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Should Instrumental Skill Still Matter?

I am not advocating that all music, no matter how little talent is required, is by default innovative. I will eagerly admit that much of the bland, commercial music currently being produced in the industry requires little talent to produce.

However, the assumption that music is by default more boring and less ‘proper’ due to it requiring less instrumental skill to compose also highlights how I feel music writers and critics judging music’s value by the technical and instrumental skill and talent required to produce it hinders originality in music writing, analysis and the industry in general. If music is truly an art form, as most people will readily admit, why is some modern music writing and criticism still reliant on instrumental skill as a judgement of originality?

Contemporary art critics are able to see compositions by artists like Mondrian, formed solely of simplistic squares and lines as being innovative and interesting, despite not requiring incredible technical brushwork to create. I ask why is this critical approach not more commonly applied to music? The Industry is often labelled as stagnating and not being innovative solely due to the use of techniques like auto-tune being used, which reduce the need for an artist to possess technical and instrumental. I propose there is an argument that in fact these very same techniques can be used by some artists to be more original and innovative.

When artists like Toro Y Moi and Young Thug’s use of auto-tune is creating entire new sounds and genres, and gaining them commercial and critical success from larger publications such as Pitchfork. Is it not time that anyone identifying as a music critic and writer admits that the industry only seems to be stagnating as we are still measuring music’s originality by traditionalist standards? Standards that revolve around the concept that music lacking instrumental prowess to produce is not ‘proper’ and cannot be innovative and interesting. Instead of judging an artist purely on whether or not they have used such techniques, and how technically/instrumentally skilled they are.

I argue music writers should be judging an artist and the quality of their work on how originally and tastefully these techniques are applied, as I see the method of application of these techniques as determining a track’s originality not solely the artists’ skill. Toro Y Moi’s use of auto tune to twist his previously carefree, innocent vocal sound in a darker, less defined direction on latest album Boo Boo being a prime example of this. How can it be argued Young Thug’s application of auto-tune to manipulate his voice in an experimental way (that would be alien to rappers of the late 90’s) is any different to Robert Smith using reverb techniques and pedals to pioneer Shoegaze’s distinctive warped guitar sounds?

I cannot emphasize more that I am not arguing that recording artists with incredible instrumental or technical skill should not be recognised and lauded for their talent. Look at the global success Kendrick Lamar’s latest album ‘DAMN’ garnered, primarily due to his incredible technical and lyrical skill. However, in an industry when one of the most well received tracks on said album (‘PRIDE’) was produced primarily on an iPhone by teenage producer Steve Lacy.

Are we as consumers and music critics hindering innovation by placing too greater emphasis on the skill required to compose and produce music? If we want to support innovation and originality in music writing and criticism, supporting the music industry as a whole, I argue it is time for us all to isolate our appreciation of music from the process required to make it.

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