How do you tell music from different epochs or decades apart? You look for characteristic elements. Distorted guitars and cheesy synths? That must be 80s Hard Rock. 303 Basslines? That must be Acid House or Techno from the late 80s or 90s.
You can play a guitar in a million different ways and how it is played tells you if this is Funk, Folk or Metal.
I was thinking about what the defining sound element of our time is. There is more music than ever before so it’s hard to define the one thing that was not there before. Nevetheless, I do believe that there is one thing that was not there before – or at least by far not as ubiquitous. I believe that this defining musical element of our time is the glitch.
What is a glitch?
A glitch is bascially a small error in a digital stream of data. A digital stream of data is a long sequence of zeros and ones (bits) that when interpreted the right way by a computer can form a piece of music, a picture, a program or many other things. Ideally, this sequence remains unchanged once it is saved (unless it is intentionally changed). In reality, there are all sorts of things that can mess with this bit sequence: Both technical as well as human errors can lead to unintended changes.
To the computer, a glitch is only a tiny piece of information that subtly changes the way the computer interprets a digital stream of data. To a human, a glitch can look or sound very weird: For example, in a digital image a glitch can mean that the color of an image partially changes. In a piece of music, a glitch can mean that the instrument suddenly changes while playing a melody, that a loop is suddenly cut off or in the worst case that the whole thing just sounds like unintelligible garbage – or that it can’t be played at all.
Of course, no one wants to listen to unintelligible garbage – but a tiny dose of glitch can actually lead to quite interesting and aesthetically pleasing effects. It’s all about the “aesthetics of failure“.
It’s not new that humans often like imperfection. Many people enjoy the crackling sounds of vinyl records, the slight hum of analogue audio equipment or the feedback loops that a skilled Rock guitar player creates by standing in front of the amp. All of these were originally disturbances – little errors that came with the way that the equipment worked. No one intentionally designed vinyl records to crackle or a vacuum tube to create a subtle hum. Those were just side-effects that came with the technology. Over time, people did not only get used to these little errors but actually came to like them.
Many people get goosebumps from the sound of a needle scratching on a HipHop vinyl record or from the distortion of an electric guitar.
When digital audio equipment started to become mainstream, it came with a promise of perfection. Crystal-clear sound! No more crackles! No more hum! In reality, we exchanged a certain set of error types with a different one.
Just as analogue audio equipment has its characteristic deficiencies, digital audio equipment has a different set of deficiencies. While a skilled Rock guitar player can use the feedback loops between his guitar and the amplifier to create sounds that many people find pleasant a skilled producer can create digital glitches in a way that actually sounds interesting and pleasant.
Digital audio and music production equipment has been around for quite a long time but it has now become so ubiquitous that it is pretty much the standard. This has led glitch-influenced music to become equally ubiquitous and therefore one of the defining sound elements of our time.
Here are some of my favorite examples of glitch-influenced music:
The Glitch Mob – We Can Make the World Stop
Fakear – Animal
GTA – Red Lips (Skrillex Remix)