On The Digital Versus The Physical In Music

by Thomas Brett

In a recent interview on Tom Ashbrook’s On Point radio program, sci-fi novelist William Gibson began his discussion of his book Zero History by pointing out that in so many ways today, “the digital has colonized the physical.”  I want to interrogate this interesting idea with regards to musical life as it can be observed in 2011.

1. Slow Death Of The Musical Artifact
Since I was a kid in the 1980s, I have bought music on 7 inch singles (my first music purchase!), LPs, cassettes and CDs.  But for a while now, I buy most of my music in the form of MP3 downloads (as do you, most likely…or do you just download stuff willy nilly for free?).  While I still like CDs for their extensive liner notes (helpful when the music comes from a locale foreign to me), increasingly my record collection just consists of an ever-expanding virtual space on my computer hard drive.  Score: Digital 1- Physical 0.

2. Growth Of The Musical Controller
But while musical recorded artifacts are going all virtual, musicians still have bodies (surprise, surprise) and still very much want cool, tactile and tangible ways with which to make music.  After all, musicians want to play instruments, not fiddle with them.  And so in 2011 you can find all kinds of musical controllers that engage us on a physical level–maybe not exactly like a violin or a piano does, but still require a degree of hands-on fluidity with an object.  Score: Digital 1- Physical 1.

3. The Circulation Of Music
With music assuming a virtual life as data, it has fully and irrevocably entered into what Kevin Kelly aptly calls our “recombinant era.”  All sounds are fungible, remixable, and mash-up-able.
Score: Digital 2 – Physical 1.

4. Music Performance
But we still perform music, whether with acoustic instruments or laptops (or increasingly, both) and we like to see others engaged in performance because it validates the physical, spatial, and spiritual here and now.  Score: Digital 2 – Physical 2.

And so, at least in terms of this blog post, the virtual hasn’t colonized the physical just yet…