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Durham University


Music, Media and Technologies

Alex Stevenson (Leeds Beckett University) - Digital aesthetics in contemporary popular music performance

09:10-10:40 - Session I: Digital technologies in studio and performance

The introduction of digital sampling technology enabled electronic music producers to manipulate existing musical performances to achieve complex grooves that would have been significantly challenging, if not impossible for musicians to perform live. In hip hop, micro-rhythmic gestures created genre-specific grooves which, as discussed by D’Errico (2011), formed a significant component in the creation of sonic signatures for many influential hip hop producers. In drum’n’bass, samples of funk breakbeats had significant increases in both pitch and tempo, which along with the fragmentation and rearrangement of components of the sample, created complex rhythmic performance with timbral variations and characteristics far removed from those of the original recording of the drummer’s performance. Furthermore, in many experimental electronic music styles, as part of what Cascone refers to as a ‘”post digital” aesthetic’ (2000, p. 13), digital artefacts and failures become a key part of the musical characteristics of the genres. The glitches of digital playback failure and what Brøvig-Hannsen & Danielsen refer to as ‘digital silence’ (2016) are just some of the examples of these digital characteristics that have become common place in contemporary popular music production.

In this musical landscape, many contemporary popular musicians face the challenge of incorporating these musical characteristics created by digital technology into their performance practice. These musicians have therefor had to develop innovative performance techniques which allow them to (re)create these musical characteristics which conforms to a digital aesthetic often without the use of digital technology.

Drawing on the work of authors such as Keil (1995), Danielsen (2006; 2013) and Oliver (2015) utilising rhythmical and timbral analysis of musical works, this paper explores the impact of digital aesthetics on contemporary popular musicians and explores the ways in which the emerging techniques and practices can be better understood within popular music discourse.


Brøvig-Hanssen, R. & Danielsen, A. (2016) Digital Signatures: The Impact of Digitization on Popular Music Sound. MIT Press.

Cascone, K. (2000) The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music. Computer Music Journal, 24 (4), pp. 12–18.

Danielsen, A. (2006) Presence and Pleasure: The Funk Grooves of James Brown and Parliament. Wesleyan University Press.

Danielsen, M. A. (2013) Musical Rhythm in the Age of Digital Reproduction. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

D’Errico, M. (2011) Behind the Beat: Technical and Practical Aspects of Instrumental Hip-Hop Composition [Online]. Tufts University. Available from: [Accessed 4 January 2014].

Keil, C. (1995) The Theory of Participatory Discrepancies: A Progress Report. Ethnomusicology, pp. 1–19.

Oliver, R. A. (2015) Rebecoming Analogue: Groove, Breakbeats and Sampling [Online]. Hull: University of Hull. Available from: [Accessed 9 February 2017].