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.

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