What makes music good?

I put this up for discussion two years ago, and the way the threads are going at the moment (plus the fact that we a lot of very new and colourful characters on this forum now) tells me to re-open the discussion.  I also expect a lot of constructive argument and emphatic disagreement with my examples.

A friend of mine once told me that there are three criteria that contribute to the quality of music.  They are:

Intellectual Content
Emotional Content
Pleasant to listen to

But in order to make the music good, it must contain at least two of the above elements.  Therefore, for example (and these are my personal examples, seeing as it's all subjective anyway, so you may not agree with them).

Schumann's "Dichterliebe" contains intellectual content and emotional content, but for me it is not pleasing to listen to.  However, I must concede that it is good.

J Strauss's "Blue Danube" contains no intellectual or emotional content, but it is pleasing to listen to, yet according to the above criteria, it is not good.

Gerhard Stabler's "Red on Black" has intellectual content (of a fashion), no emotional content (except tears of laughter within the audience, which the composer actually expects and appreciates) and isn't terribly pleasant to listen to.  Therefore, one out of three means....not good.

Mozart's "Requiem" is filled to the brim with intellectual and emotional content, and is absolutely sublime to listen to.  So I guess it must be very good.

John Cage's "4'33"" has neither intellectual or emotional content, neither is it particularly pleasant to listen to, due to the fact that you can't hear anything.  So.... you know what the answer is.


Please discuss

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  • I personally adopted the measure of a good piece from what I learned from one professor that said, " a master piece is a piece of music that stands the test of time, that after many many years their is still a desire from some one to listen, learn and disseminate said piece of music."

    You can judge it based on either how emotional it makes one feel or how intellectual it is, or even how pleasant it is. Because alll those things are subjective. You can only judge a piece based on your own intelligence, your own emotions, and your own preferences for what is pleasant. Most people dont find Ligeti's requiem pleasant, but I listen to it almost once a week on my ipod while I go back and forth from class as a pleasant piece of music in my ear.
    On a grander scale, you mention the famous Cage piece 4'33". You clearly express what you think about it, and it clearly doesnt fit your or your friends criteria of what makes music good, however, enough people liked it to make it the piece everyone knows. It was deamed good enough for the a world famous orchestra to NOT ONLY perform the piece for a packed audience (who knew very clearly what they were getting themselves into and bought the ticket to sit in on the piece) but to be TELEVISED on national TV for the world to see. (and for those who dont believe me that this happened heres the video of the performance https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUJagb7hL0E) It as left such an imprint that if not enough people stood behind the piece, we wouldnt be talking about it right now.
    To really define what is good, we would have to define music all together and set guide lines as what can be music and what cant be music, and for anyone that tried knows its almost impossible with out excluding many great pieces of music out of the definition. We are attracted to not just the emotional content of music or the intellectual content, but sooo many things. 4'33" has a philosophical appeal that isnt on your criteria list, but you have to admit many pieces out their that have that as well.
    So what makes music good, nothing. When it comes to art, it isnt the creative part of it that can really be judged and codify as a whole. Its a personal decision that each of us makes when we first hear a piece.
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  • Nice to see my discussion had the desired effect. Although, I would say Kris has given it a more positive outlook, plus a better set of criteria. (I did not say that I agreed with my friend's analogy. I just gave my own examples to match it).

    I don't really care how many textbooks refer to "4'33"", or whether it's been televised being 'played' by a world renowned orchestra (I've already seen the performance on youtube). The only reason it was played, is because it was the first composition (if you can call it that) of its kind. It doesn't mean it is good. I was once in a seminar being given by an American composer (forgotten his name), and he stated quite objectively that the "minimalists were cheats". I then asked him how he felt about "4'33"", and surely that must be a form of cheating. He said, "maybe, but John Cage did a lot of good things." I then conceded that well, maybe he got away with it because he had already proved himself in his earlier years as a skilled composer and a worthy performer. This guy shook his head and said, "no, I knew him, and he couldn't play a single note".
  • Most text books dont really refer to 4;33" very often aside that its a piece by John Cage that explores the idea of silence and ambient noise that happens naturally. I know I was attracted to the piece because of that idea, the philosophy behind the piece. I dont think people still play it to this day for the novelty of it, the novelty has worn off a long time ago and I doubt people pay good money for novelty anyways either nor do they televise it. Novelty in the classical and art world I would say died with Cage, Warhol, and Cunningham.
    As far as that American Composer that bashed minimalism, his name wouldnt happen to be John Winsor or associated with him? Because him and a few other composers have begun to blame their lack of success on the experimental composers of the 60s and 70s using that argument that "they are cheats". They mainly do this as a means to elevate their own music above others be creating a false since of music superiority through the genres and styles. That composer you were speaking of seems to be apart of what ever this movement of music superiority, and I have serious doubts that he knew Cage personally, because if he did he would have known about the MANY piano pieces he wrote and percussion pieces he wrote that are, for lack of a better word, have notes, notes he would have had to play him self and know how to read. If he did know him, his relationship had to have been greatly exaggerated.

