Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Musicology and Plastic Guitars

My sister once asked me if she thought I played Guitar Hero better than I did the cello. I thought this was pretty amusing at the time; this was at the height of my Guitar Heroics, when my friends Al, Megu, Maurice and Sneezy would throw the little plastic fisher-price guitars behind their heads with me as we competed, playing through riffs on Expert without skipping a beat (until my arms tired out and I had to descend to earth once again). This was when Al and I were fresh off of participating in a forum-based impromptu league set up by another friend of mine, where we strived not only for that five-star ranking on each and every song but also attempted to close in on perfection: hitting every single note without over-strumming (i.e. strumming when there was no note to be played). This was when "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock" was just around the corner, and I'd be soon mastering Living Colour's "Cult of Personality" and its newly-recorded (and deviously insane) solo without needing to use Star Power as a crutch to avoid failing out.

For reference, I played the cello for 13 years seriously and two more off and on. Though I was notoriously undisciplined, preferring to play by ear and without practicing technique as much as I should have, I'll go out on a limb and say that my playing was good enough to be pleasing to the human ear, if not the canine ear. I never quite reached the heights I would have needed to in order to play something like Dvorak's cello concerto in B minor, but hey, come on. It's the fucking Dvorak we're talking about, and I was merely decent; I wasn't a prodigy.

To entertain myself, I took these two separate worlds and attempted to answer my sister's question. 15 years of playing cello, 75% by ear and 25% by discipline, versus hitting five buttons in rapid succession and odd combinations in order to rack up a high score at a videogame that just happened to be based on playing music--but didn't involve actually playing music. What was I better at? If I reached the conclusion that I was indeed better at Guitar Hero than I was at playing cello (the former of which I have spent--to date--four years playing as a form entertainment), would this be a "sad" thing? That all the time and effort (ahem) put into refining skills at creating music were trumped by a few leisurely years spent learning how to mimic the solo to a heavy metal song that was compressed to five buttons?

In truth, this is a question that can't really be answered properly--at least, not with regards to the context in which people ask it. Usually they make the understandable mistake of intending the question to be a musical one, implying or thinking that the musical skills required to be proficient at Guitar Hero are the same or similar to those required for a real instrument. This mistake, sadly, is at the root of why music games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band have been scoffed at (sometimes lightly, sometimes scornfully) by some in the music community. A few months ago, when asked if he'd like to contribute his songs to Guitar Hero, the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince (now currently known as Prince, in case you forgot) politely declined, stating his desire that children learn to play the "real thing."

I don't particularly have an issue with Prince wanting children to really learn how to play music. Done correctly, encouraging kids--hell, anyone-- to play music can result in joy for the would-be musicians, as well as those around them. Playing music is simply fun, and there's a fantastic sense of achievement and satisfaction when you finally master a piece or write a song of your own (...and all of you narcissists would have something else to brag about, another reason to look in the mirror, or whatever).

What perturbs me slightly, though, is the inappropriate correlation between this segment of interactive entertainment and "the real thing." There certainly is a link between playing music games and playing music itself, but again, I feel that most people get the context wrong. Specifically: “Practicing Guitar Hero is going to stop you or your child from practicing a real musical instrument.” Listen--let's look at Guitar Hero, Rock Band and other music games for what they are: videogames. A form of entertainment. A pastime. A leisurely activity. Theoretically, you could be arguing that you'd rather your kids learn how to play their instrument than playing videogames. From there, you could theoretically argue that you'd rather your kids learn how to play their instrument than watching television or movies; going to the mall with their friends; listening to music on the radio (now isn’t that interesting?). Sure, I will concede to the view that mastering a song in Guitar Hero provides the instant gratification of "playing" a piece of music that can’t be achieved from practicing a passage or a set of riffs, for hours on end (unless you’re a virtuoso). However, most forms of leisurely, mainstream entertainment are designed to provide instant gratification.

Does this mean that Prince is entirely "wrong" to say what he did? Not necessarily. I'm not saying that he should amend his statement and lambaste all videogames instead of just Guitar Hero. In the grand scheme of things, though, I do think that music games don't warrant being singled out from any other form of entertainment. As with all entertainment, they should simply be a part of anyone's checklist on what to balance in one's life. For youths, do your chores; do your homework; study and practice what you're supposed to practice; reward yourself, have fun and enjoy life. For adults, do your job; run your errands; take care of the people in your life; reward yourself, have fun and enjoy life. Just like anything else we do for fun, something like Guitar Hero is a perfectly acceptable pastime for those who know how to balance their lives, and more importantly, understand the difference between playing music games and playing real music.

