Are Musical Instruments Dying?


About 15 per cent of Australian adults create or play music. With an increase in electronic-based music by the likes of Skrillex and Flume, it’s one thing to create music and another to play a musical instrument. Are musical instruments a thing of the past? Or will they always be around as long as music is being made?

Brad Munro argues for the value of musical instruments.

With the ebbing of guitar-rock bands that had huge jump-starts in the early 2000s, we have to ask ourselves, are musical instruments like guitars, basses and drums still relevant even if their use in popular music is declining?

I think so.

Synthesisers, sequencers and keyboards form the basis of most electronic music these days (think of Avicii, Calvin Harris, Deadmau5). While keyboards have such a huge tonal variety, the sound that most popular house musicians seem to settle on is a very polished and almost glassy sound. The result is hundreds (if not thousands) of songs that can only be distinguished by the vocals.

With a live band you get the variety that keyboard and synth provides, as well as all the sound options from thousands of amps and effect pedals in the world. On top of that there is also the wide variation in the sounds of each individual instrument.

A huge trend with sequenced, synth-centric music is a move towards DJs and one-man shows. The saying goes that too many cooks spoil the broth, but with music, I’ve found this rarely to be the case. Looking back from the 60s to now, you’ll see a vast majority of bands that collaborated to great effect.

Two songwriter pairings that come to mind are Lennon-McCartney of The Beatles, and Bjorn and Benny of ABBA. Both groups have released a frightening amount of catchy songs that people just can’t shake. Bouncing ideas from one creative mind to another can create immense artistic depth. Music with more creative thought put into it is going to end up with more eclectic use of melody, more intricate harmony and all-round greater longevity because of these combined factors.

Here are some groups that are keeping instrument-based music alive and kicking in the age of bleeps and bloops: Alt-J, Bonobo, Daughter, Gay Paris, Karnivool, M83, Minus the Bear, The National, Tame Impala, Warpaint, The xx and This Town Needs Guns.

I’ll let the evidence speak for itself.

Ben McCarthy thinks musical instruments are under threat.

In an age where the technological revolution sees most of our generation glued to different screens, it’s not unusual to think that we may be losing touch with certain cultural artefacts. One such example is that of music and the physical playing of an instrument. With a tradition spanning back to the ancient days, the allure of rhythm can be attained simply by hitting rocks with a few sticks. It’d be a right shame to see such a creative outlet become redundant. Unfortunately though, with the invention of more computer-based programs and the commercial success of ‘pop’ artists, it seems as though the good old drum set and electric guitar have taken a back seat.

University student and avid guitar player Kristen Tsiamis shed some light on what she thought was happening to the humble instrument. “People are becoming lazy, more unwilling to learn how to play an instrument, because it can be quite complex. You can’t just pick up an instrument and expect to get it. It takes time and patience. That’s why I think people are caring less and less. They simply don’t have time.

Despite my initial scepticism regarding such a stark remark, I began to see that perhaps she was right. In the hustle and bustle of everyday student life, it is far easier to be a consumer of music than to be a creator of music. And this is largely the reason why the musical instrument is just not striking the same chord as it used to (sorry, I had to).

In my quest for other perspectives, I tracked down an old school friend in Saia Soane, who uses a program called ‘Maschine’. This allows him to connect an external beat pad to a computer and create beats. Unlike a guitar or piano, it is far quicker to learn and provides a far wider range of sound. When asked if the musical instrument was dying, he said, “I don’t think that instruments have become irrelevant in today’s society… it’s more that you can produce a piece of music with a larger variety of sound in a shorter period time with technology.”

Although not entirely dismissive of the role of instruments in contemporary youth culture, it was interesting to note the connection between newer technologies and more convenience. That is the ultimate aim of most innovations nowadays, is it not? With such an array of high-tech alternatives, their place in music is coming under significant threat.