What is "good music" - Whatever we like?

All topics musical, not specifically piano-related

Postby Stretto » Fri Aug 10, 2007 12:13 pm

Dr. Zeigler:
I'm interpreting from your question that you are equating 'good music' with that music that will still be around 100 years from now or longer?

That's what I find difficult about the question. It seems you are getting at "what about some music makes it still loved, played, performed, and/or listened to 100 years later?". It sounds like you're saying if music transcends time then that must make it 'good music'. But not all music that lives on for 100+ years would be thought of by every individual to be 'good music'. Fur Elise is well loved and probably will never "die out", Canon in D, or non-classical, for example, "Amazing Grace". But some people probably can't stand these pieces so does that make them 'good music' because they are still around years after they were written or not?

Naming specific pieces as examples and why those particular pieces have lived on probably helps answer the question. I'm trying to think of some specific non-classical pieces of music that have stood the test of time as in 100+ years old - can anyone help me out?

I think 'good music' can only be determined and judged on an individual level.

Another thought, composers ability and training was mentioned. Could one define good music as a good composition and what would be the elements a good composition would have to have? Does music that transcends time have some elements in the composition of it that not all music has? I had a composition professor that was a diehard Beatles fan and made us analyze a Beatles song in music theory. He talked about how the Beatles knew what they were doing in abililty and knowledge of compositional elements such as elements of theory and not just composing a bunch of arbitrary notes just because they "sounded good". So would certain elements of composition be a reason why some music lives on while other music doesn't? Is that what made the Beatles music so popular?

On a personal level, I'm really picky about music and if I were to listen to a huge variety of music on radio, cd's, tapes, etc., etc. or play through scores and scores of different pieces and styles of music on the piano, I'm sure I would find way many more pieces that I didn't like than that which I did. When I have listened to classical music on the radio, this has been the case and I've often asked myself, "what is it about that piece that makes it still around and being played when it's doesn't seem that great"? Many of these pieces I would categorize as "not that great" on classical radio are not so much those that have an unsual sound to my ear like 20th century but those pieces that just sound like a bunch of notes all over the place. There's so many pieces, for example, on classical radio that I would say to myself, "those aren't that great" and only a minority that I would say, "ah! - absolutely love that piece".




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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Fri Aug 10, 2007 12:45 pm

Stretto wrote:"what about some music makes it still loved, played, performed, and/or listened to 100 years later?". It sounds like you're saying if music transcends time then that must make it 'good music'. But not all music that lives on for 100+ years would be thought of by every individual to be 'good music'. Fur Elise is well loved and probably will never "die out", Canon in D, or non-classical, for example, "Amazing Grace". But some people probably can't stand these pieces so does that make them 'good music' because they are still around years after they were written or not?

I think 'good music' can only be determined and judged on an individual level.

Could one define good music as a good composition and what would be the elements a good composition would have to have. Does music that transcends time have some elements in the composition of it that not all music has?

On a personal level, I'm really picky about music and if I were to listen to a huge variety of music on radio, cd's, tapes, etc., etc. or play through scores and scores of different pieces and styles of music on the piano, I'm sure I would find way many more pieces that I didn't like than that which I did.

This question isn't about what you, I or anybody else in particular happens to "like" at a given moment. I enjoy all kinds of music that I wouldn't necessarily tout as "music for the ages."

The fact that some people can't stand certain works doesn't disqualify those works as "good music." In fact, the question asked here hopes to remove personal likes/dislikes and analyze what it is about music that makes it last. If your standard is "I like it", then that's a perfectly good standard for you and the one you should apply when you decide what you listen to. It alone probably isn't a standard for "good music", however. But that's not what this thread is all about. We have several other threads that talk about one's "favorite pieces".

I think, by definition, music that lasts transcends the individual and the transient. Each new generation finds something new in it. Each person finds something new in it every time he or she listens to it. One of the reasons that older Baroque or Classical music is known to us is that those who make decisions about programming concerts, recording CD's, and preparing works for performance have adjudged those older works to be worth hearing. I'm not arguing that that is or should be the only standard, but rather, that enough people have adjudged that music worthwhile that it can be heard in various venues - even if we, personally, don't happen to like it.

I think I've said in several ways that good composition is pretty much a sine qua non for "good music." A brilliantly composed work speaks to many different people, in different places and times, in complex and ever-changing ways. Who Let the Dogs Out? is cute for a few minutes, but not many on this Board would contend that it is an example of great composition. :D
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Postby 108-1121887355 » Fri Aug 10, 2007 3:17 pm

Okay, personal preferences aside, I think it is universal preferences then.

