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ELEVEN SALIENT FEATURES OF "GOOD" MUSIC


"If it sounds good, it is good" (Louis Armstrong)

This quote probably sums it up. There's not much point in trying to express in words what the musically minded person knows instinctively. And I, for one, have always thought that verbal analysis of music or any other art tends to ruin your ability to appreciate the stuff. Anyway, whatever I or anyone else says about the characteristics of "good" music, everyone will inevitably interpret it their own way and conclude that their pet genre has all the essential ingredients in good measure. So this is probably going to be one of the most useless of the mainly useless items on this website.

First here are a couple of things that music does not have to have. It does not have to have lyrics. In my opinion the best music is purely instrumental, because words tend to act as a distraction from the musical content and prevent music becoming "transcendental" - the human voice keeps it down to earth, so to speak. On the other hand, considering entertainment value as a whole, as opposed to pure musical value, words can add a lot. And it must be admitted the interplay between words and music adds another dimension to the art. Therefore many people, especially those with a more verbal than musical mind, will get much more satisfaction out of music that does have lyrics.

"Berlioz says nothing in his music, but he says it magnificently" (JG Hunekar)

Secondly, instrumental music (and, for that matter, even vocal music) doesn't have to say anything or depict anything. In fact it could be said that to the extent that music brings images or verbal thoughts into mind it isn't pure music, because these side-effects are non-musical. But again, some people like to form these mental associations, there's some very fine deliberately impressionistic music around and it would take an extreme purist to denigrate it in any way. Personally I've no time for purists of any kind. Besides, some kinds of music, such as opera, ballet music and film scores, have a distinct agenda or role to perform, and I think the music should be judged with this in mind.

In fact, music doesn't have to have anything apart from the bare essentials that enable it to be classified as music. But opinions differ even on this point. Really it's just a question of terminology and all argument is fruitless. Still, I must concede that on questions of terminology I am a bit of a purist or, at least, a traditionalist. I don't like it when words change or expand their meanings too rapidly, because it leads to situations where we're no longer clear what we're talking about, and often we're left with no suitable word to express exactly what the word used to mean. For instance, consider the words "gay", "discrimination" and one that's undoubtedly on the cards, "marriage". (No, I'm not taking a side-swipe at anyone; I'm talking about language, not people. But if you detect a hint of resentment, you could be right.)

Unfortunately "music" is tending to go the same way - it's expanding its meaning too quickly. As a guardian of the English language, I personally wouldn't classify many avant-garde sound creations as music, on the grounds that they have no organised melody, no trace of traditional harmony, no rhythm and often not even a balanced structure. In fact there are some art-works claimed to be "music" which don't even have any sound!

Let's assume that all music contains at least sounds. One of the things that distinguishes music from mere noise is that it contains "patterns", or structures. There is one kind of sound structure of which most human beings, and, as far as I know, only human beings, have a very keen appreciation, namely relationships of pitch and harmony, i.e. differences between sounds described by such words as octave, semitone, minor scale etc. It is not just that some notes are higher or lower than others, but that any two "musically related" notes have a certain fixed pitch relationship to one another, which can be precisely defined in terms of the frequency of the vibrations that cause the sound. So remarkable is this human ability that some Greek philosophers thought that music and mathematics were simply different aspects of the same thing. Almost all cultures recognise this feature of sound in their musical heritage, even though there are small differences between cultures as regards the conventional spacing of notes (intervals) within an octave. To my mind, this fact lies at the very heart of music, and I would regard any concoction of sounds that does not, at least, depend on it in some way as being outside the bounds of music.

Another obvious feature of music is that it occupies a period of time, and that during that time there are structured changes in sound. Different sounds come and go, and usually there is a distinct metric, or beat (whether audible or not), against which the sounds are presented. Again, I doubt whether any creation that does not depend on the presence of a fairly simple metric could be called "music", though you might call it a "sound picture".

"There's a basic rule which runs through all kinds of music, kind of an unwritten rule. I don't know what it is. But I've got it." (Ron Wood )

So, given that all music by definition consists of a mixture of certain ingredients, such as melody, harmony, rhythm, tonal quality, form and dynamics, along with orchestration (if there's more than one instrument) and lyrics (if it's vocal), what are some of the main qualities that the mixture must have if it's going to sound "good" (to anyone with reasonably well developed musical tastes)? Here's my tentative list of eleven, along with very brief comments - all quite subjective opinions. (This list might look like fewer than eleven items to some people, and more than eleven to others. Well, on the one hand there are obvious relationships between some of the categories while on the other it's hard to find one word that adequately describes each category. Doubtless I will make changes over time - in fact, I already have.)

Franz Schubert
Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828), master of romantic classics
Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix (1942 - 1970), master of rock

These two geniuses have more than
fuzzy thatch and short lives in common.
No matter what the style, the best
output of every master of music
exhibits certain very general
attributes. These qualities are so
universal that most of them
apply equally to the other fine arts.
What makes music so special is
that it provides the resources to
flaunt every one of these qualities
to the fullest extent.


1.   Complexity / Variety - Good music has a high degree of complexity and internal variety. Minimalist or overly simple music can't do much at all for you. In general (and other things being equal) the amount of enjoyment you can get out of a piece of music is proportional to its complexity. But this expectation is tempered by items 2, 4 and 11. Anyway, other things never are equal. A simple but blissfully sweet tune can keep going round and round in your head, especially after a romantic night out! That's not so bad, is it? Besides, the ideal of "variety" should apply to your universe of music as a whole, not just to individual pieces. The wider the range of stuff you like, the better will be your musical life. You can afford to carry some knick-knacks and even a bit of rubbish along with the gold.

