Music, Technology and Values
To understand whether or not “Guitar Hero” (or “Rock Band, for that matter, but from here on out I will only reference “GH” for them both) is musical, we need to take a trip down an unfortunately awkward road on the map of my memory lane: middle school. I distinctly remember my best friend Laura getting GH and spending hours in her basement learning how to shred on songs like “Bulls on Parade,” or failing miserably on “Cliffs of Dover.” I became relatively good at hitting the plastic keys to the right tempo; never “expert,” but I made my way through a majority on “medium,” which was pretty good for a girl not accustomed to the video game life. However, my pride at clicking buttons was cut short after a particularly memorable dinnertime conversation with my father. John Murphy has been playing guitar since he was in college and still performs gigs to this day. He denounced GH and all its’ relatives as pathetic excuses for music, or ways for lazy kids to pantomime true talent, or just another way technology was corrupting us all and destroying that which is pure and good. I listened to my dad, and my GH career was over.
Soon after quitting my virtual rock band, I decided that I would follow in my father’s footsteps and pick up a real guitar. I began pitiful attempts at chords in the winter of my freshman year of high school and have continued to this day. My journey with real guitar has been much more interesting and rewarding than my short-lived glory of GH 3. I began making music, not pressing a button to a pre-selected song. My fingers grew calloused instead of my wrists growing weak. I learned chords and tabs, not just colors and frets. I learned how to tune an instrument, how to change strings, how to play power chords, how to read tabs, how to take care of an acoustic instrument, how to compare guitars, how to strum, how to alter the sound based on my hand position, how to make up my own solos, how to add my own flair to songs I loved, and more. I began to hear music differently and appreciate the songs I’ve loved with a new love. Learning guitar taught me how to be an active participant in sound, instead of a passive presser of plastic.
I believe that GH isn’t music based on the argument of what music inherently is. Music is the ability to alter sound at one’s will, it’s being in control of what comes from your movements. It took me months to get down the “F,” chord, and I still think I play it a bit incorrectly based off of habit. My dad proudly points out that I play the “D” chord with a different finger position than 99 percent of the population, because he taught me how to do so. When I was learning how to play songs, the pride and accomplishment I felt after tackling Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” intro was indescribable. Months and months of calloused fingers and mis-plucked strings finally resulted in a sound all my own. I believe that even playing covers of songs sung by other people on a guitar is still an original creation, because no one can hold down the strings with the exact same weight, and no one has exactly the same strum pattern or even pick-density preference. These little changeable details of guitar and other instruments like it make them music.
I think GH is a cop-out. Selfishly I think that because I’ve spent seven years learning and practicing guitar, and I still can’t come anywhere close to playing “Cliffs of Dover.” Even besides that, GH lacks the basic concepts of music. The limited song selection cuts off choice. The necessity to hit the blocks as they pass the bar cuts off opportunities for creativity. The quantifiable score at the end cuts off intrinsic pride of playing a song! I can understand the argument that GH is similar to an electric keyboard based on just hitting a button that makes noise at the right time, but even with an electronic keyboard there is participation in creating the sound. No matter how good you are at GH, all you’ll ever be able to do is play the song perfectly how it is recorded. With using instruments to play pre-made songs, there is always room for improvement, modification, and virtuosity. Not to mention the ability to create, which is one of music’s most important values.
It’s not just because I’m bad at it, I promise. Playing GH in class on Monday just confirmed my initial hunch, and my father’s wise words from the past. It’s not real music! I received no joy from hitting a button at the right time while playing “Float On,” by Modest Mouse. In fact, I was stressed, frustrated, and embarrassed. When I play guitar, even when I was terrible, at least I am in control of my own failed notes. When I missed a beat in GH, I was greeted by the absence of noise; which is no way to learn how to play correctly. That’s another aspect of GH that bothers me: how unreal it is. It attempts to simulate what it’s like to play an instrument by providing a guitar-shaped controller, allowing you to create rocker avatars, or putting the background of every song as a different rock venue, but it does a poor job of simulating what it’s actual like to play a guitar. There is no ability to strum in a certain rhythm, which is indispensible in learning how to play guitar. You can’t play a sound that’s not supposed to be in the song, and the failed notes sound like someone ripped out your aux cord, not like you misplaced your finger on a fret.
Through this uninterrupted rant about GH, (I started typing twenty minutes ago and have not stopped once- apparently I feel very strongly toward this topic) I have developed my own definition of what playing music is to me. Making music is creating sound and altering noise through the use of your own movements. It’s the ability to make something sound beautiful or terrible, and to have undisputed control over which you choose. Music is something that no game can completely simulate, because it’s a uniquely human capability that comes from combining raw motion and sound without any restrictions. GH is great for a game, but for music? I’ll choose calloused fingertips, capo’s, chord charts, and my Taylor guitar, thank you.