Many people do not think of the technical aspect of music as 'musicians' may when listening. What appeals to the majority is variable according to the times.

Beautiful melodies, moving, happy, sad, or exciting melodies will win out for many. There are also many who prefer the 'contemporary' music of the 20th century. (In general, they are not my favorite choices). The CD I would chose to play would differ from day to day and my mood. I think that is true of most people.

As to exactly what makes music lasting? I don't know.

I do know that the popular music I grew up with, I have passed on to my children and to my grand children. My grandchild,11, plays "Summertime " well on the piano and well as other pop music, and my grandson, age 25, plays many of the pop songs his Mom and I sang. He played many when offered a job playing for college events.
My younger grandchildren, 7 and 9 are playing mostly folk songs and Disney, but I will continue passing on "The Umbrella Man", "Mairsy Doats", "Swinging on a Star" and many, many more.

So in my family, these pieces will live on!
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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Fri Aug 10, 2007 7:15 pm

loveapiano wrote:Beautiful melodies, moving, happy, sad, or exciting melodies will win out for many. There are also many who prefer the 'contemporary' music of the 20th century. (In general, they are not my favorite choices). The CD I would chose to play would differ from day to day and my mood. I think that is true of most people.

As to exactly what makes music lasting? I don't know.

Unquestionably, memorable melodies can contribute to the staying power of a work. That said, think of how many truly great works of classical music have melodies which are, to varying degrees, somewhat pedestrian. For example, Bach's D minor Partita for solo violin, one of the greatest pieces of music written for any instrument has a melody (theme) that is completely "abstract" and unsingable, even though the 3rd movement of it, using a different theme, has a wonderfully active melody. Most people would agree that Beethoven's melodies were often uninspired, even though his works are among the greatest of the classical literature. It isn't the melody alone which makes the work, but what the composer does with it that keeps our interest and that of future generations.

Expanding on what I've been trying to say about good composition, i.e. that it speaks to us in new and different ways each time we hear it, I would argue that a certain degree of unpredictability (or, perhaps, freedom) within the strictures of classical form helps make a work interesting to us. One of the reasons rock rarely lives beyond a generation is that it becomes predictable in its structure fairly quickly. Even something as "wild" as The Who's Won't Get Fooled Again, complete with its signature Roger Daltry scream near the end, is very predictable compared to most classical music.

Often, the test of a good composer is the ability to work some surprises into a, sometimes, very constrained form. A classic example is the Beethoven Triple Concerto, which must have a very simple set of themes, since, in classic concerto form, the orchestra and all the solo instruments must be able to state and restate the same theme, without it becoming boring. In this case, the orchestra, the cello, the violin and the piano must complete several statements of each of the themes in the work. This an incredibly difficult task for a composer, yet Beethoven pulls it off because he chooses simple themes that can be varied slightly in each instrument and with each statement.

By the way, I'd like to remind Guests in this forum that it is fully open to Guest posting. You don't have to join to be a part of this and other discussions in this forum. :cool:




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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Tue Aug 14, 2007 8:00 am

It's worthwhile to mention that sometimes even the greatest of music is forgotten. As I recall, the music of J. S. Bach had slipped into obscurity after his death and was re-discovered (and championed) only in about the last 100 years. I can't recall who was largely responsible for that, but perhaps somebody can refresh my memory. The classical literature is replete with other examples of music that is now a part of the standard repertoire that came back from oblivion through the steadfast work of someone in a position to champion it and see that it got performed and recorded. When we recommend music to our students or friends, we are playing a similar role in a much smaller sense.

This shows that "good music" is sometimes not apparent as such during a composer's lifetime or may be forgotten after his death. It's hard to imagine that we almost lost Bach's music from sheer inattention. Perhaps this means that sensibilities may need time to catch up to some music (though that probably wasn't the case for Bach's music).

One of my concerns about music is that so many American composers' works seem not to get their just due. I could cite many that I love that most people have never heard of. I wonder if, a hundred years from now, those will fade away or be rediscovered.

Many people will say something like "I know good music when I hear it." That's a good standard for them, but history suggests that a lot of important music will be unappreciated if too many take that attitude. Challenging oneself musically is just as important as challenging oneself in other areas of life. :)
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Tue Aug 14, 2007 1:31 pm

It was Mendelssohn who did the most to revive Bach's music. He was a prominent conductor as well as pianist and composer, and he mounted a performance of the St. Matthew Passion, among many other things.