    Simon Godden said:
    Nice to see my discussion had the desired effect. Although, I would say Kris has given it a more positive outlook, plus a better set of criteria. (I did not say that I agreed with my friend's analogy. I just gave my own examples to match it).

    I don't really care how many textbooks refer to "4'33"", or whether it's been televised being 'played' by a world renowned orchestra (I've already seen the performance on youtube). The only reason it was played, is because it was the first composition (if you can call it that) of its kind. It doesn't mean it is good. I was once in a seminar being given by an American composer (forgotten his name), and he stated quite objectively that the "minimalists were cheats". I then asked him how he felt about "4'33"", and surely that must be a form of cheating. He said, "maybe, but John Cage did a lot of good things." I then conceded that well, maybe he got away with it because he had already proved himself in his earlier years as a skilled composer and a worthy performer. This guy shook his head and said, "no, I knew him, and he couldn't play a single note".
  • Tyler, there are so many points that I disagree with you about your last statement, that I'm gonna have to reply tomorrow.

    Tyler Hughes said:
    Most text books dont really refer to 4;33" very often aside that its a piece by John Cage that explores the idea of silence and ambient noise that happens naturally. I know I was attracted to the piece because of that idea, the philosophy behind the piece. I dont think people still play it to this day for the novelty of it, the novelty has worn off a long time ago and I doubt people pay good money for novelty anyways either nor do they televise it. Novelty in the classical and art world I would say died with Cage, Warhol, and Cunningham.
    As far as that American Composer that bashed minimalism, his name wouldnt happen to be John Winsor or associated with him? Because him and a few other composers have begun to blame their lack of success on the experimental composers of the 60s and 70s using that argument that "they are cheats". They mainly do this as a means to elevate their own music above others be creating a false since of music superiority through the genres and styles. That composer you were speaking of seems to be apart of what ever this movement of music superiority, and I have serious doubts that he knew Cage personally, because if he did he would have known about the MANY piano pieces he wrote and percussion pieces he wrote that are, for lack of a better word, have notes, notes he would have had to play him self and know how to read. If he did know him, his relationship had to have been greatly exaggerated.

    Simon Godden said:
    Nice to see my discussion had the desired effect. Although, I would say Kris has given it a more positive outlook, plus a better set of criteria. (I did not say that I agreed with my friend's analogy. I just gave my own examples to match it).

    I don't really care how many textbooks refer to "4'33"", or whether it's been televised being 'played' by a world renowned orchestra (I've already seen the performance on youtube). The only reason it was played, is because it was the first composition (if you can call it that) of its kind. It doesn't mean it is good. I was once in a seminar being given by an American composer (forgotten his name), and he stated quite objectively that the "minimalists were cheats". I then asked him how he felt about "4'33"", and surely that must be a form of cheating. He said, "maybe, but John Cage did a lot of good things." I then conceded that well, maybe he got away with it because he had already proved himself in his earlier years as a skilled composer and a worthy performer. This guy shook his head and said, "no, I knew him, and he couldn't play a single note".
  • I did say previously that music was subjective. In fact it is probably the most subjective of all consumate offerings. More so than food, humour, cinema and even sexual attraction. In 1981, there was a song released in UK Hit Parade that got to No 1. It was by an up and coming new wave cum gypsy outfit called Dexy's Midnight Runners that were original, talented and who wrote all their own material (very important). They used violins, bongos, etc and they were a really tight outfit worthy of respect and a loyal following which they duly received. However, this particular song "Come on, Eileen" which in all fairness, I should have liked because it was lively, positive, cheerful and catchy, but I couldn't bear to listen to it. I really loathed the track with such toxic venom that I would have gladly exorcised every single recording of it and condemned it to the core of the planet. I really hated it that much, and still do. But if anybody asked me why, I just couldn't tell them. At the opposite end, another very popular group in 1984 gatecrashed the charts with loud overproduced music that wasn't even played by them in the studio. It was just the work of the groups singer, Ian Dury's backing group, "The Blockheads" and a very talented producer called Trevor Horn. Their name was "Frankie goes to Hollywood". They were completely talentless, their songs relied on all the production effects that Horn could muster. They even issued t-shirts with words emblazoned upon them saying "Frankie says....." which became the height of fashion. They were everything in a group that I thorougly disapproved off, a big commercial rip-off. But I loved the songs. I couldn't get enough of them.

    Also, there is the element of nostalgia that can play the biggest part in the emotion a piece can evoke. If one meets a beautiful girl/boy during a time when a song is being over-played on the radio, the chances are, you will like that song for ever (as long as you don't play it to yourself too much).

    So please try and take the above analogy with a pinch of salt. The formula isn't mine, but the examples are are, and I could not possibly expect everybody to agree with me.

    Cheers,

    Simon
  • Even so, as much of a moose-hunting, jingoistic, war-mongering lunatic Sarah Palin is. Her physical attraction is quite radiant, is it not?

