Music Is Not A Sport

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Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship.

Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen is kicking ass in the Olympics, and doing it efficiently as to minimize drag in the water. She set a new world record in the women's 400 meter individual medley, beating everyone else -- including the entire men's field -- in the final 50 meters in the process. I am reminded of another world record: Tiago Della's 320 beats-per-minute rendition of "Flight Of The Bumblebee." Both are examples of a human pushing to a physical extreme, but (assuming she isn't doping) Shiwen's is an inspiration and Della's is moderately pathetic.

First off, I am a guitarist, and I cannot even pretend that I can do what Tiago Della can. His record is not pathetic because he only plays at the rate of 1,280 notes in one minute, but because the man has dedicated an absurd amount of time for an accomplishment within the realm of the arts that has no artistic merit. The idea itself is flawed.

Some folks have a mental block with anything technical. These are the people who claim that music with any element of speed lacks feeling. I am not one of these people. I believe there is musical merit in speed, be it the tension of a blast beat or the disorienting quality of a Hella record. And "Flight Of The Bumblebee" itself has its worth; in fact, the faster it's played the more it sounds like an attacking insect swarm. But as a vehicle for speed for speed's sake - or, more accurately, speed for personal attention - any idea of musicality is void.

Last night on the NPR, panelists on the program On Point discussed the impact of technology on the athletes of this year's Olympics. They talked about the microscopic detail of a sprinter's strategy, how coaches can overlay a competitor's performance with a computer-generated moving image of a scientifically ideal runner and compare. These advances contribute to the increasing proficiency of today's athlete.

If you compare the technology one can use to learn an instrument these days, the trend is similar. People are playing instruments faster than ever thanks to science. A young musician can find any song he/she wants to learn on YouTube, slow it down to an approachable tempo, and even pause on each note to exactly pinpoint the player's hands and fingers. I'm only 28, so I don't want to pull the "back in my day" card, but I couldn't have comprehended that resource when I was looking up sketchy guitar tablatures on Yahoo! at the public library because my parents had not yet bought a 28.8kbps fax modem for our computer to dial into AOL. From a physical standpoint, the type of competitive shredding easily found online is not easy. But from a creative standpoint, it's the easiest thing a musician can do: find something another human has done and try to play it faster. Since Tiago Della's video went viral, others have posted videos trying to beat the record. Technically, a few have, but Guinness has reportedly frozen its "Fastest Guitar Player" category. This is likely for the same reason the organization stopped accepting submissions for "Shortest Concert" after the White Stripes' infamous one-note performance; the record raises too many questions. What qualifies as a performance? What qualifies as a note? Does the world's fastest guitarist have to play well or just fast? If it sounds bad slowed down, does it still count?

And the most important question to ask when any musical record is being set: Is this art? More often than not, the answer is no. It becomes a sport. It becomes a meta virtual reality game of Guitar Hero. Art is not quantifiable. There can be no world record for best song, and that's why so many of us identify so deeply with music and film and literature and the plethora of visual media. Art is a concentration of all of life's gray areas, impervious to the concept of right or wrong, better or worse.

So let's leave the records to the sprinters and the swimmers. If the spirit calls you to shred, then by all means shred. Just make sure you are doing it for the right reasons.