I don't believe that anyone can simply say "I know good music when I hear it", because music speaks in so many different genres, and most of us have ears that are tuned to the style of the second half of the 19th century.

Stravinsky's "Sacre du Printemps" caused riots and fist fights during the premiere, but it's now considered a classic. After the premiere of Franck's D minor symphony, his colleague Charles Gounod called it "the affirmation of incompetence pushed to dogmatic lengths." And when the first performance of Beethoven's A minor Quartet, Opus 132, was played, the critic wrote that he'd heard Beethoven had been ill and "is obviously not yet restored to health."

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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Wed Aug 15, 2007 8:52 am

Dr. Bill Leland wrote:It was Mendelssohn who did the most to revive Bach's music. He was a prominent conductor as well as pianist and composer, and he mounted a performance of the St. Matthew Passion, among many other things.

I don't believe that anyone can simply say "I know good music when I hear it", because music speaks in so many different genres, and most of us have ears that are tuned to the style of the second half of the 19th century.

Stravinsky's "Sacre du Printemps" caused riots and fist fights during the premiere, but it's now considered a classic. After the premiere of Franck's D minor symphony, his colleague Charles Gounod called it "the affirmation of incompetence pushed to dogmatic lengths." And when the first performance of Beethoven's A minor Quartet, Opus 132, was played, the critic wrote that he'd heard Beethoven had been ill and "is obviously not yet restored to health."

Bill L.

Thanks, Dr. Leland, for providing all this information and the examples of how the definition of "good music" can change over time and with greater familiarity.

Your mention of the role of critics is important. With the Internet providing the medium, these days, everyone is a critic of something. The problem is that much of the criticism is worse than worthless, being based primarily on the personal characteristics of the reviewer rather than on an analysis of merits of the work. That's one of the reasons that we have such a well-defined and detailed review structure and process for reviews on PEP - to minimize personal elements and maximize verifiable information.

The historical record shows that the music critics (even the better-trained ones in the past) are often wrong, in both directions. The sad part is that, because knowledgeable and honest critics can perform an invaluable service in pointing out works that need more attention, we really need them. I would argue that they play a role in helping define what good music might be, though I think it's the performers (broadly construed) who play an even more important role in what music gets remembered and heard.

Assuming that's true, at least in part, what is it in music that makes performers want to perform it, now and in the future?




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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Wed Aug 15, 2007 11:57 am

This is another of those questions that have multiple answers. If the performer is enamored of the sound of the piano at its best--it's great possibilities of color and sonority--he may tend towards the composers who made the most of those qualities: Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Messiaen. Virtuosos who like brilliance will head for the flashier pieces of Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Prokofieff, et al, while those who are more inclined towards greater depth of musical content would play Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven Then the ones who like to explore new possibilities or obscure works might favor earlier, pre-Bach works or lesser known composers like Alkan or Turina, or off-the-wall stuff from Schoenberg, Ligeti or John Cage. Everybody has his agenda, and all must keep in mind what will find an audience.

Besides, I think few pianists are strictly just one type. Horowitz, for instance, was considered the great super-virtuoso of the 20th century, and many people came to see him turn the piano upside down. Yet throughout his career he programmed and recorded important works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Debussy, most of which had nothing to do with virtuosity.

It's a complex world!

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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Thu Aug 16, 2007 7:36 am

OK, let me try to put together what's been suggested as defining "good music":

1. Memorable melody
2. Popularity
3. Good composition (defined, in part, as exhibiting sufficient complexity to allow us to find new things in the work each time we hear it)
4. An element of "unpredictability" within the confines of form
5. A willingness by musically knowledgeable people (performers, conductors, composers, critics, teachers) to make sure the music is heard.

Let me suggest another that's particularly important for vocal works of all sorts. Just as classic books must speak to "universal" themes and interests, I would think that lyrics must speak to those same universal themes and interests. For example, the best operatic works have not only wonderful music but speak to common themes (love, sex, betrayal, power, rivalry, etc, etc). Many of the librettos for operas are almost comic in their simplicity, but the work of a great composer has made them memorable, nonetheless, through good composition and great lyrics.

Anything else?
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Postby Stretto » Thu Aug 16, 2007 8:15 pm

I feel the wording in the question and the original post on the topic is very "strategical" in wording to make a person "think" as your posts have that as their hallmark :D . What drives me "bonkers" about this topic and the one thing that makes me feel a discussion could go around in circles on is combining the word "good music" with "music that is still around 100 years later".

