What Is Good Music?
John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
xperiencing good music is a critical part of piano musicianship and training, and one of the best reasons for learning to play. It's not only enjoyable, but helps us keep in sight a goal and reason for learning to play the piano. However, understanding what the words "good music" might signify is not as simple as it might appear.
I will offer some thoughts in this article about how we might define what "good music" really means and what elements of structure and content might distinguish it from the much larger totality of musical experience. As with all such matters which involve judgments about complex topics, this article will not discuss all aspects of music that might be relevant nor will it cite every work or genre that merits inclusion, nor can it offer opinions that all would agree with all the time.
For those who would like a broader set of opinions and ideas on this matter, I would recommend a careful reading of a thread on PEP's Forums of the same name, the longest on the Forums with over 90 posts. Partial quotes of my posts to that thread constitute much of this article. The full thread has a more extensive discussion from a number of thoughtful and knowledgeable musicians and educators.
Good music, of any type, transcends individual tastes and transient "fads".
There are many ways that one could define good music, at least in an operational sense. For me, and many others, an operating definition of good music would have to include the qualities of "universality" and "timelessness", perhaps above all others. In this article, I take universality to mean that good music will be appreciated by people in many different parts of the world with many different native musical experiences. That's not to say that all people will like the music all the time, but, rather, that a wide range of people from many different cultures and musical experiences will recognize certain works as being exceptional, even if they are outside of ordinary experience for those people. Timelessness in this article takes its normal definition, i.e. that such works will continue to be appreciated by listeners tens or even hundreds of years after the works are written.
By these criteria, good music implies much more than that which appeals to individual tastes and transient "fads". Each new generation finds something new in good music. Each person finds something new in it every time he or she listens to it. I'm not arguing that timelessness 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 or appreciate it.
The universality and timelessness criteria alone would pose a special problem for new or newly discovered works, since they haven't had the time to become widely known or performed. I would argue that musicians and music critics (often musicians themselves) play a vital role in helping good music that is new become recognized. One of the reasons that largely forgotten Baroque or Classical music is known to us is that those knowledgeable people who make decisions about programming concerts, recording CD's, and preparing works for performance adjudged those older works to be worth hearing. One of the biggest problems for the composer of new music, especially the composer of orchestral works, is simply finding an interested orchestra music director. That music director must make an informed judgment about the quality of the music and its worth for a costly premiere without ever actually hearing the work performed by the orchestra, prior to making the decision. This is a good example of how a talented person can "hear" the music in his mind, completely divorced from the performance, and make a personal decision about its worth, based on the score alone.
There are many who say, in essence, "good music is what I like." 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 on a day-to-day basis. It alone probably isn't a standard for a general definition of "good music", however. The fact that some people "can't stand" or simply don't know certain works or genres can't be said to disqualify those works and genres as "good music" in the larger sense intended here. The "I like it" standard is good for personal preference, but would such a standard help us expand our musical vistas or develop discernment of music generally?
Surely, good music means something different and more than just what is "popular", even to many people (say, in the Top 40) at the moment. The example of Who Let the Dogs Out? illustrates 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 as "immortalized" by Frank, the alien dog, in Men in Black II). I don't have anything against that cute song, but I doubt that it will be remembered as good music at any time in the future. Most kids now, some ten years later, don't remember or care about it. A very few Top 40 tunes remain played and are re-recorded many years after they were written (some of the Beatles songs for example), but the overwhelming majority recede into obscurity, remembered only by those who grew up with them. I enjoy lots of popular music, but an honest evaluation would probably come to the conclusion that only a tiny fraction of it deserves "immortality."
If popularity alone constituted a meaningful definition of good music, virtually no music that we consider "classical" would be considered good music, since the overwhelming majority of people in the western societies have never even heard classical music (let alone those in non-Western societies). Even among those that have, only a minority would say that it appeals to them. Non-classical recordings far outsell classical recordings. Such a view seems to fly in the face of the fact that there are thousands of new recordings of classical music every year for works that may be several hundred years old. By such an entirely personal standard, any music whatsoever in any genre we have never heard would not be considered good music. I believe the personal standard is far too limiting in trying to define good music.
