Sunday, September 2, 2012

What Makes Good Music?

When we initially started this blog, we aimed to discuss, among other things, what exactly constitutes "good music." This idea has always seemed highly elusive to me, perhaps because what I think of as "good music" is itself elusive.

Really fantastic music doesn't fit a recipe or mold, and although it often meets certain expectations and most likely feels inevitable, it also surprises its audience with freshness. The day after the concert, usually you can still hear "good music" in your head--not because it's repetitive or catchy necessarily, but because the sounds have left a tangible impression. This is my best effort at offering some sort of definitive classification. Perhaps its vagueness is appropriate, as the definition can be applicable to all kinds of music, not just "art music."

Implicit in my definition is the idea that cliché can be found in any genre. There is banal new art music just as much as there is banal pop music. In fact, I think we've all been to enough new music concerts to be familiar with that sort of new-music-y sound. The pieces that stand out at new music concerts tend to be the ones that don't sound "new-music-y" at all. Instead, these memorable pieces have their own fingerprint.

One can have a memorable musical fingerprint in any genre (and often memorable musical fingerprints transcend genre). Björk works within the pop music idiom and David Lang works within the art music idiom...both make incredibly original and compelling works. They occupy different genres (although their categorization is, of course, debatable), yet share a spark of originality and vision. Their music has character.

The more that I study and teach both theory and composition, the more I appreciate how much good composition doesn't necessarily seem to be about proper harmonic progressions and resolutions or a well-laid-out formal structure (of course, these things can, and often do, help). I've been thinking recently that good composition is more about figuring out a really specific sound world and letting it make the rules for itself. 

What do you think makes good music?

Posted by Natalie

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