Well, this certainly ranks up there on topics we've had on the forums that really make a person think. :p
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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Fri Aug 17, 2007 7:45 am

Guest wrote:I feel the wording in the question and the original post on the topic is very "strategical" in wording to make a person "think" as your posts have that as their hallmark :D . What drives me "bonkers" about this topic and the one thing that makes me feel a discussion could go around in circles on is combining the word "good music" with "music that is still around 100 years later".

Perhaps, I've confused the issue by trying to define "good music" in part as that music which will last and be performed by future generations. I did this mainly to help people think about just what good music is and why we should teach it, as opposed to other works or genres. If it's helpful to think about it in some other way, by all means, do so!

Surely, good music means something different and more than just what is "popular" (say, in the Top 40) at the moment. I used the example of Who Let the Dogs Out? to illustrate the difference between what might be popular at a given time and what might constitute "good music". That song was popular for a short time and then disappeared (except for those who like to watch Frank, the alien dog, do it in Men in Black II). :D I don't have anything against the song or the movie, but I doubt that it will be remembered as good music at any time in the future. As Dr. Leland and I have both pointed out, sometimes truly great music is forgotten, so the mere fact that music is forgotten doesn't mean that it's always bad music.

The question of what constitutes good music is not merely academic. Music teachers around the world can survive precisely because they are some of the people who stand for good music and for learning to play it properly. If that weren't the case, you could learn to play piano and keyboards from your next door neighbor's teenage rock band member. In any case, this thread is about understanding, for ourselves, if for nobody else, what good music is and why is is important for us and others to make judgments about music. Our judgments might turn out to be wrong, but at least we've made the effort to understand them. :)




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Postby 112-1182392787 » Fri Aug 17, 2007 7:17 pm

I feel a bit out of my depth since I have only begun formal instrumental studies a few years ago, and did not pay attention to names of composers, their works, or know much about genres and am trying to catch up now. Random impressions through some of what has been written, plus some of my own impressions.

There is a thing about substance or lack of, and I don't think that simplicity is necessarily the factor. Much "popular" music seems hypnotic and lacking depth: you listen for a change in theme or mood, some variation somewhere in anything, and it never comes. That may be the point - it is background music while you are doing something else, and people don't know how to listen any deeper. It suffices. This would be the "not good" music, perhaps?

What gets performed, how often, where, surely would have a lot of factors, and I imagine that music of quality might be overlooked in favour of other music for lots of reasons. I don't know the ins and outs of the classical music world: politics of patrons, or whatever else might exist. In the old days the tastes of a particular prince, or even how great a businessman a particular composer was, including how socially adept ... could they be factors outside of the music in terms of what saw the light of day, and what has lasted?

To appreciate music one must be able to understand it. As an adult student I would opt to be widely and deeply taught, and that this would extend to music theory and history. Then there is a dialogue between what you learn, what you play, how you interpret it, what you hear in others' interpretations - perhaps this extends across genres and cultures if taken deeply enough. I have read just a little bit about Indian music, and understand that there is a complex structure and symbolism, even in choices of pitches. Unless there is some understanding of these structures, and an ear for them (how many of us can hear quarter tones and smaller nuances?) can we appreciate this music?

Someone younger and wiser than myself broke through my own prejudices. All popular modern music is not made equal. Some of it has a lot of symbolic musical structure to it, if you know what to listen for ( don't): a series of chords in heavy metal which suggests a hidden well known melody cleverly composed, the use of the Indian device of pitch alteration to create mood (quarter tones and less) rather than harmony, a "simple" song about meaningless life (I forget the meaning of the lyrics), but if you listen, the accompaniment stops unresolved and begs for the final notes to complete a cadence that never comes - a musical statement to the lyrics.

Is it possible to turn this question around by not starting with the music, but the knowledge - and then find music that will be examples to this knowledge? Or could there be a variation to this idea? Can (should?) a question of "good music" be asked? I cannot judge what is good music, only what attracts me. That would be music that has an element of depth to it, and this depth might exist in something very simple. I seem to understand that the simple is especially difficult to do well, because we can hide imperfections beneath the flourishes.
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Postby Stretto » Fri Aug 17, 2007 8:56 pm

o.k. - I came up with another defintion of "good music" for this thread:

Good music is that which lives in the mind and heart of an individual until the day they die.

