Music and the End of Time

This was my TEDx talk from February 9, 2014 at Milken High School

Russell Steinberg

I think of art, at its most significant, as a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.
Marshall McLuhan

In our electric age, as we humans “race” in transition to become full cyborgs, the new paradigms emerging in music point the way to what we will both gain and lose as we continue to question what makes us essentially human.


An hour from now I’ll be rehearsing 100 students from around the city who choose to spend countless hours learning to play orchestra music mostly 200 years old on technologies of wood and metal at least 400 years ago.

That is the curious juxtaposition in our time, even as we hunch forward to our machines as partial cyborgs. Some musicians still slowly master acoustic instruments, a process that takes years and considerable patience. It often takes two years to simply make a tolerable sound on a violin, let alone beautiful music.

Today, though, speed is the virtue, not patience.

Enter GarageBand. Any five-year old can use it instantly. Download the app, select loops, drag and drop repeatedly into tracks. Record. Distribute. Boom. Instant gratification. You produce a complete song in minutes. No years of training needed to learn an instrument or master sound engineering. No need for other musicians or a multi-million dollar recording studio.

While GarageBand is a product meant to empower the masses, don’t think the professional music world is much different. Most of the songs coming out of the radio, most of the music behind movies and TV, are produced essentially the same way, just with fancier tools and far more options.

How does this change the world of music?

•Musicians are now editors. You don’t need to learn to play an instrument, but you do need to know how to edit sound tracks. Editing is now the starting point for creation, not the end. A performance is sampled or taken from a sampling “library.” Samples become the alphabet for building a new song. That’s the DJ phenomenon. The engineer is now the performer.


•We serve the software. Musicians used to master instruments and composition, now our tools master us. It’s not like using a pencil, fountain pen, or typewriter. Those remained fairly constant throughout an artist’s lifetime.  But software changes too fast and gets increasingly complex. Before we can master it, it evolves to a different level, because we demand more power (options). In a real sense, the software is a creative artistic component itself, evolving at a rate not far behind that of the content artists generate with it.   

•Music is more seen than heard. The function of music today is primarily to accompany image—be it music video, film, or videogame. Even a live concert almost always occurs with a visual component that equally grabs attention. The notion of sitting and simply listening to music is an artifact of the classical concert hall.

 •All music is  “tracks.” All tracks are equal. The iTunes screen is a perfect depiction of this new reality. The picture of our music is an infinite list of tracks. One track might be an hour long Mahler symphony, another might be a five second cell tone ring. Who’s to discriminate?

•Revenue streams vaporize. Musicians are in panic as money from recordings, sheet music, and music licensing disappears. The effortless distribution of music lowers its monetary value.

Context is gone—there was a debate about whether it was important to know something about a musical style or instrument before you appropriated it creatively. That debate is over. The answer is, you don’t need to know anything about what you use. Music from any place and any time and any media may be combined. Sampling makes that a snap. Today it’s impossible to be inappropriate. That marks a new aesthetic orientation.

And the audience of musical listeners?

There are so many types of music to know. Billboard charts identify over 1500 musical genres. Then there is music from different historical periods and music from every country in the world. Where do we start to listen? How can we expect a common understanding when we go to hear new music?

The sum of all these changes is this …

Today we are “world-wide and one inch deep.” That sounds like judgment, but it’s reality.  The knowledge we embrace today is a vast surface spread so wide that we can only skim across it.  We have given ourselves completely to this electronic surface. And we’ve done it overnight, with little reflection. The control we gain is simply too dramatic, powerful, and exciting to question. 

The End of Time
But perhaps the greatest change in music and the arts today is that by embracing this vast surface, we lose our sense of sequence and long narrative. It’s all we can do to be nomads now, hunting and gathering through the sea of information. Putting it in an order or constructing an intricate number of interlocking events makes less sense.

Have you noticed how hard it is to find dates of most material on the internet? Sequence is vanishing, and with it, our sense of time. And we barely notice.

Stephen Hawking postulated the beginning of the cosmos not from a singularity, but from a fuzzy area where time essentially doesn’t exist.  That is our spirit today. Digital life in an eternal present, with waves of information lapping on our shores. A viral post in social media surges with one large group of people one month, but perhaps doesn’t hit another group until a year later. But when it does arrive, it defines “current.”

