On Audio Fidelity

Can you remem­ber the first time you heard a live per­for­mance of a sym­phony that you love? I recall hear­ing the Beethoven Ninth for the first time in a live con­cert. I was in my last year of high school and heard it per­formed by the Hon­olulu Sym­phony. It was a gal­va­niz­ing experience!

Now, per­haps this is com­mon and per­haps not, but I already knew the Beethoven very well, as my love of clas­si­cal music came from through lis­ten­ing to record­ings. I sus­pect nowa­days most peo­ple hear clas­si­cal music for the first time as a record. When I was a junior high and high school stu­dent, I had a set of com­plete Beethoven sym­phonies which I lis­tened to over and over again. But¬†what a dif­fer­ence a live per­for­mance made!

I thought about these things as I read this arti­cle in today’s New York Times about the low qual­ity of play­back evi­dent in the MP3 play­ers that every­one now owns.

But iPods and com­pressed com­puter files–the most pop­u­lar vehi­cles for audio today–are “suck­ing the life out of music”

states an audio engi­neer in the article.


In fact, there is a long tra­di­tion of worry and hand-wringing over the advance of recorded tech­nol­ogy infring­ing on live per­for­mance. Does a player piano, for instance, have the musi­cal soul of a live per­former? Does a record? This was one of the big con­cerns of Theodor Adorno, who cau­tioned about the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of ¬†music through easy reproduction.

I won’t offer any polemics here in favor (or not) of Adorno’s argu­ment. After all, Beethoven was exposed to me via record because, as a young­ster, I did not live near a sym­phony orches­tra. In other words, with­out tech­nol­ogy, I might have missed out on clas­si­cal music all together.

But I will quickly add that noth­ing can replace the expe­ri­ence of a live per­for­mance, so while you may spend lots of time lis­ten­ing to radio, TV, inter­net stream­ing, or what­ever, be sure to get your­self to a live per­for­mance every now and then. You might be surprised!

About Richard D. Russell

This was written by Richard D. Russell, New York City based composer of fine music.