What Makes "Good Music" Good?
By Mickie Willis
Recently I was asked to review a book by John Winsor, titled, Breaking the Sound Barrier, which I was happy to do since I think its a fine book with lots of interesting ideas and solid observations, and the topic the need for a literary mainstream music is one which interest me greatly. In his book he proposed that there can be an objective basis for asserting that some music is better than other and he proposed a fascinating basis, which I wont presume to synopsize here; buy his book and read it. But that started me thinking about this matter of evaluating music and defining some as better or worse, and that this has always been a troublesome thing. Other arts disciplines share this difficulty, of course, and while some aspects of aesthetics and criticism may apply to many art forms, others are quite specific to the uniqueness of sound occurring over time.
Although Im sure many disagree, I wholeheartedly believe that some music is in ways that can be more-or-less universally and objectively considered good or bad. There is precedence for this in nature some smells, for example, almost universally are considered bad and others good. And while the middle ground may be occupied by an array of differences that allow for preferences and disagreement, there still seem to be tendencies for widespread agreement in such things. And Anthropologists are discovering that there is broad similarity across many cultures and ethnicities, about what is considered physical beauty or handsomeness among we humans. That doesnt mean, of course, that the same is necessarily true when it comes to artifacts or objects of art created by humans. But music consists of sound, and certainly there are some sounds that are almost universally disliked a crying baby, for example, or the sound of fingernails being scraped across a blackboard. So since our sensitivity to sound seems to be subject to some universality when it comes to what is considered good or bad, it follows that music should also be subject at least to some degree to universal standards.
There is a widespread notion these days, fostered in our current social climate that disdains value judgements, that all music is good and differences are just matters of cultural bias or personal preference. But, critical evaluation is different from personal taste and preference. Many things in life are this way: We may be quite fond of someone, yet recognize their faults, faults that are universally acknowledged as undesirable extreme rudeness, for example; someone may treat us well, but be unacceptably discourteous to others. We are conflicted in such cases, so we distinguish our intellectual, judgmental awareness from our personal feelings, feelings that may not be entirely influenced by intellect. And in a similar way, sometimes we are attracted to music for a variety of emotional reasons: nostalgia for the past, perhaps an association some music has with a personally significant time or place, while recognizing that the music apart from the unique meaning it has for us has comparatively little value, or least less value, to others. We all are subject to such influences and most of us are able to distinguish these two distinct ways of responding to music. Many people do not, however. Many listeners are only concerned with what they like and do not question the why of it, and couldnt be less concerned with what might be objectively considered good or bad. All that matters is that they like it. And thats fine and understandable. The troublesome thing is when what one likes, based entirely on personal, individual attraction, preference, predisposition, . . . whatever, is considered what is "good" in the objective. And this is exactly how many people approach music. We all have experienced this, understand it, accept it may even approve of it. But if we were to acknowledge, or at least concede purely for purposes of discussion, that there can be some objective criteria applied to music to justify on bases other than our personal preferences - that some is better and some worse, what should they be? John Winsors ideas were quite well thought-out and compelling. But I suspect they may not be easily grasped by some of the very people who most commonly confuse personal taste with qualitative judgement.
Since Im not as high-minded as John Winsor and spend much of my time railing against pop music and the untoward influence of the broadcast media and entertainment industry, I probably should have an objective basis to justify such strong opinions about the relative worthlessness of most pop music if Im not to commit the same transgression of confusing personal feelings with evaluative judgement. And, as a practical matter, in conversations with others its handy to have some criteria, some widely accepted if not universal criteria that can be applied to any music (since certainly there is excellent pop music and poor "classical music") to reference and frame discussions. So I offer some factors we may consider when talking with others about music, particularly with those who are not musicians or do not have significant musical backgrounds, but who sometimes hold strenuously to the notion that what they like is good because they like it.
This is surely not a comprehensive list, nor is it intended to be; I wouldnt be that presumptuous. There have been volumes published on aesthetic criticism in music and other arts, and doubtless, many dissertations too. Im sure other authors have different criteria and many readers of this little piece will have strikingly different views also. But its a brief, "quick and dirty" list offered as a starting point for thought and discussion.
Mickie Willis, composer and jazz pianist, received his D.M.A. in Music Composition from Louisiana State University, studying with Kenneth Klaus, James Drew, Don Freund, and Dinos Constantinides. He composes for live concert performance and has created music for films and videos using MIDI instruments. His concert works include an oratorio, three symphonies, five works for chamber orchestra, four string quartets, two sets of piano variations, one oboe sonata, compositions for various other chamber ensembles, songs, and jazz compositions. His commercial works include a one-hour suite for synthesizer, music for ten films and videos, and television commercials. His recordings include a commercial compact disc and two cassette tape releases. He has completed four commissioned works for the Louisiana Sinfonietta, and was the 1999 Louisiana recipient of the MTNA commission for composition. He is also a writer with many published articles on music and other subjects, and one book in print. He is the Director of Music and Education Programs for the Louisiana Division of the Arts.
For more information and to hear samples of his music, visit the website: http://www.e-universe.com/lmfhome/mwillis.htm
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