I have said, when asked, that I couldn't name "least favorite" piano works, because my appreciation changes over time as I become more familiar with a work. Does that mean that, for me, the work was poor music, but became good music as I became more knowledgeable about it? Or does it mean that, for some teenagers, who only like rap or hip-hop at this point in their lives, that Beethoven or Chopin works aren't worth knowing? I'm not criticizing anyone who likes or prefers music other than classical, but simply pointing out that popularity can only be a small part of the equation.
What distinguishes great music that will live on from the fads of the current day? Should we try to teach ourselves and our kids how to be discerning, without trying to change tastes, per se? What distinguishes those works that will be performed a 100 years from now, no matter what genre, from the massively greater number that will be largely forgotten?
Probably most of us would say that a theoretical tabulation of good music would certainly include much 20th and 21st Century music (jazz, some rock, new age, bluegrass, C&W etc.), as well as much classical music, including sacred music. An example of "good music" that isn't classical is bluegrass. Some of the music is decades, if not centuries, old and is still played regularly. It isn't high-falutin', but its survival and growth in popularity shows that it isn't a fad. It's classic and good music in the best sense of the term.
Sacred music and anthems are special genres of music, which, like the other genres, have good music as indicated above and music which is popular for other reasons. Anthems like the Star Spangled Banner are certainly remembered, but is it only because they are good music or because they are imbued with nationalistic significance separate from their musical significance? The music for the Star-Spangled Banner was originally a British drinking song, and, as I understand it, a not terribly significant one in that role. I'm not arguing that anthems are bad music, but that it is often hard to separate the national significance from musical significance. Similarly, beautiful hymns like Amazing Grace have lived a long time and will probably live a lot longer. I would argue that Amazing Grace and many, many other sacred music works, qualify as good music, both because of its wonderful lyrics and disarmingly simple music. However, there are many hymns which are heard only in certain sects and are essentially completely unknown in others. Others were popular in the 19th Century, for example, but are rarely heard now.
Rock and big-band music have borrowed extensively from the classical literature. For example, the introductory theme of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, 1st Mvt., has appeared in a big-band tune, "Tonight We Love". Tchaikovsky borrowed several themes from Russian folk music for the Piano Concerto No. 1. Similarly, the beautiful melody from the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No, 2, 2nd Mvt. was the music for the Eric Carmen song All by Myself in the 70's. Many, many such examples could be cited.
There has always been this sort of blurring at the areas of overlap between genres, precisely because good music is good music all the time and lives on, even if in somewhat different guises. As I've indicated not all music is likely to have any significant staying power. Rap music, for example, lacks melody entirely or has an exceedingly simple one which emphasizes rhythm at the expense of other attributes. Does this mean that rap is bad music? Well, that depends on whether or not you like it. Does it mean that some of it will be considered classic fifty years from now? I suspect that a small fraction of it will, but most will be forgotten, with parts of the style co-opted in some ways in other genres.
Melody - Most people would probably mention great melody as a hallmark of good music. 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 (and transcribed for just about any other instrument, including both piano and orchestra), has a melody (theme) in its massive Ciaccona (Chaconne) that is completely "abstract" and unsingable, even though the preceding Giga, using a different theme, has a wonderfully active melody. Many 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.
Composition - 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. A well-composed work will still be seen as such, even if performed poorly. An example of what good composition can do with simple themes can be found in Bach's (incomplete) keyboard work, The Art of the Fugue composed of 14 fugues and 4 canons on the same simple theme in D minor. Although each variation gets progressively more complicated and rich, the same theme is the basis for all. Although all the hallmarks of good composition are far too extensive to describe here, many people will be able to recognize it when they hear it, separate and apart from their personal tastes.
Unpredictability - I would argue that a certain degree of unpredictability (or, perhaps, freedom) within the strictures of musical form helps make a work interesting to us. One of the reasons rock songs rarely live beyond a generation is that they becomes predictable in their structure fairly quickly. Often, the test of a good composer is the ability to work variations into a, sometimes, very constrained form. A classic example is the Beethoven Triple Concerto for piano, violin and cello, which must have very simple main 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 stale. In this case, the orchestra, the cello, the violin and the piano must complete several statements of each of the themes in the work, with the cello given the priority position because of its darker timbre. 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.
