Across the musical spectrum, from hip-hop and dance music to jazz and ambient, glitchy rhythms and samples have come to dominate the sound of the 21st century. Find out how the sound of technological meltdowns has conquered music.
For as long as there have been instruments that plug in, musicians have been figuring out creative ways to misuse and abuse their gear to make it sound more interesting. In Fifties early rock ‘n’ rollers tore holes in their speakers and yanked tubes out of their amps to create distortion. In the Eighties house and techno artists took mundane gear like a programmable faux-bassist for singer-songwriters and tweaked them to produce sounds their inventors never dreamed of.
Now, at a time when almost all the sound we hear is either produced digitally or played back digitally (or both), that means making music that sounds like when a streaming buffer runs dry, or when you open a corrupted file, or when a piece of expensive digital studio gear suddenly decides to melt down. It’s the era of the glitch.
The broad definition of a musical glitch is that it’s any way of playing up qualities of digital music that the “right” way of making records tries to avoid–stuttering rhythms, clipped-sounding samples, electronic sounds that are either low-res and pixelated or harshly noisy. SOPHIE’s 2018 album Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides sounds like a Y2K-era digital pop album polished and compressed until it begins to shatter into its component ones and zeroes. The track “Immaterial” uses tightly automated synths to give a piece of laser-lit bubblegum electropop a level of sonic attack that feels more like heavy metal. Further out towards the edge, the metallic synths and warped vocals of “Ponyboy” give the track a surreal aura with a slightly crazed, house-of-mirrors edge.
SOPHIE uses Top 40 pop as the basis of her experiments, but the techniques she uses were first developed by musicians on the musical fringes. In the Nineties, digital audio technology began to replace classic analog technology, sparking a war between old-school purists and techno-futurists over which was better, analog gear’s warm tones or the crystal-clarity of digital. Meanwhile, electronic musicians far outside the mainstream began exploring the new gear to see what kind of weird things they could make it do. “Intelligent dance music,” or IDM, was the name given to a wave of experiments that used samplers and early digital audio workstations to create interesting synthesizer malfunctions and choppy, gridlike rhythms too fast and complex for a human drummer to play. (Despite the genre’s name a lot of it’s impossible to dance to.)
IDM was strictly record-geek music, but with the glitchy sonic tricks the genre pioneered and soon began popping up on the pop charts, as well as the underground. Tweaky, stutter-step rhythms defined hip-hop and R&B in the aughts, while experimental and noise musicians searched for new ways to mangle a digital signal. At the end of the decade, musicians like Flying Lotus reconnected both threads, combining hip-hop’s rhythmic structure with an avant-gardist’s pursuit of new sonic textures.
For as long as there have been instruments that plug in, musicians have been figuring out creative ways to misuse and abuse their gear to make it sound more interesting.
While IDM producers and their descendents made broken-sounding beats through careful, intricate programming, FlyLo made them by playing them with his fingers, sliding off the rhythmic grid that most beats are built on in order to push and pull at the tempo. In his hands (literally), the glitch became something else–warmer, more organic, less about feeling like you were listening to a computer breaking down and more a reminder that there was a human somewhere inside the fortress of technology that the music’s made from.
By now, the glitch has spread across the musical landscape. Glitchiness is a key element of trap music–a lot of early trap pioneers were actually fans of Nineties IDM–and since everything from hip-hop and R&B to pop, dance, rock, and even country uses trap beats these days there’s not a corner that isn’t at least a little glitchy these days. Sudan Archives tracks classically inspired violin parts over glitched-out beats. Thundercat uses his acrobatic playing to recreate the jittery rhythms of a futzy audio stream. TOKiMONSTA makes glitchy chill-out music (even though sonic glitches can sometimes be anxiety-inducing).
The sound of technology malfunctioning seems to appeal to us on some deep level. It drove guitarists two generations ago to maim their amps, today it’s turned crashing audio apps into an aesthetic. One day when there’s a new kind of technology to make music with, people will inevitably figure out a way to break it in an interesting way. A pessimist might say that this is a reflection of humankind’s innate love of destruction, but really it’s an expression of a much different human quality: the ability to look at something broken and see something beautiful.