    Phillip Park said:
    Referring to the bit on John Cage, he is on a whole level altogether. I don't know if you have heard any other works by him other than 4'33", but he mostly deals with sounds to achieve certain effects. If you have seen any of his scores, it is all a series of obscure symbols that relate to certain inflections and what not. You seem to have it made up in your head that John Cage took himself extremely seriously as anything even remotely close to the traditional composer, which he was not.

    Also Simon, how ironic of you to say Kris was the only person who did not assume the conjecture was your own personal opinion. If you look at his post, note that he says he "differs slightly" with "your assessments" in that "music is not a container for emotion". If anything, that is the most blatant connection of the above assessment with yourself in this entire discussion. Perhaps it is that radiance Sarah Palin gives by association lol.

    Simon Godden said:
    Nice to see my discussion had the desired effect. Although, I would say Kris has given it a more positive outlook, plus a better set of criteria. (I did not say that I agreed with my friend's analogy. I just gave my own examples to match it).
    I don't really care how many textbooks refer to "4'33"", or whether it's been televised being 'played' by a world renowned orchestra (I've already seen the performance on youtube). The only reason it was played, is because it was the first composition (if you can call it that) of its kind. It doesn't mean it is good. I was once in a seminar being given by an American composer (forgotten his name), and he stated quite objectively that the "minimalists were cheats". I then asked him how he felt about "4'33"", and surely that must be a form of cheating. He said, "maybe, but John Cage did a lot of good things." I then conceded that well, maybe he got away with it because he had already proved himself in his earlier years as a skilled composer and a worthy performer. This guy shook his head and said, "no, I knew him, and he couldn't play a single note".
  • You know, a lot of people think subjectivity is lazy and convenient, and they'd be right. Problem is, it's STILL the way of many things. We create objects and then want there to still be some objectivity. Perhaps there is when we focus and study and have that 'AHA' moment... but then you have to realize how simple and ridiculously easy it is to wash all that research and time away...

    Introduce another person. lol

    Kristofer Emerig said:
    No.
    Your point on the subjective nature of "good" is valid, but accepting that anything is better the the B minor Mass would require a rethinking of my entire world view. I'm just too lazy for that now.
    What I mean to say is that for the sake of my own psychological stability, I assume the supremacy of the B minor Mass to be an objective and scientific reality.

    Fredrick zinos said:
    Is Carmina Burna really "better" than Mass in B Minor?div>
    What makes music good?
    I put this up for discussion two years ago, and the way the threads are going at the moment (plus the fact that we a lot of very new and colourful ch…
  • AH, Cage's 4'33" is LOADED with intellectual content, and depending where it is performed (it was originally performed in a reconstructed barn in the woods) it may be extremely pleasant and carry some emotional content.

    As for emotional content, well aside from some very fundamental properties (low loud bass notes do ellicit tension and anxiety as we are hard wired to sense it as danger, sing-songy (eg limited pitches recurring) medium to low volume melodies tend to soothe as it is usually what we associate from birth as our parent's way of communicating safety and well-being) you are getting into a very grey area. I don't dispute it is important, but we still know too little to "measure" a work's emotional content. In some countries, red roses meant you were being cheated upon. A musical equivalent is some of the Far East folk melodies using scales similar to our major scale have very "sad" and "disturbing" lyrics - and no irony is implied.

    Intellectual content is also difficult to determine. David lewin has done much to connect math and music theory. And his research can reveal the utmost complexity in what sounds simple in the mathematical relation of pitch and timbre. On the other hand, some pieces that seem to have intellectual content may be remarkably simple - so what do you mean by intellectual content, greater complexity? Or how well a piece follows a convention?

    Anyway, thanks for raising this topic. However, this is a gigantic topic that covers aesthetics, theory and music psychology. Not sure how meaningful the end result will be.
  • Alas, I cannot recall what Russian composer once uttered something like(paraphrasing): "Neither simpler or more complex music is inherently superior." That would have been a great one to start with.

    I tend to disagree with any absolutist approaches to classifying good art or bad art. Indeed the two categories of good and bad is not enough for me, when it comes to quality measurement. And the three criteria that the original post put forward is also too obscure for me to be satisfied.

    Especially the emotional content bit. Not only do different people attach different emotions to certain compositions, but also a single person might hate a piece at one stage of his/her life and adore it in another. Indeed I could simply keep listing works that I used to enjoy and now don't or vice versa. For the same reasons, I think, one cannot determine "truly great "pieces by seeing if you enjoy them the longest or if they stand the test of time. You may very well grow bored of them at some stage. Or perhaps they just won't evoke the same emotion as they did in the first couple of listens.
  • Music happens only when the sound reaches the ears of a listener.

    My music enters my ears, so it is actualized as music.
    Bach's pieces were performed again after that, so they continued to be actualized as music.

    Notation is just guidelines for playing music.

    In a comparison: if some words are on a paper then they are not speech. Speech only occurs when somebody actualizes them as audible material.

    That's how I see it anyway...
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