Lyrics - Let me suggest another element that's particularly important for vocal works of all sorts. Just as classic books must speak to "universal" themes and interests, great 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.
Interacting attributes - Much "good" music in most genres will share many of the same qualities (attributes), though not necessarily to the same degree or in the same relative amounts. Moreover, they will interact with one another. For example, in a work that has a strong and memorable melody, our reaction to the melody may catch our attention before the composition as a whole does. In other works, we may admire the structure and creativeness of the composing more than the melody at first (e.g. the main theme from the Chaconne of the Bach Partita in d for solo violin), but come to love the abstract and unsingable melody as we learn the work better. We respect both works but for different reasons (and in different ways at different levels of understanding), even though we sub-consciously consider some of the same factors in evaluating them. "
Cross-culture recognition - Ravi Shankar, the famous Indian sitarist, was the subject of much adulation at the famous Woodstock rock music festival of 1969 when he played classic Indian ragas for the audience. It's fair to say that the overwhelming majority of people at Woodstock had never heard Indian music prior to that appearance. Would an Indian band, playing American rock music, have the "same effect" as an American band playing the same work? Should Bach or Beethoven be played only by Germans or are German performances of German composers necessarily "definitive"? If any music is, by any definition you prefer, good music, does it become bad music because it is played by one non-native to the culture of its origin? A cursory consideration of these questions would probably lead most people to the conclusion that good music will have a universality that goes beyond the culture of its origin.
Endorsement by musicians - Also, good music stays around because it is identified, taught and performed by those who know music well to others. Rather than say that the music lives out of popularity, I would say it lives because it continues to speak to a part of each new generation in ways that most music doesn't and can't. I guess, in a certain sense, that's a form of popularity, but certainly not the kind that sells pop records or turns its performers into idols (all too briefly).
Pedagogy inclusion - 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. It is not very likely that a child will "gravitate" to good music instinctively, if, as is true for most children these days, they never hear it in most of the media or at home. 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.
I would like to think that those of us who attend musical performances can have a real impact on the perception of a work in the long term. Sadly, our opinions are almost never heard, except among the relatively small circle of our friends and families. The people whose opinions can really count in influencing the perception of a new work are the critics, broadly construed, because their views reach a wide group of people, and some influential musicians, because they are in a position to make decisions about which works get played.
The importance of criticism can be taken to tell us something about defining good music. If some meaningful 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. If good music can't be identified by some generally accepted principles, even if applied unevenly, 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 role of critics is important, but not foolproof. With the Internet providing the medium, everyone can be a critic of something these days. The problem is that much of this criticism has limited value, being based primarily on the personal characteristics of the reviewer, rather than on a rational analysis of merits of the item. 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 even trained music critics are often wrong, in both directions.
Critical commentary has resulted in the improvement of numerous works by composers. 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, simply because they choose to program and perform it.
Many people tend to look upon "classical music", "good music" and "serious music" as being synonyms for one another. Yet, it's important to remember that many of the works that we consider classical music today were highly controversial when they were first performed. Perhaps the most well known example is that of the Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz, which resulted in a riot at its first performance in 1830, because it was so different from Haydn or Mozart or even Beethoven. It is now regarded as a truly great work of programmatic music, with orchestration that is often used as a prime example in composing classes.
It's also worthwhile to mention that sometimes even the greatest of music is
forgotten or misinterpreted. The music of J. S. Bach had slipped into obscurity
after his death and was re-discovered and championed
Felix Mendelssohn. 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 recognize its value, promote 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, which was "popular" in his time). The fact that the music died and was later resurrected is good evidence that it has the qualities of good music.
