too much CGI has often ruined the excitement of cinema (we’re looking at you, George Lucas) —or as the digital “loudness wars” sapped much recorded music of its dynamic peaks and valleys—overzealous use of software to correct imperfections can ruin the human appeal of music, and render it sterile and disposable like so many cheap, plastic mass-produced toys. As with all of our use of advanced technology, questions about what we can do should always be followed by questions about what we’re really gaining, or losing, in the process.

Related Content:

Brian Eno on Creating Music and Art As Imaginary Landscapes (1989)

Brian Eno Creates a List of His 13 Favorite Records: From Gospel to Afrobeat, Shoegaze to Bulgarian Folk

Brian Eno on Why Do We Make Art & What’s It Good For?: Download His 2015 John Peel Lecture

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (22)

  1. Jerry says . . .
    July 28, 2016 / 5:22 am

    Of course, it’s the human element, with all its frailties in place, that makes music interesting to hear. I would say that Bob Dylan, whilst becoming relatively more ‘polished’ in the studio in the recent past, still has a delightful habit of not seeking perfection, even for his most recent releases. This, for me, makes them all the more memorable and worth repeated listening.

  2. chinkels says . . .
    July 28, 2016 / 1:26 pm

    Couldn’t agree more. Been saying this as far back as I can remember. Jeez, just listen to a Beatles song. They were the top of the mountain and those tracks are swimming in perfect imperfection. Most modern music is “dead” sounding, lifeless and formulaic.

  3. John Taby says . . .
    July 28, 2016 / 1:44 pm

    This is something that I have been fed up with for years. The answer I was given as to why would they do this was simply, because they can, and I have to think the more it is done in time nothing but perfection will be expected. Growing up listening to Dylan and The Band I know just what he is saying and I agree. It’s as if the blood is left out of something suppose to be one human relating to another human being making all sorts of things happen inside of one another. The sense of belonging, not being alone, of encouragement etc. I get none of that, personally I do not get any of that with the “modern” recordings and because of it, I buy less and less new music. I’ve gone back to listening to the old Blues players and artist who are remarkable but not famous. To paraphrase Joni, “leave me the spots & the bruises please but save the soul of the song for me.”

  4. matt black says . . .
    July 28, 2016 / 2:48 pm

    agree with much of this! we need more wildness , chaos, Dionysus, feel, edge…

    re ‘having singers’ voices run through so much pitch correction software that they sound like machines’

    humans are fascinated by our ongoing fusion with machines. hence the attraction of vocoders and autotune. yet as we fetishise the fusion we are also trying desperately, to hang onto the quirks and edges of what it is to be human. hence vinyl popularity !

  5. Joe says . . .
    July 28, 2016 / 3:16 pm

    I don’t agree. What music needs is more discipline, more correctness, more unity. The slothful, lumbering, mis-timed note or drum hit is all too often dignified, in a kind of patronising racism that assumes that laziness and lack of structure is the hallmark of black music (note the pseudo-jazz of the Sirena track quoted in the article), with the name of ‘feel’, or ‘swing’. It isn’t that at all. It may just as well be the lacklustre product of a drunken, tired, fed-up or just plain incompetent instrumentalist. There is no reason to imagine a ‘barroom’ feel just because a mix is boomy and incoherent, with the drummer playing the ‘hang’, and the other musicians barely listening to each other. Eno very often has poignant insights to share, but on this rare occasion he has missed the mark, unfortunately.

    Jazz isn’t about making some acoustic noise. Quincy Jones was obsessed with the accuracy of timing, tonality and mix. He called jazz the classical music of pop. When it came to producing pop, he was happy to replace drummers with drum machines on Michael Jackson records, and to do multiple takes in the studio obsessing over getting it right, and to use computers and samplers, again, to get it right. Accuracy, correctness, formality and discipline. That’s the essence of classicism, and there’s no reason why that Apollonianism shouldn’t be represented in music.

  6. gordon bazsali jr. says . . .
    July 28, 2016 / 6:15 pm

    Why do we look to the pop music charts to be what they clearly are not? In the days before disco it was reasonable to expect the “hits” to be great. They weren’t all, of course, but it was still where the best songs rose like cream. Since the music industry figured out how to make tons of money through target markets selected by virtue of their predictability and not their discerning demand for musical excellence, it is not where one should be looking for masterworks. Imagine if the sign in front of macdonald’s read, “over 99 billion lobster thermadors served”.
    Once again Eno and Open Culture provide excellent food for thought and discussion. Great comments above as well.

