Perfection Is Overrated: How Failure Gave Birth To Electronic Music

Perfection is boring, it doesn't challenge us to progress. If it wasn't for failure, pioneers like Max Matthews would never have used computers to make music.
Publish date:

Failure created electronic music. I’ll explain, but first a history lesson.

Back when computers were a novel technological advancement that were just beginning to change the way we lived, nobody listened to them. After all, these machines could compute formulas in a second, grant control over a character in a fictional world, and edit a paper without using scissors and white out. Computers turned impossible tasks into routine parts of daily life. Users of computers did not give a damn what they sounded like, because these machines granted them powers they could only imagine having in their younger years.

But then those users had children, and the children who had access to computers their entire lives began bitchin’. They complained about the clicking and popping noises. They despised the whirring fans activated by the computer straining to obey their commands. They detested the electronic crunch of a program crashing.  A machine that was one generation’s miracle, was the next generation’s headache. In short, they hated when the machines their parents had held up as perfection, did not meet that standard.

But in their rage, they missed something. They did not understand that the noises that they detested because they represented failure, were noises that no one in human history had ever heard before. These were noises that, removed from their context, had the potential to delight and amaze listeners.


Luckily, not all of us are rendered deaf by failure. The pioneers of electronic music (like Max Mathews pictured above standing inside of an IBM computer) listened, instead of cursing the infernal machines. They tinkered with frequencies and discovered they could be manipulated. They tampered with disks and, knowing they would fail, inserted them into the massive computers, just to hear what noise they made. They played tapes too fast, too slow, and backwards, and discovered hidden nuances of sound. When they heard what failure sounded like, they realized that when you listen just right, failure is beautiful.

It’s perfection that’s boring. It needs no improvement and receives no recognition after everyone gets used to it. Outside of people tripping on acid, how many appreciate how wonderful plane travel is? People used to die making trips that we make in an afternoon. Because of planes, I can be gobbling down biscuits and gravy in Georgia in the morning and be dining on Sicilian pizza in the evening. Planes have made every corner of our planet accessible, and yet instead of marveling at our fortune when we are inside an airport, we whine about the delays on the tarmac, the food they’re serving, and the price of the wi-fi. Humans, throughout history, have gotten bored with perfection rather quickly.

Failure, on the other hand, allows us to turn our imagination into reality. It shows us the voids in our abilities and invites us to fill them. When machines failed, we discovered new possibilities for sound. We never thought about a computer’s capacity for creating music, until its server crashed, its program failed, and its frequencies went haywire. From the failure of machines, humans have created entire new genres of music that have changed the way that we express ourselves. Failure is the coal that powers the train of human progress. So not only is failure always an option, sometimes, its the better option.

Follow John on Twitter @FlynnDecent