What makes good music?

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I keep thinking that, having worked in music all my adult life, I should be in some position to answer this question. But somehow, whilst I seem to be quite good at recognising it when I encounter it, theorising what it is that makes music good remains intractable.

I’m not the first person to puzzle over this of course. There are a number of theories knocking about, all of which have something to offer, but none of which are wholly satisfactory. For example:

  • Great music is about emotion. Good opening bid there, often attributed to Delius, but clearly not unique to him. And a lot of great music does indeed stir our hearts. But not everything that carries emotion is necessarily great music – it’s possible to get quite carried away with pleasant junk. So emotion is a necessary-but-not-sufficient condition at best – and I’m sure there are those who dispute its absolute necessity too (Stravinsky in his more objectivist moods, for example).
  • Great music is about Unity. This comes in various flavours: the Schenkerian fundamental line or Réti’s motivic/thematic unity, for example. These theories do well with the repertories they were derived from, but account less well for other styles and genres. If your point is that a particular subset of the western classical canon is inherently greater than music from any other time in history or place in the world, you may find this satisfactory, but those of us who have found good music further afield find them rather wanting. There’s also the problem that you can find Schenkerian processes going on in tonal music that even (especially?) the most ardent classical music snobs regard as not necessarily the best (Stainer’s Crucifixion anyone?).
  • Great music is about deferred gratification. This is how Leonard Meyer used his theory of musical meaning derived from gestalt psychology (implication-realisation model) to explain musical greatness. Fabulous and fascinating essay, but I have always had a problem with a theory that managed to conclude that western classical music was better than the music of ‘primitive’ peoples. (So who says we’re competent to judge that?)

Now, the trouble with all these theories is that they’re better at describing than defining. They all capture things that are genuinely to be found in some fabulous music, but none are absolutely required for music to count as top-notch, and all can be found in music that is merely adequate.

So, it was with some glee that I encountered the view expressed in This Blog Will Change the World that the value of music cannot be demonstrated intellectually, but only ostensively. That is, we can point at examples, and say, ‘that’s great music’, ‘so is that’, ‘that’s okay, but probably not in the same league’, but our quest to theorise what defines these examples’ value is futile. I should add that I was particularly excited to read this because I came across the post only two days after I had first learned the word ‘ostensive’ and so was particularly eager to find a context in which I could use it, since it looked like such a potentially useful word.

(That reminds me, I’ve not yet used the word ‘fungible’ in this blog. An omission that needs correcting.)

Of course, this smells a little like a cop-out. To say that good music can only be identified ostensively is a little like saying, ‘well it’s just how I feel, okay? It’s all a matter of personal taste’ (you need to say this with a toss of your head and a pout to get the full effect).

But there’s a difference between bloody-minded subjectivism and the consensual nature of a culture’s attribution of greatness. Yes, there will be differences of opinion, but these come in the context of a complex public negotiation of musical value through the experience of real examples which then constitute the context in which our private tastes develop. We can define musical value ostensively because that’s the process by which we come to understand it.

I would suggest that musical "value" is maybe a better gauge for musical significance than "greatness." Value is determined one soul at a time and is dependent on context:

1. When and where do you live?
2. Where must you go to listen and why?
3. Do you have time to take in the whole piece?
4. Do the structural and expressive aspects meet your standards?
5. Is the cultural background (subtext) of the music known and important to you?
6. Does this music serve a foreground or background function as you listen?
7. What is going on in your personal world or the world at large that impacts this piece?

After all these (and other) implied questions are answered, the numbers are crunched. If enough folks want to keep hearing the piece, then it is "great."

Our job as musical leaders includes dusting off "great" pieces from bygone times and doing our best to retell and restore the contexts that were so valuable to listeners in the past.

Coda:(about context)

I had to conduct a choral rehearsal the day after "9-11." We had Jane Marshall's "For Our Country in the folders." I invited the choir members to sing the piece entirely for their own hearts. During that particular noon hour, it was, in my opinion, the greatest choral piece on earth.


wow, that must have been a beautiful and rare moment to be there in person listening to it would have been awesome. Great to hear music moves people in such a strong way. Great Point Robert. I totally agree with you. Thanks for sharing, Josef Horhay.

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