Such music classified as "good music" in an individual's mind may last in that person's mind for their lifetime (which if that individual heard a song they liked at 5 years old and lived until they were 80 or longer, there you have close to 100 years :D ).
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Postby Stretto » Fri Aug 17, 2007 9:32 pm

Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Editor wrote:. . . good music speaks to us on many levels that we slowly uncover each time we listen to a work. Thus, the experience is new each time. As I've said, most pop music lacks that kind of depth.

In pop music, there's a lot of depth in lyrics. The "tune" and lyrics combined can bring a lot of meaning and and depth to a song. Perhaps not depth in the sound but depth in the meaning. Lyrics can speak to us on many levels that we slowly uncover each time we listen as well accompanied by a tune that evokes the emotion of the lyrics. The simplist, most shallow tune can often speak more depth than the most complex of music.

That brings up another thought: much music that has lasted through the years is that which is easy to remember. A piece of music that people have a hard time remembering how it sounds, or the words is less likely to stick around. People can remember a simple song like "Mary had a Little Lamb". The first section of Fur Elise is easy to remember as far as how it sounds but how many people could remember how the whole piece sounds or even realize there's more to it than the part most everyone recognizes.




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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Sat Aug 18, 2007 9:08 am

pianissimo wrote:Can (should?) a question of "good music" be asked? I cannot judge what is good music, only what attracts me. That would be music that has an element of depth to it, and this depth might exist in something very simple. I seem to understand that the simple is especially difficult to do well, because we can hide imperfections beneath the flourishes.

This is, I suppose, a legitimate question, though not the one asked to start this thread. However, it has immense implications. If we shouldn't ask what good music is and how we can identify it, then all music criticism becomes invalid and meaningless, since there is then no meaningful standard by which to judge which music should be programmed and recorded.

The music director of a symphony orchestra might also have broad tastes in music, and lacking any standard for what might define good music, might program a mixture of rap, hip-hop, C+W, etc., all played from CDs. Would you go to a symphony program of that sort, when you were expecting Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Copland, etc.? There wouldn't be anything wrong with such a program, but it would simply be repeating what can be heard every day on thousands of radio stations.

What about the piano teacher who labors every day to give her students the benefits and knowledge of a range of good music in a variety of genres? I guess, in this view, she should just ask the student what they like and help them play that. Is that teacher doing her job properly? I would argue that one of the most important functions that a teacher can perform is to introduce students to music they may not have heard, so that they can broaden their appreciation of all kinds of music. If there aren't some kinds of standards for good music, why is it that the majority of teachers include Beethoven, Bach, and lots of other classical composers in their teaching repertoires? They didn't all get together and decide what to teach, so they must have had some shared standards, even if they were implicit rather than explicit.

If some real judgments about what constitutes good music can't be made, why is it that you can find hundreds of different recordings of certain classical works and few or none of others? There must be some unspoken, if not tacit, consensus that these works are of such importance that multiple recordings by different artists with different interpretations are justified (and will sell). By contrast, while rock music sometimes has multiple recordings of a few great songs, only one tends to be in vogue at any one point in time.

I understand and even sympathize with those who say, in essence, "good music is what I like." I've said several times in this thread that that is a good standard for what one chooses to listen to. I've also said that I, myself, like and listen to music that I don't really expect people in the future will listen to or care about. However, I don't suggest to other people that they should embody those items in their own musical experience, whereas I would argue that most people should at least experience to a small degree works of Beethoven, Bach, etc. If they don't like them, that's fine, but at least they've been given the opportunity to experience works that so many other people all over the world and in many different times and cultures have adjudged to be worthwhile.

There are many classical works, not to mention rock, sacred, bluegrass and other genres, that I like. I'll die someday and my preferences will go with with me. Does that mean that all the music that I liked suddenly ceased to be good music at the moment of my death? In at least some cases, the recordings will still be around and people will still buy them and new recordings of those works will be made after I'm gone. I think overwhelming evidence indicates that some of the music I like will live on precisely because it has that quality that transcends time and individuals. I just don't believe that my standards alone (or for that matter, any other single person's) are both necessary and sufficient to define good music, in a general sense, as opposed to an individual one.

Others, apparently, disagree with that proposition and are entitled to do so. On the other hand, I believe that good music identifies itself by its qualities, not by what I think of it. The purpose of this thread was to help identify some of those qualities, even though exceptions can be cited in every case. Perhaps, no standards for "good music" exist, but I think the world behaves as if there were some (many), even if unstated and unwritten. :)
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