How Sampling Transformed Music

This video captures a Ted Talk by UK producer Mark Ronson, examining the ways that sampling has transformed music. 

Sampling isn’t about “hijacking nostalgia wholesale,” says Mark Ronson. It’s about “inserting yourself into the narrative of a song, while also pushing that story forward”.

Check it out and let us know what you think of Ronson’s perspective!

via TED

34 thoughts on “How Sampling Transformed Music

  1. That was awesome! Didn’t know Ronson was such a good DJ. He has a brilliant take on sampling. I like how he knows the history of sampling. Plus he will help contribute to the advancement of sampling in the future.

  2. Mark Ronson is always great. Didn’t need 17 minutes to explain “insert self into narrative” but at least he is talented and funny.

  3. The older i get, the more i like HipHop. It’s so much more about people than any guitar solo could ever be.

  4. i feel like when people take too heavy of an influence or sample from previous music its just lazy, i mean atleast nowadays when you could make anything you want easily from scratch, grab a few samples and be creative. id never take a loop and turn it into a full on track that way, just feels like im cheating. yes, i use a TON of samples, from anything and my own ideas too, but im not going to just grab a kraftwerk record and steal the whole drum loop or something

  5. pretty odd there wasn’t mention of how the sampling came about…back to days of reel to reel and cassette, this seemed more of a personal experience in sampling with some history thrown in…good info none the less but not fair to call it a history of sampling then go on a pretentious I like this and that and “throwbackthursday” bababoowie ramble

  6. Sampling is fun and pretty much anyone with a computer, smart device or old-school hardware sampler can do it. Some folks are more clever or skillful and can do more with it– recognizing potential in source material, and having a more established vocabulary to work with the different sonic, harmonic & rhythmic elements.

    As with other music-making apps, sampling is a blurring of the line between artist and audience; where a person can interact with media in less passive ways than just listening– but not quite as active as building everything from scratch, composing, or playing instruments. This is NOT an aesthetic judgement. People CAN and DO make beautiful music, and CAN rise to the level of skilled artist with sampling as their main expression. I think that the essence of the accomplishment of music making itself is shifting. Not that the older definitions are going anywhere, they just have been joined by new definitions.

    1. >People CAN and DO make beautiful music, and CAN rise to the level of skilled artist with sampling as their main expression

      People can make very enjoyable music sampling, but if they only source other people’s music they will forever be limited to the maximum potential of those other people. If stating today nobody generated new original music from scratch, you would see a steady and rapid decline in the “creativity” of “sampling-only artists”.

      I appreciate this type of artist as much as the next guy, but I have a hard time getting too excited about hearing them talk about big picture views of “music” and “artistic blah blah” when most of them haven’t even invested the time to learn more than a grade school understanding of music theory, composition and performance. This is to willfully remain a child in comparison to the wonderful life long journey of musical exploration.

      1. I like this post, but I disagree with your assertion that if no one created new music this would cause a decline in sampling creativity. Probably the opposite is true.

        Ultimately, with composition, we are using the same 12 notes, and a handful of different chord qualities to make most of the music we hear today. So if people are recontextualizing other recordings, AND using ever more granular excerpts of other material, it would open the field pretty wide again.

        Fortunately, new music is still being made. Paradoxically, it is both harder to find, and easier to access.

        1. “Ultimately, with composition, we are using the same 12 notes”

          Those using the same 12 notes are hopelessly stuck in the past. Kind of like civil war reenactors. Kind of fun, but definitely not keeping up with the times.

          There is a whole world beyond 12 notes. Limiting oneself to 12 notes is hopelessly irrelevant. It’s not even something that performers have ever done other than in trite academic exercises.

          1. You clearly misunderstand what “12 notes” meant. Perhaps I should have said 12 pitches. There are 7 white notes, and 5 black notes. And with those 12 pitches we get hundreds of scales, and 99.999% of the music that is made today.

            Yes, there are custom tuning maps which give us other tuning systems. That stuff is VERY cool and fascinating. But to call the system that 99.99% of composers are working with “like civil war re-enactors” or a trite academic exercise seems to indicate that you didn’t get the point. Perhaps you are talking about 12-tone music? (In which case, I agree).

          2. >Those using the same 12 notes are hopelessly stuck in the past

            News for you… if you sample people who use the same 12 notes, you are using them too! lol This is exactly my point. Everyone uses those 12 notes, or the microtones in between, whether you create them from scratch or sample someone who did. The act of digitally copying “12 notes” doesn’t somehow magically free them. And to be fair, we are all sampling now… but some people use that for more freedom. For example, if I sample random tones in the world, map them to the “12 notes” and then design some note combinations that blend into interesting chord changes, I have maybe not created something entirely new, but it is very much “me” in the mix, and I had a HUGE range of choices. If you come along and sample one of my chords, then pitch shift it a couple times for variance, you have an extremely limited range of choices and sonic opportunities. I could invert the notes of the chord. You can not. I could arpeggiate it in various ways, play it in other key ranges, on other instruments, modulate individual notes, and a whole host of other things. You can not. Or at least not without the telltale signs of digital shifting, which make these genres sound dated.

            Here’s another prime example. DJs/Producers, etc have no problem putting new words to their songs. That’s because they already know how to speak a language, and are fluent in it’s use. They use this very naturally to communicate through the art form. But so many of them don’t learn the language of music at any significant level… only enough to make a re-hash dance tune that pays the bills. But imagine if they didn’t! In this video a man had a real human experience, wrote some words about it, and then performed them live while recording them. Mark comes along and samples them, then puts them over yet another man’s piano riff. Imagine if that’s all he ever could do, never writing new words, never writing new piano riffs. He is directly dependent upon the other two people for his creativity, because let’s be honest, those two piece were already individually crafted to some rules and standards that made them presentable and palatable to other people, and so all the real work of getting them to fit together was already done. If you left him alone in an empty room, with no source material, no music would come out. Within an hour your could train at least 75% of that audience to do the same level of sampling Mark did before they left the room. But none of them would produce those lyrics (unless they had maybe been in the same experiences) and none of them would play the piano that well, unless they had already spent the hours to learn how. Mark is up there giving a talk as if he’s impressive and unique, but really he’s fairly algorithmic. The real impressive people were on the screen behind him.

