The Curse of Flexibility

The flexibility introduced to musical instruments by software has a dark side. When the pace of high technology meant better varnish than 20 years earlier, a lutenist could reasonably expect that his skills would transfer from one lute to another; that his investment of hours of practice was secure; that, no matter how skilled he became, he could find good teachers; and that he could find a steady supply of freshly composed music to play.

Every one of those expectations is destroyed by software.

  • ? A software-based instrument is often a unique device. Even worse, as obsolete technologies in it are upgraded, it can change irreversibly.
  • ? Developing playing skill on an instrument with an installed customer base of one, and with an expected lifetime of a few months, is a poor investment.
  • ? Performers must be their own teachers.
  • ? Of the few composers who even hear of the instrument (before it changes yet again), even fewer will be motivated to write for an instrument with so few performers and so little chance to develop their own compositional craft. The story is told that Haydn, at the time having completed almost a hundred symphonies, confessed that he was finally getting the hang of writing for woodwinds.

These problems are milder, but not absent, outside music. The faster the pace of technology, the less patience its consumers have for reading instructions. Why master every aspect of your mobile phone, when you expect to replace it within a year? Worse yet, how can you master it when everyone around you also quickly discards it, preventing good teachers from appearing?

Imagine reprogramming your car to make the brake pedal adjust windshield wiper delay, and brake when you blinked your left eyelid in Morse code. Your friends wouldn’t dare to drive it. You yourself could learn to drive it, but mastering that skill would be expensive.

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