2.   Unity / Coherence / Integrity - Variety without unity means noise! In good music, all the bits and pieces cohere to make a satisfying "whole". A good piece of music is like a vibrant, happy society - it consists of all sorts of folk but they all depend on one another and they all get along just fine.

3.   Originality / Style - The best composers have an original, individual style and all the musical pieces they create offer something new. (With the vast amount of music around now, this is getting increasingly difficult.) "Original" doesn't mean "outlandish". If a musical piece is too far out, it becomes inaccessible (see 11).

4.   Organisation / Balance / Flow / Direction - A good piece of music is well balanced and interestingly organised, the melody flows and the whole thing has a sense of direction - it sounds like it's going somewhere. It makes a statement, so they say (a purely musical statement, that is). "Balance" means a lot of things, including orchestral or voice balance which, these days, is often achieved electronically.

5.   Sublimity / Transportation - Great music takes you somewhere else! It's mind-blowing, it consumes you, elevates you or whatever. I guess it's a bit like drugs, sex, surfing or meditation. Different kinds of music take you to different places. Some people reckon there are good and bad places, and that's what makes music good or bad. I disagree with this crowd - maybe they should loosen up a little. (But see Footnote 8 of "Top Music" for an alarming contrary view.)

6.   Climax / Tension / Resolution

“Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end” (Stravinski)
A good musical piece has points of tension followed by a release. In particular the piece as a whole usually has a climax and ends with a dispersal of remaining tensions. Harmony (and dissonance) is usually the main element involved in this. Pop songs often fade out instead of ending properly, while classical pieces often stamp home the final resolution with repetition or fanfare - as Igor Stravinski wittily pointed out.

7.   Spontaneous, Natural feel - The best music sounds spontaneous and natural, not forced or contrived. People will have their own opinions about this. Einstein once said that while Beethoven created his music, Mozart's was so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered. Others say listening to Mozart is like collecting shells along the beach. It's easy to see what they mean, but doubtful whether this puts Mozart in a class above Beethoven.

8.   Inevitability / completeness / non-arbitrariness – Good music leaves you with the feeling that all the notes are right and that even if you altered a small number of them the whole piece would be spoilt. This characteristic is more important with some genres than with others. For example, jazz is largely improvised, so a degree of arbitrariness is to be expected. But composed music cannot allow the same leeway – why bother composing it if it doesn’t matter exactly what notes are played? The fact is, however, that much composed music does sound like that, and this is especially true of modern music, which is governed by fewer rules and ... well, maybe it really doesn’t matter much what notes are played! Some kinds of music are just too easy to construct and require llittle skill or creativity.

9.   Excitement / Passion

"In opera, there is always too much singing" (Claude Debussy)
This is perhaps the most subjective aspect of good music. If a piece of music is incapable of exciting or impassioning you (or somebody), you'd probably say it's boring and not worth listening to. It pays to be reasonably objective here, and to realise that many, if not most, people are excited by stuff that you might find uninspiring. Mood swings also come into the picture. Personally (like Debussy and for the same reason) I'm not a great fan of opera, no matter what mood I'm in! But the drama of opera sends many people into ecstasy - which makes me envious rather than disdainful.

10.   Respect for Tradition - This is partly a concession to the "what is music?" argument and an acknowledgment that the greatest music comes from the past, but the truth is that the best and most popular music of today has its roots in traditional harmony and rhythm and follows most of the same principles that were used by Bach. There appear to be some absolute values that underly all good music.

11.   Accessibility / Attention grabbing - Good music must be accessible, i.e. comprehensible to the usual audience for that particular style of music. The composer must communicate with his audience. So it has to be ordinary enough for them to be able to appreciate it, and original enough to grab their attention. (A common way of getting and holding attention is to use distinctive motifs or "hooks".)

In the classical field, great symphonies such as Beethoven's 9th excel in all these qualities, but if you want an example of how not to compose a grand opus, listen to Sir Hubert Parry's Symphony no.2 in F – charming music, maybe, but after a few bars it becomes tedious. An example of a pop performance that doesn't hang together, because the guitar accompaniment is totally out of character with the vocal part, is the version of How deep is your love by Portrait.

The acid test of a great composition, I feel, is no. 8 (and this applies to jazz as well as classical music; in fact it applies in principle to any truly great work of art). Imagine a qualified person having to revise the score or transcription of a piece of music. Can he/she make changes that would improve it or, at least, make little difference (without altering the character of the piece)? If many such changes are possible, the composition is probably mediocre. It requires genius and/or experience and/or sheer hard graft to to create a masterpiece.

In fact, we could almost dismiss all this prattle and simply say that the measure of good music is the degree of talent that went into composing and performing it. But I'm not sure whether this would be a dismissal or a summary.

...And what makes Good Lyrics? - Meaningfulness and "Mesh" - I'm not going to make a list of qualities of good lyrics! I wouldn't have much idea, anyway. Apart from the sense of the words, the important thing is the way they mesh in with the music. Good lyrics don't just fit the melody, they reflect the passage of the music as a whole (and vice versa). Oh, I have the chance of a genuine side-swipe here! There's one pretentious genre of songs that sports lyrics that simply don't make sense. You've got it - those dreadful Christian songs ("white gospel", though often regurgitated by Pacific Islanders and other unfortunate communities polluted by white missionaries). I can tolerate porn and trash in lyrics, but there's nothing worse than emotionally charged blatant nonsense and lies, no matter how well it is written.

.......Dabs of Grue....10/12/2002 - 24/05/2011........................HOME