            So back to my original post… everyone in this mix has a place, but I don’t have nearly as much interest or respect for people who don’t push themselves to grow and learn, and instead put down the very body of work they depend on as “limited” or “stuck in the past”. It may produce some fun poppy dance tunes, but it’s ignorant bullshit, and you can be better than that.

      2. I think sampling is more than taking just bits of other peoples music, it’s taking what is already there – from many different sources – and reforming / changing / evolving it – arguably the basis for most artistic expression, I don’t believe there is anything truly ‘original’ as you say. I would also argue that understanding of music theory (western?) composition and performance is focused on a very limited scope of understanding, not taking into account the vast field of sound creation and the different paths people take. I think you should judge artists by the quality of their work not their approach.

  7. Coldcut anyone?

    Sampling isnt just about taking other peoples sounds. There is a hole world of sounds all around us from birds to pots n pans, cars and planes.

    Dont just take what they give you.

  8. Sampling (to me at least) means having the ability to use the whole of nature, as well as the entire history of recorded sound as one massive, infinitely complex instrument. That excites me.

    I’ve yet to hear an argument against it that isn’t based on some people not being very good at it. To complain about sampled tracks being repetitive is like saying that pianos serve no purpose because you’ve only heard 5 year-olds playing them.

    1. In the graphic world, the analogy is cutting up bits of other pictures, or media and building a collage that is a new work. The whole of the new work is something quite different than the little bits that make it up.

      But if someone lifts a whole groove and lays it down and puts a similar song on top of it, then it is like using the head and wings of another artists picture of a bird to create the new “sampled” bird. As long as the original artist agrees and is compensated– then it is just a matter of re-packaging. But with the music world being as crowded as it is, it does seem to be a shame to keep repackaging things. Superman XXIV?

      It is important to consider where the lines are drawn between what is a sufficiently obscured sample, an homage, or outright stealing/profiting from someone else’s work.

  9. Sampling of this sort is almost frozen in its early era, where people got their asses sued off for “misuse.” Some objections had obvious ground to stand on, but the licensing fees people want for a drop-in can be ridiculous. I’d like to use a few tip-of-the-hat things here and there, but its always seen as the seed of a lawsuit, not merely a fan’s mini-homage. That’s a shame when we stand on a mountain of pop culture that could be plumbed, but I’ll stick to building my own material, thanks.

    The flip side is that sampling is also why we have a mountain of options in synths and, ahem, *samplers.* The sheer number of library choices, as well as the open-ended means to blend, distort or effect like mad, is like science fiction. So there’s the line. If I use a snip of something from “Futurama,” I’m a thieving scum, but if I build a monster synth in Kontakt, suddenly I’m this week’s Jesus. No problem. Sampling cartoons and James Brown appeared long after I’d already caught the music bug.

    1. Well, ahem, if you use a snip from the theme music of ‘Futurama’, you’re arguably thieving from Pierre Henry, just like Christopher Tyng did. Meanwhile, I still haven’t forgiven Mark Ronson for what he and Amy Winehouse did to The Zutons’ great song ‘Valerie’.

      1. I really dislike this sort of attitude. Fair enough you prefer the original version of Valerie, you don’t have to like everything but to say you haven’t forgiven him because their version is different from the original is an attitude that really annoys me. People hear different things in music and they reimagined the song with their own style and it was incredibly popular. To say one is superior to the other is incredibly arrogant

        1. Hey, well done! You really took my little personal comment and blew it up into a full-blown opinionated rant. Good for you.

      2. Ravel once said “My ability to plagiarize is limited only by my faulty memory.” I’ll give it to you for Pierre Henry, but then, we all draw from numerous sources. Some of them creep up on me out of the blue. The trick is to make a thing your own to such a degree that there’s no more question about who did what. Sampling is fairly easy, but there’s a whole different craft to making people wonder how you arrived at a certain flavor.

  10. At the very least sampling has turned plagiarism into an accepted art form. It could be called audio montage if you want to be nice about it.

  11. Technology has always been used and abused.
    A knife can be used to cut fruit, but it can also be used to harm someone.
    Sampling unfortunately harmed music.
    If you ask the inventors of sampling, Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie, they will admit that sampling was as a short cut to getting closer to natural sounds on a keyboard.
    Then people discovered it was also possible to sample breaks, which was first done on Owner of a Lonely Heart. They must have done it as a joke, not knowing it was going get out of hand by the time samplers were affordable.
    This speech BTW was completely irrelevant and taught the audience nothing about sampling.

      1. Right. Nor was Owner of a Lonely Heart the first sampled break. But I still appreciate Jays point, and largely agree.

        1. yeah, though kinda lost me on the owner of a lonely heart thing and peter vogel etc invented sampling… we all know it was pdiddy.

    1. I would agree that in spirit that’s what the artists believe they are doing, but the art form itself severely limits the results. Here we are decades on, and jazz is still producing new variations. Only a couple decades in and this form of sample already sounds dated and cliche.

      1. Jazz often sounds dated and cliche. I think hip-hop producers took some of the best elements of jazz and incorporated it into there music.

        the real question here is are we talking about the art of sampling or where do sample based artist source new materiel?

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