Neither does the performance define "good music" in
any meaningful and general sense that I can see (as opposed to judgments of
that individual performance specifically), nor does good music define the
performance (i.e. music recognized by many people as good doesn't assure
that every performance of it is good). It can't be about an individual
performance, per se, since everybody hears different performances of, for
example, the Beethoven 5th Symphony. I don't see it as suddenly becoming bad
music, just because I don't happen to like a particular performance or
interpretation, or for that matter, as becoming good music because I enjoy
another performance. The music stands on its own in my judgments about its
qualities. I think most people would characterize a particular performance
that they liked as "a good performance of the Beethoven 5th" rather than
saying that "the Beethoven 5th has become good music now because I like that
I'm not devaluing the crucial role of the musician in bringing the music to life at all. Rather, I'm saying good music will be recognized as such by many people, who will have expectations of the performer to render it in a manner that does the work itself justice. The quality of a given performance reflects on the performer(s), not on the music. Of course, if the music itself is poor by their standards, most performers won't want to perform it and it will die out.
The interpretation of a work, particularly classical, but also works in other genres, can make a considerable difference in how we view it. When the monumental Shostakovich 5th Symphony first appeared in 1937, it was subtitled "A Soviet Artist's Reply to Just Criticism." The immensely popular work was played for many years all over the world as a stirring and fast-moving "tribute" to the Soviet system and people, in Russia, as well as elsewhere. Then, shortly before his death in 1975, Shostakovich indicated in an interview that his intent with the symphony had been to portray the sufferings and heroism of the Russian people under Stalin prior to WWII. The 5th Symphony was anything but a tribute to the Soviet system. With that knowledge, the whole interpretation of the work all over the world suddenly changed from a fast-moving, bright sounding, stirring one to a much more deliberate, heavy sounding work, more indicative of Shostakovich's true intent.
The Symphony No. 5 was good music before and is good music now, but its perception and performance was changed completely when Shostakovich straightened out the record, even though the score was the same throughout. Good music encourages different interpretations with very different emotional impact attached to the different interpretations. Of course, each listener puts his own perception into hearing the music, as well.
I use classical examples a lot just because their history tends to be both richer and better-documented than many other genres. Nonetheless, non-classical works can be just as important in helping us to develop both discernment and a better understanding of what good music really is.
Some of the qualities of good music which I have discussed include:
Many other qualities might be listed here (beautiful lyrics for vocal music, "catchy" tunes in pop, presence of universal concerns), but good music usually will manifest some or all the listed traits.
One can cite many "exceptions" to one or more of the members of the list above in works generally acknowledged to be "good music". However, even considering those exceptions, a closer examination will show that the work in question has many or most of those traits and, perhaps, important ones not on the list. To the extent that a work may lack some one or more of these traits, it's often because the composer has tried to stretch the limits of music by intentionally omitting them (e.g. the atonal works of the 20th Century). The important question is not whether the list is complete or lists items not important in some works of good music, but that good music will have some elements that will be found in common in many works of good music.
The important thing is to approach each new work, no matter what the genre, with an open mind and, thereby, broaden one's musical experience. That open-mindedness should go both ways among generations and be encouraged by those of us who are old enough to see the value of even those views we disagree with. Kids should hear classical and other forms of good music, just as adults should try to maintain some contact with the popular music scene (for example). The question is not whether everybody should be entitled to his or her own tastes, but whether everybody should have the opportunity to explore fully exactly what those tastes might be. I still like most of the music I listened to as a teenager, but my tastes are far broader now than then, mostly because various people made the effort to expose me to more and different music. I can't begin to express my gratitude to them for that effort.
The question of what constitutes good music is not merely academic. Music teachers around the world stand for good music and for learning to play it properly. Parents put out good money to allow their children to experience good music while learning to play. Record companies invest millions to produce many recordings and interpretations of good music, while lesser music will, at most, be in vogue for a short time and then die.
This article has been about understanding, for ourselves, if for nobody else, what good music is and why it is important for us and others to develop discernment, knowledge, the ability to make judgments about music and then choose to listen to at least some good music. Our judgments might turn out to be wrong or too limited, but at least we've made the effort to understand them. This article is not intended to provide a universal definition or paradigm for good music. You may disagree with some or most of what I've offered here. If so, this is a perfect opportunity for you to view and add your thoughts to the thread on PEP's Forums of the same name. Meanwhile, enjoy whatever music you like and learn more about other music - it's all about you!