Can computers replace musical instruments?

It’s important to temper our enthusiasm for new technology with a deep understanding of its full effect on learning.

In a recent post, Stephen Downes claimed that ‘in comparison with what they replace – everything from books to musical instruments to art supplies – computers are more cost effective.

Music software couldn't replicate the complete experience of this musician.Now I don’t believe that computers replace books – yet, anyway. And I certainly don’t believe that they should replace art supplies or musical instruments. Both of these provide direct sensory experiences which are qualitatively different from using a computer, and result in creative work which is qualitatively different.

Real vs virtual

Music tools on a personal computer can provide more effective and convenient tools for things such as composition and recording. But they can’t replace the tactile experience of playing a real instrument. Furthermore, group improvisation may involve a sort of ‘social construction’ of music, and individual performance may involve a deeply reflective solitary experience. Using computers would fundamentally change the nature of either of these modes of musical creativity.

Certain high schools here in Auckland attract talented students because they provide intensive music education using real instruments in ‘big band’ and other live performance modes. Playing real instruments in a group setting is clearly a big attraction for many young people. That’s not to say that composing via a computer isn’t also very attractive – it’s just different, both as a process and in its ‘products’.

The closest analogy I can think of is this: the motor car hasn’t ‘replaced’ the bicycle despite being more ‘effective and efficient’ in various ways. Too many people value the bicycle for its low cost or its looks, the health benefits, or the feeling of the wind in their hair…

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