Not-tism: What is ‘Real’ Music?: An Electronic Musician’s Apology

Welcome to this ‘not-tistic’ post, a post on Angry Autie that is not related to autism. You’ll see these every now and again because I am certainly allowed to have interests outside autism, right? I’m interested in a lot of things, chief among them are music, philosophy, and psychology, and if I want to write about any of them among other things, I will. If, for some reason, this confuses or upsets you, do what any reasonable person would do and feel free to not read this post. Or you could read it and create an oblique interpretation of my words and thoughts in juxtaposition with my autism. Either way, I’m unconcerned.


There’s something that I need to quickly get off of my chest as an electronic musician. That is, the remark that electronic music is inferior to rock, jazz, anything else that uses instruments simply because electronic music sounds less ‘real.’ Those who make this remark are quick to romanticize the twang on the guitar, the breath of the flautist while playing, the ‘warmth’ of the piano (whatever that means), and all the other things that electronic music cannot offer and then say nothing else on the matter.

As far as I’m concerned, this is really just an awkward way of passing off an opinion as fact. It’s like saying that realist art is better than impressionist art merely because realist art looks more ‘real’; that the realist really captures the lines on that leaf or draws every single hair on that person’s eyebrow so perfectly. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t pay attention to such remarks because they’re simply opinions but I’ve heard this line of reasoning often enough to give me the impression that this is one of those faulty ideas that have seeped into public consciousness and that have been mistaken for fact. I’m not writing this manifesto to assert the inherent superiority of electronic music over every other kind of music; I’m writing this to refute its perceived inferiority and to express what electronic music means to me and other practitioners.

First off, I should state that I believe that electronic music is not merely a genre; it’s a philosophy of being a musician. To put it in the most general terms, it’s driven by a need to continuously expand on your sound. A prerequisite of being such a musician is dissatisfaction with the known timbres as a means of self-expression. Socrates said that “wonder is the beginning of philosophy” and the same can be said for electronic music. So what’s with the stigma against it?

I’m a musician but I can’t play an instrument well and I don’t have the courage to sing. I can do some synth stuff but I feel that in music creation, the scenarios where I shine the most are the studio or behind the computer, with some hardware in one hand and some blank sheet music in the other. When I tell people that I’m a musician, I inevitably get the question “what instrument do you play?” which ignores the many other roles that musicians can play (no pun intended): composer, producer, orchestrator, conductor, sound manipulator, etc. When I mention that I don’t play an instrument well, I get written off as ‘not really a musician.’ I’m capable of doing many things in music; it just so happens that playing an instrument well is not one of them.

I used to play piano. I received five years of mixed jazz and classical instruction, with disproportionate emphasis on the jazz, but I became less enthusiastic about piano and eventually quit. I think this is because I got bored with the sound. After a while, I simply couldn’t see the point in practicing scales just to have control over a sound that has existed for so long and that other people have mastered. To be honest, as much as I love music, I’ve never developed a longstanding affinity for any specific instrument or timbre, probably because of the static nature of each. What had attracted me to electronic music in the first place, or at least electronic means in music making, was the infinitely greater variation in available timbres; the chance to create new sounds or to take preexisting sounds and turn them into something completely different or even just something subtly different enough to startle the listener. In addition to that, I don’t have to worry about technical limitations so in a sense, my musical palette is much bigger than someone who can only play an instrument well. There is greater room for play. I find this ‘mad scientist’ factor of electronic music to be very appealing and yet I regularly get derogatory remarks like “oh, Adam just plays the computer.”

Another (minor) part of the problem is that when people think of electronic music, they think of this:

When I talk about electronic music, I refer to something like this:

Or this:

Or this:

Or this:

Or, if you’re brave enough to cross over into metal, this:

You get the idea. Those songs are merely snippets of the world of electronic music.

Besides, electronic music has never pretended to be ‘real.’ This obsession with the ‘realness’ of music should not be shifted into judgment of electronic music because this is a standard that, by virtue of its very nature, it will never live up to and so to judge it thusly would be incredibly unfair. And ‘realness’ is not the point. The point is going beyond the real, or at least what is accepted as real. It’s about going beyond accepted sounds, going beyond technical limitations. The philosophy of electronic music is transcending the mundane, necessarily abrogating what’s tacitly accepted and seeing what else is out there in the world of sound. In other words, the natural impulse of man is captured in this music’s methods of implementation and end result.

Why do we have to limit ourselves to ‘real’ instruments in music making? There’s no good reason for it as far as I know other than to satisfy the brazen sentimentalities of people who like to hear the guitarist fart as he plays or something. If you don’t like electronic music simply because it doesn’t suit your tastes, that’s different. That’s an acceptable reason not to like something. Just don’t try so hard to rationalize your opinion, which is what I’ve just done.

4 thoughts on “Not-tism: What is ‘Real’ Music?: An Electronic Musician’s Apology

  1. Pingback: Cryptoquote Spoiler – 05/23/13 | Unclerave's Wordy Weblog

  2. I’m a music producer, play piano and am a professional Deejay. Its ignorant to say that being an electronic music producer doesnt make you a musician. Many times electronic music has as much art to it as any other kind of conventional music, however I gotta say that the term “music producer” and “musician” has lots its weight! Knowing Apple Logic doesnt make u a musician, but its the art of music which lies inside you makes you a musician. To me a musician is the one who transmits an true emotion, tells a story or simply make a statement through music in any kind of shape or form.

  3. My opinion is this: whether you use ‘real’ instruments, synthesisers, or even just scratching vinyl and/or CDs, if you create music, that’s enough to qualify you as a musician.
    Disclaimer: my opinion may be meaningless since I’m not a musician of any variety (unless lyricist counts), but I am an appreciater of good music.

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