The Auto-tune Debate Before Auto-tunePosted: August 15, 2011
Auto-tune: it’s the ubiquitous digital effect that gives pop singers’ voices that robotic quality, that you may know from the Youtube phenom auto-tune the news, and that recently prompted Alex Pappademas to start a three-part New York Times blog series with the question: “really now, what’s so bad about auto-tune pop?”
Pappademas speaks to the many who find auto-tune repugnant, and especially to those who justify their (dis)taste for the effect as a matter of standards. As he observes in installment #3:
the biggest criticism Auto-Tune’s critics level against it is that it’s the sonic equivalent of plastic surgery or ‘roids, a digital fix that lets lousy singers skip over that whole learning-to-carry-a-tune thing (boring!) and cut straight to pop stardom’s V.I.P. room.
Auto-tune, in short, is a musical cheat, to which Pappademas replies:
The truth is that artists and producers have been using technology (reverb, overdubbing, electronic harmonizers) to change the sound of their voices for decades. The link between “organic” live performance and recorded music was broken in the late ‘40s when Les Paul popularized multitrack recording.
Indeed. But the arguments surrounding auto-tune aren’t unique to vocal effects, and they long predate recorded music. In fact, the same arguments have perennially attended tone-modifying devices of all sorts: many technologies for altering the sound of an instrument were once regarded as crutches but went on to gain acceptance as expressive resources, ultimately becoming part of what it means to know how to play or compose for a given instrument. This is the story of two tone-modifying devices whose detractors have fallen silent: the violin mute, and the sustaining pedal.
The Violin Mute
The violin mute was invented in the seventeenth century, and is a device applied to the bridge of the violin to dampen its sound. The French composer Lully was one of the first to call for muted violins in a written score, pairing them with recorders in a depiction of enchanting, soporific murmurings in the opera Armida (1686):
By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, French critics regarded the mute as a crutch for violinists incapable of playing softly. As one writer remarked in an article on performance in the Encyclopédie:
It is well known that in Lully’s lifetime the violinists needed to resort to mutes in order to play softly enough in certain passages.
If this view of the mute as a substitute for skill had persisted, the mute no doubt would have become obsolete. Elsewhere in Europe, however, composers and listeners perceived the mute as giving the violin a special tonal quality that violinists without mutes could not match. And so composers continued to call for violin mutes for that special tonal quality, often combining it with slow, flowing music to produce the peaceful or dreamy atmosphere pioneered by Lully. Today, critics reserve their venom for violinists who fail to use mutes when they should. Speaking of the violin mutes in Haydn’s Il mondo della luna (1777), period performance specialist Nikolaus Harnoncourt recently remarked:
Players are lazy and think it’s enough just to play very softly. But when composers write ‘con sordino’ — ‘with mute’ — they want a very particular, different sound…The idea was just to hear quivering air.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducts “Vado, vado” from Il mondo della luna – with mutes
The Sustaining Pedal
The piano was one of the major technological breakthroughs of the eighteenth century, trumping the harpsichord with its touch-sensitivity and the clavichord with its greater volume. Early on, piano manufacturers experimented with ways of modifying the piano’s tone, eventually arriving at pedals as a hands-free way to apply tone-modifying devices. Many players, however, considered piano technique a matter of fingers only, and pianists who used pedals were commonly charged with charlatanism – with resorting to technological trickery to mask a lack of keyboard skill. Such was the case with the sustaining (or damper) pedal, which when depressed allowed the strings of the piano to resonate even after the finger had been lifted from the key. The sustaining pedal was criticized as a cheat for finger legato, and also for producing a muddled blur of sound. As late as 1828, the pianist-composer Hummel maintained:
a truly great artist has no occasion for the pedals…Neither Mozart, nor Clementi, required these helps to obtain the highly deserved reputation of the greatest, and most expressive performers of their day.
By this time, however, the tides were turning. As Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny observed:
by means of the pedal, a fullness can be attained which the fingers alone are incapable of producing.
Initially, composers used the sustaining pedal primarily for special effects, reserving them for unusual passages that stood apart from their surrounding context. One of Beethoven’s comparatively rare indications for sustaining pedal, for example, occurs in the opening of the Tempest Sonata, where it sets off slowly accumulating chords from the hurried Allegro theme.
The mid-1800s, however, witnessed a period of “pedal mania” during which pedaling became ubiquitous, and composer-pianists developed not only modern pedal technique but also new musical styles premised on use of the sustaining pedal. Chopin and Liszt were two of the chief architects of this development. The nocturne style that became Chopin’s trademark, for example, required the pedal to sustain the down-beat bass notes while the left moved to play mid-register chords, and to continue the cantabile legato across large (highly expressive) leaps in the right hand melody:
Arthur Rubinstein plays Chopin’s Nocturne Op.9 No.2
Today, pianists are so used to the sustaining pedal that they often react negatively to the sound of the piano without it – even when playing music composed for finger legato.
Tone-Modifying Devices & Musical Evolution
What we’re seeing with Auto-tune, then, isn’t just a discussion of taste masquerading as a discussion of standards. It’s part of the process by which new technologies are incorporated into musical practice, transforming from crutches (which replace something old) into expressive resources that enable new musical styles and require new musical skills.