Today, somebody on my timeline was looking for some software that could determine the key a song was in. People chimed in with various suggestions and technologies. Some even wanted to know why the key had to be known. It was an interesting and diverse thread, full of surprising approaches, which all seemed very technical and mechanical.
Earlier today, my daughter’s piano teacher asked her to sight read and tell her which key the song was in. Within an hour, my daughter was able to tell a major key from a minor, despite the ambiguity inherent in the number of sharps and flats indicated on the manuscript and discern the key, from a few root notes in the melody and its accompaniment. Piece of cake.
It occurred to me that maybe the best way to determine the key a song was in was to do some elementary training in music theory. This, to me, seemed faster, cheaper and easier than looking for a software solution.
That got me to thinking about why the obvious, easy solution had been rejected by the person looking for a software solution, in the first place. Was it a lack of confidence, or a belief that the theory was incomprehensibly hard? Was it that they had been intimidated into believing they were incapable of learning this knowledge? Was it laziness? Why not spend the time doing the work? What deep-seated, secret fear was creating this barrier to learning?
When I worked in the musical instrument and software industry, my boss and co-founder of the company, when asked why he had come up with the idea of music sequencing of sampled instruments, said that it was a form of “advanced laziness”. He had wanted be able to play piano, to create music, but lacked the application to actually learn to play piano. Instead, he had gone to elaborate lengths to conceive of and bring to market a machine that required an industrial scale effort to produce and support. Achieving that required a monumental effort. Laziness would not have produced any of it. Only extreme dedication, application, low cunning and motivation did.
Ironically, the music made with the system, while unique and interesting, was not the same as being able to play the piano. Indeed, being able to play a piano was still an advantage, even with this advanced, computerised system for music making. The inability to play piano meant that making music with this piano-playing-bypass solution was still much slower and more tedious than for those that could play piano. Stopping to enter the notes, one by one, broke the creative flow. You couldn’t spontaneously jam (though you could dump things into Page R while it looped continuously and that was sort of fun, so long as you didn’t want to go from phrase to phrase or change tempo). You had to plan your work a lot more carefully, if you had an actual song that you had previously written, in mind. Writing a song from scratch, in front of this system, was incredibly difficult, if you lacked piano playing skills. The goal of making it unnecessary to know how to play piano, but still be able to create piano music, had not, in fact, really been accomplished.
It occurred to me that learning how and being able to play the piano was far easier. It’s also easier to learn to sing than to spend painstaking hours editing a second rate vocal performance, even given the tools we have today to reshape bad singing into acceptable singing. The effort, these days, goes into disguising that this is what has been done – far more work, in fact, than actually learning to sing or recording a singer that has good pitch and performance. If you want to get a good vocal performance, start with a good vocal performer. If you aren’t one, become one. It’s going to be much easier than fixing it all in the mix.
Why do we make it hard for ourselves? Why do we overcomplicate the obvious answers? Sometimes, we are so resistant to learning the thing we need to learn, to practicing and perfecting it, that we go all the way around the houses seeking the advanced laziness solution. That frequently results in artistically interesting results, I will admit, but usually not the ones we were seeking. It might be a way to produce innovative art, but it won’t satisfy the artistic urge that started it all. We’ll remain frustrated and unfulfilled, no matter how strange and beautiful the results we produce are. Surely the obvious solution is the easiest.
I think that if you, as an artist, find yourself doing anything overly elaborate, time consuming, complex or difficult, in an attempt to compensate for an obvious deficiency in your skills, try improving your skills first. You’ll get a better result, sooner. It will probably be better art, too.