The thinker who nailed our modern state of affairs was 1960s cultural philosopher Marshall McLuhan. His prophecy was spot-on. He is famous for his aptly relevant phrase, “The medium is the message.” But in his groundbreaking book Understanding Media, he went into great depth about the world we live today. He wrote that in our electric age, the old paradigm of chronology and sequence nurtured since the printing press no longer applies. Instead we will communicate in a barrage of short bursts of information. He wrote that 50 years before Twitter!

He also cautioned:

I think of art, at its most significant, as a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.
Marshall McLuhan

The old world of literacy is gone. The new digital world erases the assumptions of literacy and opens a Brave New World of thought and behavior. The arts today alert us to what we are to become and what we discard as we become cyborgs and consume the infinite digital surface. This is what they tell us:


1.     Speed—We expect to have instant access to everything in the world at anytime.

2.     Unbridled creative possibilities—we can use and combine any content we imagine.  What an irresistible option for an artist!

3.     Power—one person alone can create, edit, package and market what before required a factory.

4.     Flexibility—we can use and combine powerful tools in any imaginable field without extensive training, be it art, architecture, music, or film.

5.     Reach—we can distribute our information at the speed of light. We create it. We send it . Everyone receives it. We get feedback. We feel famous.

We vote for all of these gains and we do whatever it takes to adopt more of a machine orientation to increase that power.

But the other side is what we are choosing to discard…

1. Depth and the patience that comes from time spent absorbing long narratives. Yes we read and write more than ever, but the longer coherence we used to mean by literacy—that’s gone. Also taking absence is irony, the use of layers to create multiple meanings. Irony is at the crux of our adult understanding of the world and its relationships. If we discard irony, what of the essential dimension that defines us as humans?

2. Context and relationships between ideas. What matters is what works now—what or where it comes seems less and less relevant.

3. Mastery—in the old sense of truly “knowing,” mastery of a single “tool” is no longer necessary. We trade mastery for skimming. The skill we require now is to be able to adapt and relearn very quickly so that we can multi-task the many skills we desire.

4. As we discard time, we discard the Quest for permanence, for something that sustains meaning beyond the moment. Without time, the present is all that matters. The main concern seems to be popularity and going “viral.”

6. Focus on a single idea—The currents in our vast surface of information move too fast for us to stay rooted in one place or contemplate one idea too long. So we’re fickle. We migrate week to week from topic to topic. The phrase “what’s trending on Twitter?” defines this clearly.

7. Do we discard individual Identity and larger purpose when we discard temporal placement? Without layers, sequence, and context, do we lose the anchors that create meaning through our lifetime?

Listen to what’s happening with music today and the reality of this new framework becomes clear. As a species, we ditch the physical for the electric in a heartbeat. In less than a decade we watched our record stores, our books stores, and film stores just disappear. An iPad weighs a heck of a lot less than 50 textbooks. That’s a fact.  But that convenience is transitional. The iPad is a medium for fast retrieval of information, not for deep extended reading of a single item. What will happen is that long books will gradually cease to hold interest for users of this technology. Already electronic book publishers are pushing the idea of short ten to twenty-five page e-books. In this sense, pop music has had a massive head start when it established the three minute song standard in the 20th century.

I think McLuhan was correct. The arts show what we are becoming as we embrace the vast surface of information. But they also remind us what ultimately matters, what has made us feel most human. The now “old” sequential arts provided reflection and depth that produced powerful emotional and rational responses that continue to resonate for a person’s lifetime. They provided permanent relevance, the notion of withstanding the test of time.

People hunger for that. Yes, even today as they grab their phone and check text messages and email, they long deeply for something that will reward them and have meaning the rest of their lives. The constant chase of the ephemeral is fatiguing. People still want to learn to play piano and violin, listen to symphonies, and watch Shakespeare. People want something that lasts. That’s why I’m about to go conduct almost 100 of them this next hour in a Mozart symphony, where we all find deep meaning in music created long before any of us were alive. As our species trades its flesh skin for machine skin, it seems smart to pay attention to what the arts tell us is missing. Speed and power are driving our desire, but beauty and depth are what ultimately give us meaning. We owe it to ourselves to consciously create a way for time with its depth, layers, and long narrative to find some sanctuary in this vast pleasurable surface that consumes our skimming lives today. As we become increasingly machine, the questions of what make us essentially human deeply matter. The universe awaits our choices!