For all of us “grown-ups” (though I’m really 12 years old inside), let's put it this way: If someone came up to me and said, "You know, the time you spent playing Guitar Hero could have been spent revitalizing your cello-playing ability," my response would be, "Had I the desire to spend time revitalizing my cello-playing ability, I would have simply done so. Guitar Hero has nothing to do with it." The sad truth of the matter is that I played Guitar Hero--or read books, or played basketball, or did whatever else I did these past few years--over playing the cello simply because I didn't feel like playing the cello at those particular times. (Note: Kids, you're out of luck; when you asked your parents for that guitar and to spend money on lessons for you, you'd better damn well feel like playing it.)

Let's flip the script and look at this situation from another angle. For all of the negative things people can "learn" or become "desensitized to" thanks to videogames--or movies, or music, or books (are you listening, politicians?)--there are plenty of positive influences that can be gleaned from them. (The key for parents, of course, is knowing how to teach their kids right from wrong, and fantasy from reality, at the outset. I know--duh, right? You'd think.)

I serve only as anecdotal evidence, but I like to think that I’m a passable example. Until around 2005, I almost exclusively listened to hip hop and classical music. December of 2005 is when I brought home the original Guitar Hero. From there, my music library slowly increased to include music--both good and bad--from any number of rock genres. I entered, and am still in, an experimental phase with finding new music that I can appreciate. Why did Guitar Hero, Rock Band and their sequels spark this interest? If you think about it, I was being exposed to music I never really cared for before, contextualized in an environment that I did care for: videogames. The effect is not entirely different from what you'd get when, say, watching a biopic about a musician (e.g. “Ray” or “Walk The Line” might make you curious enough to check out the work of Ray Charles or Johnny Cash), but because these music games (a) were all music all the time, and (2) exposed me to some compressed, faux inkling of the technique required to play these songs, it was easier for me to appreciate the music contained in those games.

So, sure, playing music games got me to appreciate and enjoy "new" music. I'll tell you something else though: My desire to start practicing the cello again has increased noticeably. That's right. After saying that people shouldn't negatively correlate playing Guitar Hero and playing a real musical instrument, I'm turning on my heel and am now suggesting that playing Guitar Hero and its ilk were responsible for me wanting to play my real instrument again. The reason is simple. I want to be able to answer my sister's question, however apples-to-oranges the correlation between the two activities may be, by saying, "No--I believe I can play the cello far better than I can this guitar game." When seeing insane streams of colored notes on the screen and actually being able to play them, it reminded me ever so slightly of the breathtaking sensation I got from playing a run or crazy-ass chord passages using thumb position and other techniques on my cello. It was fun to score points in a videogame through the sheer speed of my fingers--but I wanted to play for real.

This is where the most important distinction between playing a music game, and playing real music, comes in. In a music game, you're not playing music; you're simply activating it. The music is pre-recorded and comes from cover bands or licensed master tracks. It's already in the game. At its core, all the game is doing is waiting for you to press the right buttons, and strum at the right time; with all that done, the notes will play. It'll be as in tune as it ever could be given the recording. The body--the feel--of the note will be exactly what it was when the original was recorded. You are not really making any music, and that's okay, because all you really need to do in order to get the most out of Guitar Hero is to have a good time. That's why you don't, and shouldn't, have to worry about bow or picking techniques or playing the notes at the right dynamics. You can fantasize about being a rock star with ease, just like how a fan of the football sim "Madden 10" can fantasize about being Randy Moss. Playing a music game, and most videogames for that matter, is about the fantasy and the entertainment.

Playing a musical instrument is about discipline, technique and perseverance. You do have to worry about when your foot hits the pedal as you practice Chopin. You do have to make sure that your bow hand is appropriately light or heavy, and you sure as hell have to be cognizant of where your finger hits to make sure you're in tune if you're a string player. You can fantasize all you want, but the results of your playing are your own, and they're real. When the cat screeches and scratches at your foot; when the dog yelps and scampers away; when your sister comes into your room and laughs at you because you hit the harmonic the wrong way, it's your own fault. If you aren't willing--and will never be willing--to handle the reality of the dedication required to play a musical instrument, you're simply not going to partake in it--whether or not Guitar Hero ever existed.

So, to Prince I say this: There are young'uns who dutifully practice their instruments; who dip into Guitar Hero or Rock Band just for a bit when they need a 15-minute break; who would enjoy rocking out to your music with their plastic instruments. Accept the check and give them a taste of the fantasy of being you. You won't do a disservice to their talents by giving them some entertainment. And for the people who'd be inclined to play Guitar Hero over a real guitar, they were probably never going to pick up a guitar anyway. At the very least, by exposing your music to them through their pastime, maybe they’ll buy more of your albums.

1 comment:

The AnTiPoDe said...

Well stated. Now if only I could find time to practice my guitar daily or even play a music game in this unbearable weather...