Are You Really A Musician?

We've come a long way from banging a couple of rocks together to make music. Apple's version of Garageband for the iPad, for example, includes "smart" instruments that play all the keyboard, bass, guitar and drum parts for you with the push of a button.

Apple's Garageband includes "smart" instruments that will play chords and note patterns with the push of a virtual button.

Apple's Garageband includes "smart" instruments that will play chords and note patterns with the push of a virtual button.   hide caption

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It's pretty cool. But if you use something like this to make music, does it really count? If you don't know how to play an instrument such as the piano or guitar or whatever, and you can't read or write music, but you have an app or synth that does the work for you, can you really call yourself a musician?

Listen to this song I wrote. It's called "Strangers Watch the Sunrise in Tianjin."

I generated the tones with Brian Eno's iPhone Trope app. You just touch the screen in a couple of random places and the app does everything else for you. Then I added a couple of pre-recorded sound effects and gave it a lofty name to make it appear as though I was inspired by something grand and beautiful. The whole thing took about 10 minutes, and can be filed under "New Age" at your local record store. I guess it's a song, but it kind of feels like cheating to say I wrote it.

I actually can read and write more traditional music, and studied the piano and guitar. Here's my take on Bach's "Fugue in C Minor."

Not too bad. But here's my dirty little secret: I recorded this on a computer (it's not a real piano) and used its editing tools to go in and tweak all the notes — the timing, tempo and dynamics — which means I ended up with a version of the song that sounds way better and more precise than anything I could ever really play on my own. Is this cheating? Do I lose my "I'm A Musician" membership card?

All of these questions came up recently when Bob and I decided to again do the RPM Challenge, our annual attempt each February to write and record an album in a single month. Bob is an electronic musician and uses a lot of machines that invite curiosity to make his music — synths and drum machines and apps that lead Bob down paths where he discovers his songs. I'm a lot pickier than that. I tend to write my music out based on very specific ideas in my brain. That said, this year I have a lot less free time than in the past, and I'm going to have to rely a lot on machines to do the work for me. All of which has left me feeling conflicted. I tend to dismiss any music I come up with if I don't actually write it and play it note for note or beat for beat. If it wasn't a lot of work, I feel like I'm cheating somehow. What's a musician to do?

Tell us what you think in the comments section. Do you make music — and if so, how? Are people who play fancy synthesizers that make all the sounds for them cheating? What about these new music-making apps for the iPhone and iPad?

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