Brian Eno on the Loss of Humanity in Modern Music

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 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.

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.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2016.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bri­an Eno Cre­ates a List of 20 Books That Could Rebuild Civ­i­liza­tion

Bri­an Eno Shares His Crit­i­cal Take on Art & NFTs: “I Main­ly See Hus­tlers Look­ing for Suck­ers”

Bri­an Eno Lists the Ben­e­fits of Singing: A Long Life, Increased Intel­li­gence, and a Sound Civ­i­liza­tion

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

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    Just a few years ago it was decid­ed our band should get our­selves record­ed in a “prop­er” stu­dio so that we would have a demo to dish out to poten­tial venues. It was a hor­ren­dous expe­ri­ence for us all, the engi­neer want­ed us to over­dub and refine every­thing he con­sid­ered “wrong”. We had man­aged very well pri­or to that with our own live record­ings made on a hand­held recorder to cap­ture our­selves play­ing live. I’m with Bri­an!

  • Alex Caminiti says:

    Fear not, every­one. I have designed the solu­tion. It will launch in 2025. It will require musi­cians to be able to play and sing, end­ing once and for all this insan­i­ty of both an over­re­liance on the DAW to fix every­thing, and the time vam­pire of option paral­y­sis, musi­cians try­ing to learn engi­neer­ing (i.e. a total­ly dif­fer­ent job/career), and/or out­sourc­ing the time/cost of prac­tic­ing onto engi­neers to edit. If you can’t play your music, then off to the DAW you go at your home stu­dio for guar­an­teed lack­lus­ter results, or to a stu­dio to be chopped into obliv­ion by engi­neers who no longer engi­neer, but edit. I can’t say much more, but I can say it will be rev­o­lu­tion­ary. The next musi­cal renais­sance is approach­ing. Get stoked, and buck­le up.

  • Alex Caminiti says:

    This is unsur­pris­ing. Engi­neers who move mikes and turn knobs are white rhi­nos. Most are dig­i­tal edi­tors who use a cook­ie cut­ter approach to pro­duc­tion and argue with every­one who dis­agrees.

  • Ian Alterman says:

    I like quite a bit of Eno’s out­put, includ­ing most of ear­ly solo albums, his work with Robert Fripp, and his Ambi­ent series.

    But it is a tad odd (per­haps even hyp­o­crit­i­cal) of him to bemoan the loss of “human­i­ty” in music giv­en that his ini­tial (and ongo­ing) cham­pi­oning of elec­tron­i­ca was the first step in this. (I.e., elec­tron­i­ca in gen­er­al was the first step in enhanc­ing “per­fec­tion” (which has led to things like Auto­tune), and mod­i­fy­ing or even elim­i­nat­ing the human ele­ment in popular/modern music).

    And while most of his work (includ­ing the first three Ambi­ent albums) main­tains a sense of “human­i­ty” even with the often min­i­mal­ist and elec­tron­i­cal­ly-enhanced nature of the com­po­si­tions, he still bears SOME respon­si­bil­i­ty for the increas­ing loss of the “human­i­ty” he feels we are los­ing.

  • Jason Arp says:

    His hypocrisy also stems from Eno being a vir­u­lent anti­semite.

  • Rod Stasick says:


  • Greg T says:

    I love this arti­cle, Eno is right but there are artists out there that use elec­tron­i­ca but in much more organ­ic ways as to retain their soul with­in their work, the Res­i­dents, Amon Tobin & Plaid spring to mind & Ed Han­d­ley’s writ­ing was praised once by clas­sic music schol­ars as well as Richard D James..
    My men­tor’s best advice was to “just put your soul into it, so I’ve also com­posed tracks where all the note & chord sequences are writ­ten live with the high­est res­o­lu­tion to cap­ture each note whereev­er they fall & not snapped to the near­est neat point so all my vari­a­tions & imper­fec­tions are there & it’s made for much messier & far more human results…

  • Alan Lord says:

    Oth­er “mis­takes” that became clas­sics:

    Jonathan Rich­man and The Mod­ern Lovers: The tracks they thought were a “demo” turned out to be their clas­sic first album.

    Kei­th Richards’ fuzz gui­tar on Sat­is­fac­tion was sup­posed to be a demo show­ing the riff he want­ed a brass sec­tion to play. He was star­tled to hear his “demo” play­ing on the radio. Know­ing a hit, their man­ag­er Andrew Loog Old­ham rushed it out.

  • Alan Sondheim says:

    Free jazz and so many oth­er tra­di­tions bypass this, the pro­duc­tion is immi­nent, not post; my own impro­vi­sa­tion­al work — I find errors and back­tracks etc. fun­da­men­tal. The more music is com­mer­cial­ized, the more it more it’s cen­tered on audi­ence desire, on what came before, on the poten­tial dom­i­na­tion of the body by con­tin­u­ous recon­struc­tion — it’s as if the grit dis­ap­pears in a long tun­nel of recon­struc­tion. There are no chances tak­en although the appear­ance of chance, of ‘safe’ or smooth chance, can even become a sell­ing point.

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