Menu Close

Good Music / Bad Music

Image of Louis Armstrong

Are there objective criteria against which Art and Music may be measured so as to determine its quality? Or, is the critical assessment of Art and Music a purely subjective enterprise, affording anyone the right to say most anything of any work of Art?

As in most cases, the Truth encompasses both extremes (in paradox) as well as all the space between and beyond them!

Few topics in Music Theory evoke such passionate debate as the question of “Good Music” and “Bad Music”. Some theorists suggest that the only true arbiter of such serious matters is “Time” (“time will tell”). And again, there is some truth in this. It is rare for a contemporary critic, be they learned or not, to possess the ability to accurately and consistently assess works of Art in the time of their creation.

Yet, as a practitioner and teacher of Music Theory, I have often been placed in the position of deeming something good or bad (typically, homework assignments; or compositions to program for concerts). Not infrequently, students would reply to any negative comments of mine by saying “Well, that is YOUR opinion. I happen to like it!” (I should have added several more exclamation marks!) I always then take the time to explain that it is not MY opinion which I share with them, but rather centuries of musical aesthetics – from my teachers, their teachers and their teachers. I represent a musical tradition for them and serve as a guide in their own exploration of what “Beauty” of sound sounds like.

And perhaps a word or two on the word “beauty”. In a previous post, I defined music as “aesthetically organized sounds and silences”. I explained that the word “aesthetic” references “rules of ‘Beauty’”. I ALWAYS have students put the word “beauty” in quotes, so as to remind them that I do not reference “pretty”, but rather, the rules of what is aesthetically pleasing – be it pretty or ugly (sorry for the dualistic and simplistic descriptors).

Yet, there are pieces of music that are not good music, or not “as good” music as other pieces. Even great composers wrote “bad” pieces – including Beethoven. Some composers were so vehemently opposed to “bad” music, especially their own, that they would physically destroy entire large compositions (the Master copy) to ensure that such an inferior work would never be passed down in history to represent their name. One such composer was Paul Dukas (born in 1865, Paris and died 1935, Paris).  He is the composer of the famous work “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (made famous in the Disney animated musical movie Fantasia). We will never know of the many pieces he penned which did not meet his high bar of excellence to be spared the fireplace.

To make matters more difficult, some music is composed such that it is more “accessible” to the audience’s ear. Other composers do not care about accessibility and write exclusively for their own ear and pleasure. The latter group clearly requires the distance of time to better qualify the merits of these compositions.

Imagine, though, that on this continuum of bad to good music, there must necessarily be a large (actually, the majority) group of composers whose music falls short of “the stellar best”, but which has been spared the label of “bad”. We rarely, if ever, hear such works. Our concert halls seem to be reserved for only the “warhorses” of the highest caliber. Mozart and Brahms and Debussy and Bach pieces fill concert programs. But where are the works of Salieri – Mozart’s contemporary – a composer of significantly less talent (than Mozart), yet a major talent of his time? Would people pay to hear a concert of Salieri’s music? Perhaps not, when they can, instead, hear Haydn and Mozart! But if conductors program only the crème-de-la-crème, how are we to recognize the magnificent aesthetic achievements in these works, if there is no comparison to lesser works? These lesser works have their own merit, but simply (perhaps sadly) do not rise to the level of stardom possessed by most works of Beethoven and Mahler and Copland.

Another aspect of the “good/bad” debate is adherence to rules. It is taught that, in following aesthetic rules, an artist learns to avoid that which is not aesthetically pleasing, and to gravitate toward that which IS aesthetically pleasing. And yet, so many of the great composers, in their greatest works, broke the aesthetic rules of their time! But we must understand that, in “breaking” rules, they simultaneously “created” new rules. Debussy is quoted as saying “Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art”.

Beethoven’s first symphony breaks the most fundamental rule of music (at the time), namely, “begin and end with the chord of the tonality” (so as not to confuse people). His first chord for the symphony in C major is NOT C major (as he was taught to do), but a C7 chord – a dominant chord which actually leads the ear AWAY from C major! His professors thought that this first symphony was not only bad music, but not music at all!!! And yet, Beethoven’s ear created a new aesthetic. And thus, new music is born (or “found”, as some composers are fond of saying).

Yes, personal taste can still get involved in the discussion, allowing one person to take issue with another  person regarding a piece of music, a particular composer, or even an entire genre of music. But the arch-governing principles, the “aesthetics” (rules of Beauty), are ever in force, working simultaneously as deep foundations as well as fillagree to respectively ground a work while freeing it.

We might ask “Who, then, is ‘qualified’ to deem music good or bad?” Is it the professional, the music critic, the artists themselves, or is it the “consumer” of the Music? I would suggest that there are different levels of qualitative assessment. I am not at all qualified to assess most pop music, especially current pop music. Others would be less qualified to assess a classical string quartet piece. And of those, there is a wide range of assessment qualities – from mediocre to supremely sophisticated. Simply put, the concept of “good/bad” is somewhat relative. I am still an advocate for the objective and academic approach. Not all agree with me.

Image of Claude Debussy

We are in the debt of Artists of all kinds who, through their imagination, craft, inspiration and connection to the soul of life, reveal Beauty in its countless forms and manners, unlocking the human spirit and connecting it to the Source of all Beauty, our Creator God.

May we be open to the experience of new Music and new Art as it expands our understanding of “good” and “bad”, teasing us to explore the depths of human expression, the sole Domain of the Fine Arts!

Note that we have here been debating the qualities of a “composition”. What about “good” and “bad” performances of pieces??? That… is the topic for next month’s post!

© Copyright 2021 Michael Kamenski, Milwaukee, WI. All Rights Reserved.