  7. Lawrence says . . .
    July 28, 2016 / 11:20 pm

    The trouble with this observation is that it’s both speculative (would), negative and sorry Brian, a tad reactionary and typical of now. The thing is that nothing is stopping anyone from recording music how they like. It can be like the Stones’ Exile – as it was, or it can be polished, as it is now. Now we have the means to make music anyway we can. To me the problem (yes there is at least one) is that knowledge of how musical instruments are really supposed to work. Especially drums in a lot of hip hop and pop that sound very wrong. But that’s just me, some people like what they hear. We have to be open to new ideas and not clinging to a past that was as caught up in fast productions and back on the road selling records and tickets. See Genesis Foxtrot for an album that sounds like the tape heads have been demagnetized (now that hinders humanistic expression if nothing else). Good new reamsters, good knowledge of music and something to say is a fair start. We have new technology and we should use it. Much the same as Queen used to say no sysnthesizers were used on their records, well time moved on and still does. We have

  8. Joe says . . .
    July 29, 2016 / 4:19 am

    I don’t agree. What music needs is more discipline, more correctness, more unity. The slothful, lumbering, mis-timed note or drum hit is all too often dignified, in a kind of patronising racism that assumes that laziness and lack of structure is the hallmark of black music (note the pseudo-jazz of the Sirena track quoted in the article), with the name of ‘feel’, or ‘swing’. It isn’t that at all. It may just as well be the lacklustre product of a drunken, tired, fed-up or just plain incompetent instrumentalist. There is no reason to imagine a ‘barroom’ feel just because a mix is boomy and incoherent, with the drummer playing the ‘hang’, and the other musicians barely listening to each other. Eno very often has poignant insights to share, but on this rare occasion he has missed the mark, unfortunately.

    Jazz isn’t about making some acoustic noise. Quincy Jones was obsessed with the accuracy of timing, tonality and mix. He called jazz the classical music of pop. When it came to producing pop, he was happy to replace drummers with drum machines on Michael Jackson records, and to do multiple takes in the studio obsessing over getting it right, and to use computers and samplers, again, to get it right. Accuracy, correctness, formality and discipline. That’s the essence of classicism, and there’s no reason why that Apollonianism shouldn’t be represented in music.

  9. Toad says . . .
    July 29, 2016 / 7:41 am

    Joe–the tone of the discussion changes completely when you allege “patronizing racism” in those you disagree with. Maybe your ideas could be read without disgust if you would clean the snot off of them.

  10. Buddy H.White says . . .
    July 29, 2016 / 2:38 pm

    I see so-called guitar players getting a group together and a month later they’re in some supposed rock bar. Half the young people wouldn’t like good music, it bores them. All they need is a drummer banging and somebody twanging and singing off key.
    I feel like the taste for music isn’t instilled in young kids anymore. They just need noise with a beat!

  11. Lawrence says . . .
    July 29, 2016 / 4:16 pm

    Of course there is an irony in here. Who was it that was credited with being the first to use the studio as an instrument?

    Why it was Mr Eno.

  12. Roger Doyle says . . .
    July 30, 2016 / 3:20 am

    I have a lot of time for Eno – he is a thoughtful and intelligent gent, but when he starts to lay blame on technology for the lack of originality in music he is beginning to sound like the generation that came before him.

  13. Steve says . . .
    July 30, 2016 / 4:38 am

    I think the people who got the credit for using the studio as an instrument originally were the Beatles with George Martin, or the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson ?

  14. Ian says . . .
    July 30, 2016 / 3:18 pm

    Where is he talking about originality?

  15. Joe says . . .
    July 31, 2016 / 4:05 pm

    Dear Toady (apt name btw), thank you for your sincere appreciation of my ‘ideas’. Your comment about cleaning ‘snot’ off them went over my head entirely. Maybe I should pop my head into kindergarten more often.

    Brian Eno’s undeniably inadvertent but nevertheless very real racism in his attribution of warm, human, instinctive, unthinking qualities to African music and African people are well-known. In his interviews, he has referenced Africa several times in the past. In one of them, he says that electronic musics should ‘have some Africa’ in them, and by that, he explains, they should be easy to play without thinking about how to program them. How patronising is that?

  16. steve says . . .
    August 1, 2016 / 3:23 pm

    Full, upfront disclosure: I’m a musician.

    I also don’t entiely buy Eno’s loss of humanity in music thing. The process of developing, arranging and recording music isn’t magic. It’s fun and satisfying, but falls short of mystical. If anything, it’s been entirely democratized to the point where just about anyone with a computer, some spare time and maybe an instrument or two can bang out a song.

