published Thursday, March 6th, 2014

In Tune: Why we long for musical imperfection

Today, there are Internet-connected refrigerators and smartphones exponentially more powerful than the Apollo Guidance Computer and robots humming around apartments vacuuming up fugitive Cheetos.

Considering our many technological innovations and their fungal-like spread into seemingly every facet of modern life, doesn’t it seem odd that they haven’t made greater inroads into our music?

Yes, Auto-Tune vocal correction is rampant in pop and R&B, and synthesizer use has been the norm for decades, but why haven’t note-for-note-accurate computer performances replaced flesh-and-blood musicians?

In short, why haven’t we handed our guitar picks and drumsticks over to our future robot overlords? Certainly, it’s not because we lack the technological sophistication.

The answer, as it turns out, is because we long for imperfection.

In a 2011 paper published in research journal “PLOS One,” a team of scientists analyzed the rhythmic timing of a professional drummer. For five minutes, the unnamed percussionist played along to the tick of a metronome. Like any human, even a skilled musician, he wasn’t perfectly on the beat. On average, his hands hit the drum 16 milliseconds too soon.

That’s a small defect, to be sure — about 1/25th as long as it takes you to blink — but it’s still imprecise. On the other hand, a computer is always unerringly on beat, but when we hear a synthetic instrument, its consistency is distracting. It sounds too artificial — too perfect, if there is such a thing.

Sound engineers have long been familiar with this need for imprecision and have developed “humanizing” features in editing software that create rhythmic imperfections in computer-generated tracks. In a sense, we make it more appealing by making it less perfect.

Inconsistency is the direct result of the spontaneity of live performance, which is at the heart of our millennia-old love affair with music. It’s why we — some of us, at least — crave the improvisation of jam bands and jazz musicians. It’s why we pay hundreds of dollars to see artists onstage when we have polished studio recordings of them, and why we feel angry and duped when we catch them lip-syncing.

To many, the appeal of music is rooted in the riotous, uncertain energy of the moment. Under those circumstances, we don’t want perfection; we crave the flaws of the human touch.

No one dives into the rabbit hole expecting anything less than the unexpected.

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...

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