I had an interesting discussion with Simon the other day about musical instruments. We started off just talking about synthesizers, and how they can basically give you a single user interface for a larger number of instruments. Now that's all well and good, of course, but then you have to take into account the fact that a lot of music is written for particular interfaces, so trying to play, for instance, a fiddle tune on a tuba interface is going to be difficult, even if you're a virtuoso tuba player. Not that I know of any tuba synthesizers out there, but you see the point. Something like flamenco guitar on a keyboard would probably be difficult, too.
So Simon starts taking this a step further, and assigning more and more of the technical skills to the (now fictitious) instrument in question. This is where I start getting uncomfortable, perhaps because I'm suspicious of things getting too easy. For one thing, it seems that any technical aspect we delegate to a machine would have to be something we'd be willing to have done exactly the same way every time, and I can't actually think of anything I'd be willing to put in that category, when it comes to making music. The argument here, of course, is that people make recordings all the time (and tweak them to fix their [human] mistakes), which amounts to the same thing. So why not have an instrument that lets you create a fixed, technically accurate, recording for each piece you play, which will then be the basis for your performances of that piece? All you have to do is add the variations and expression particular to each performance.
Sounds interesting, but I'm still not too happy with it. Some things in this situation are going to be right out the window, like complete improvisation, or learning tunes on the fly, or sight reading. But once again, Simon comes up with the next step: "What if," he asks "I gave you a harmonica, for instance, that could read your mind?" Now, all I have to do is think the music, and this amazing instrument will do all the work of creating the actual sound for me, allowing me to share it with people without having to spend years learning to play harmonica. In fact, there wouldn't even really be a point in having it be an actual harmonica, so much as just some sort of abstracted musical interface for any instrument.
That's tempting. My first reaction, though, is that it would devalue all the hard work musicians have put into their art, and that there would just be an awful lot of people creating an awful lot of junk if we had instruments like this. But when it comes right down to it, so what? Those are all people who probably wouldn't have had much or any musical expression in their lives, so this could only be better, right? Plus, it's sort of like blogging. Blogging has made "writers" out of an awful lot of people, like me, who otherwise wouldn't have this outlet for expression. Yes there's a ton of junk out there, but there has also been a lot of great stuff coming into existence entirely thanks to blogs. We just learn to filter through and find the good stuff.
My one last holdout was that spending the last 10 years learning to play the mandolin, etc. has actually changed the music that is in my head. Even with this hypothetical magic harmonica, I know more about music and have more of it inside me because of all the hours I've practiced and worked on it over the years. That experience seems too crucial to give up to some sort of super instrument that will do all the hard work for me. But even as I started writing this, I realized that, you know, I really sucked when I started playing mandolin, too. Plus, it was just hard to get all that experience. Why couldn't you build that experience on an instrument, or even a more abstracted interface, that made it easy? Then all you have to do is train your mind.
So I don't know. Maybe all this importance I assign to actual, physical instruments is really just psychological. It's kind of interesting to try to trace it down, though.