    Having said that, playing music is a state of mind. To effectively play, you need to both focus and clear your head. The moments where musicians change from one structure to another or suddenly shift dynamics or otherwise really deliver can feel amazing. It’s not like anything else. For a musician to want to impart that sensation to a listener is a perfectly natural extension of why they play in the first place.

    Of course, any deliberate attempt to cause that feeling to manifest in listeners is a bit of a fool’s errand. Sometimes they’ll get it, most often not. Some of us just can’t accept that and either quite or they start blathering about whatever Eno’s on about. I’m over it, personally.

    I once found myself alone in the room where Sirena was recorded. I grabbed a drum and banged out a rhythm for a minute. Six months later, when I happened on that song, I was immediately triggered back to my time in Electrical Audio, studio B. That room mic thing in the beginning (before the other close mics are turned up) nails the sound and feeling of that room perfectly.

    Anyway, I’m here to tell Joe to pound sand. Trying to graft some kind of accusation of racism onto musicians who aspire to play a little loose is just lazy and misguided. None of what he says sounds like it would come from any musician I’ve ever played with. Nothing in what he says suggests that he understands what Eno is getting at, so for him to call bullshit on it is kind of a canard.

    Music is also not first and foremost a display of skill. Audiences appreciate it, sure. But you’ll only bore the crowd if you just run through scales at breakneck speed.

    Last but not least, the guy who played on the Sirena song is Jim White. Look him up on Discogs. He’s an incredibly talented guy who can hack it in several different styles of music.

  17. Will says . . .
    August 1, 2016 / 3:26 pm

    The concept that “music is dead now” comes up every generation. What changes is how “death” is signaled to the people raising the claim. For Eno, death is perfection in execution. That may be barking up the wrong tree.

    For every “Exile…” or “John Wesley…” there are albums such as “Aja,” “Hemispheres,” “Crime of the Century,” etc. These latter albums are played and produced flawlessly, yet are all very human to my ears. Perhaps this humanity is due the idiosyncratic vocalists on these albums. But more, for all the technical, instrumental perfection displayed, the playing is consistently imaginative, stylish, and individual–human. Music becomes “inhuman,” to my ears, less when the production and playing is highly polished as when it becomes less and less imaginative and individual. The lack of this kind of musicianship in much “modern music” is where I see its decline, if anywhere.

  18. Rastaman says . . .
    August 4, 2016 / 1:47 am

    Evidently I signed into Open Culture as Rastaman which I don’t remember doing. It’s kinda bizarre as I’m an old white guy from New England.
    I’ve always have this perfection discussion with my producers. I have been recording for years and I think I have rarely captured my true live performance with headphones on and live band or electronic tracks particularly because the producer was never satisfied, it became dreary work and the feeling was wrung out of me in a hurry.
    I think the lack of a live drummer or presence of a perfect electronic is one part of the problem. And that its usually one guy at a computer keyboard doing the whole thing is another.
    But there is a strong element of necessity that’s hard to ignore.

  19. Todd Pierce says . . .
    August 8, 2016 / 8:57 pm

    The philosophy I apply on my recording is that the recorded product should only be as perfect as your best performance. So multiple takes is OK, but pitch correction is not. Bum notes add character. But really bad synch needs to be fixed.

  20. Francis Hawkins says . . .
    August 21, 2016 / 2:30 pm

    I think a lot of listeners don’t have a problem with highly disciplined and skilled musicians (session guys or otherwise) who help pop artists make great records. Dylan, the band, and the Stones DID fetishize the musical shortcomings of the American roots musicians (and r&b, Chicago blues, and other genres that came out of roots music), and they sometimes put out records that would have been just as soulful with a few less mistakes. But Eno is pointing to something different than hiring Steve Gadd to play drums on your record instead of the sloppier drummer from the road band. He’s saying that today’s hits don’t breathe or sound human because the songs are built from small samples of studio performances that are either looped, or, in the case of vocals, stitched together from a million short takes to compensate for technical shortcomings and/or artistic vision on the part of the vocalist.

  21. Mel says . . .
    September 2, 2016 / 2:59 pm

    In the 1980’s, I once made a video art piece called “Drummer’s and Their Dry Cleaners”, which was not at all smooth, hand-pressed, or stain-removed.
    Inspired perhaps by a certain Eno Cage Paik spirit of randomnes, I was thumbing through the massive NYC yellow pages, (the original Global Groove) and noticed that Dry Cleaners immediately followed Drummers, and with that, a new excuse to create some gibberish. The hardest thing about filming was finding drummers that actually used dry cleaning services!

  22. Paul says . . .
    September 14, 2016 / 6:01 am

    Excellent commentary on the state of modern music!! I keep asking myself, “why do I hate so much of the new stuff?”, and this article provides a concise explanation!

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