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Ableton Co-Founder: “We Need a Revolution in Music Education”

Technology must be accessible to the next generation of artists, Gerhard Behles says.
Photo by Esstro 9

When it comes to the future of music technology, there's perhaps no one better qualified to make predictions than Gerhard Behles. As a co-founder of Ableton, he helped develop software that revolutionized how bedroom and professional artists alike create and manage their workflow, including Ableton Live, Push, and others. Over 18 years, the Berlin-based company's name has become synonymous with electronic production, and they continue to innovate, recently introducing the free online tutorial series Learning Music.


At this year's Moogfest in Durham, North Carolina, the former Monolake member gave a wide-ranging keynote presentation looking at the past 40,000 years of musical development. Beginning by showing slides of prehistoric bone flutes, Behles traced the evolution of today's "meta-instruments" like the MPC and Live, and discussed Ableton's philosophy towards helping artists "experience moments of bliss through uninterrupted creative flow."

Here's five key takeaways from the talk about how technology has changed how we make music, and where it might head next.

1. The miniaturization of technology has made it easier for artists to be independent.

"With the introduction of the synthesizer, the music studio becomes a self-contained instrument—now we don't even need a source any more because it can generate sounds itself. And then comes the computer, and the computer provides a level of precision and accuracy that gives a whole new level of depth to what can be done.

Much later, the household computer becomes so powerful that people use them as recording studios to create music all by themselves. The miniaturization progresses, now the computer fits in the backpack, you can bring it to a gig. The laptop can support live music, and now we're used to holding in our pocket the equivalent computing power of a mainframe computer."

2. Meta-instruments such as Ableton Live and MPCs were designed with traditional instruments and studios in mind.

"With the MPC in a rudimentary way, you could address every aspect of the music that you wanted to. You could make a beat, you could make a harmony, melody, mix, and even record everything you did and sequence it. So it was actually a combo of a music instrument and a music studio all in one. There's a little cushion [on the controller], which is a reference to the cushion on a classic mixing board.

When Ableton Live came out, it too was conceived as a meta-instrument. It's a audiobox computer program that can fulfill the functions of a music studio, but organized in such a way that you could have a playful approach to working with your material, you could improvise, and create music through improvisation."


3. The definition of "musician" has changed to encompass multiple different roles.

"What is a music maker? So first it's the person who writes the song, the composer, but then often times, they're the instrumentalist, they play the music, and then they are their own engineer. They are also designing their own sounds, and so on and so forth.

Often times, these people are called "producers," and the way this term has morphed over a few years is really indicative to the pace of change here. If you grew up in the 80s, when you think of producer, you're thinking of somebody like Quincy Jones, you're thinking of a person who orchestrates a huge group effort to arrive at a fantastic recording like Michael Jackson's Thriller. Now when we say producer, we're thinking of a person who can do everything that they want with the music alone. It's not like these people don't collaborate, but the reasons to collaborate have changed. No longer do I have to find someone to make music with because otherwise the music can't happen, now I can choose the approach and the tastes.

So we want to be great composers, and great instrumentalists, and great everything. The reality is we're not also this, but we're a DJ at night or maybe our own booker or maybe running our own label, and maybe we have a day job. The music maker is sort of a meta-musician role that comprises many different traditional roles in one, characterized by total control over the end result, the music."


4. While technology has made making music more accessible, it's no substitute for practice.

"I think often times people get into this [music] because of an illusion. It bothers me that our little industry somehow feeds the illusion of fame and fortune that can be attained by buying gear or buying education, when really fame and fortune is not in for a lot of people that choose to become music makers. There are other rewards that are much more important and that we should stress.

If you watch somebody create a piece of music they can be so immersed in the flow of creation that they forget it's day or night, or they forget that they need to eat. We propose that we don't try to make anything simple, or take the difficulty of practice and learning out of the equation, we try to focus on these rewarding experiences and making it easier for people to keep going."

5. The children are the future.

"We've launched a program where we've collected Push instruments, refurbished them, and we're distributing them to schools for free. We need a revolution in music education—20 per cent of kids that go to high school [in the US] have music lessons and everybody else nothing, this is really a broken system. We're just now seeing the results and I'm really excited. We're often surprised in the classroom, the kids are not struggling with the technology at all. Given my own background, I found meaning from music, and I want to make sure that young kids that grow up today can find that too."

Lead photo by Meg Cowan, Gerhard Behles photos by James Huang.

Max Mertens is on Twitter.