Live Music and Recorded Music Contrasted, Part I


Live music is as ancient as civilization, but with our more recent ability to record and distribute music, all kinds of musical performances have become accessible to just about everyone. However, there are distinct differences between live musical performances and studio recordings, and as a professional musician, I believe I have a unique perspective on both mediums.

Is There Anybody Out There? Live music is a collective experience, an ever changing communication between the audience and the musicians. From the subtle response of an audience to a classical performance to a crowd cheering in appreciation at a rock concert, an audience gives many cues, and excellent musicians respond to those cues. The performing musicians also react to each other on a more refined level as they adjust and influence each other to create a cohesive group sound.

In contrast, the very process of making a studio recording isolates a musician from the outside world, the audience, and often even the other musicians they are collaborating with. The positive side of this is that the musicians are able to put their full attention and focus on the music, but their performance can lack the unique energy that an audience brings. From the listener’s perspective, recorded music is versatile and we can choose to listen to it alone for our personal enjoyment, or share our experience with others.

One Moment in Time Every live musical performance is a unique one-time event, and a performance exactly like it will never happen again. This event is complete with an environment - sights, sounds, and smells that both audience and musicians simultaneously experience. This atmosphere influences both the musical performance and the hearer’s response to the music and creates a distinct mood. In addition, the audience can perceive the musical performance itself through their senses, hearing and feeling the presence of the music and seeing the musicians and their interaction with their instruments as the music is being created.

Conversely, recorded music was produced in a time past. We can even enjoy the experience of hearing artists who are no longer alive. Recorded music is also repeatable. We can choose to play any song by any artist at any volume in any location creating a soundtrack to our daily lives. Recorded music has the distinct benefit in that it is affordable and we can enjoy the experience of listening to our favorite songs as many times as we choose.

Reality Check Live music is the real thing – unedited, unplugged, and sometimes unexpected. There will be mistakes, imperfections, and distractions. But the best part of live music is the rich sounds the instruments create, a sound that technology has not yet learned to precisely mimic. Also, the location in which live music is typically performed often adds to our experience. There is nothing like hearing a concert echoing through a soaring cathedral, a musical performance at a sports event accompanied by an enthusiastic crowd, or hearing music in a natural outdoor setting complimented by the laughter of guests, birdsong, and the sound of the wind. This is not perfection, but it is life and energy.

Recorded music is refined and will sound very different from a live performance. Musicians are able to record until they are satisfied and then the tracks can be further altered using editing software, resulting in a polished and carefully produced label. Recorded music is also free of extraneous noise and can be made to sound like it was recorded in just about any acoustical environment.

Finally Live music is a community activity influenced by the response of the audience and affected by the environment in which it is performed. It is a one-time event and has a unique sound that cannot be precisely reproduced with technology. On the other hand, recorded music can be easily listened to alone or shared with others. We can listen to any songs we want whenever we choose for a price we can afford, and we know it will be polished sound.

I believe that without music, our lives would be greatly altered and lacking. Live music and recorded music, though very different from each other, each play a unique and integral part in our world.