Sound Good to You?

Sound Good to You?

Listen with caution—This song will be stuck in your head for the rest of the day.

In the wake of the recent premiere of a piece for medium-size chamber ensemble, I’ve been forced to consider a problem I’ve been putting off for years: My music just doesn’t sound good enough.

It’s not that I think it isn’t good enough, it just doesn’t sound good enough. I’ve invested most of my self-improvement efforts in refining my experiential sensibilities, read Schoenberg instead of Rimsky-Korsakov, and ignored the obvious: How does it sound? I’m reminded of a former bandmate’s reaction to the forgettable mainstream rock opus “The Reason” by forgettable mainstream rock act Hoobastank; he commented that the song is awful, but when the video played on MTV he couldn’t stop listening because it sounded so great. (I almost have two degrees in music. Howard Benson, who produced that Hoobastank record, has a bachelor’s in materials engineering, and he knows more about sound than I do! I demand a refund.)

In part, it’s a problem of scale. I generally write for small combinations of instruments; clearly, however, one can’t compose for twelve instruments the same way one composes for two or three. Twelve-voice counterpoint exercises (a fair characterization of my recent piece) are not necessarily exciting listening, especially if they don’t take full advantage of the ensemble’s sonic possibilities—possibilities which, in retrospect, are much more varied than I’d considered while writing the piece.

What to do? I think the first step is to lose my hang-up about octaves. After two years of intense conditioning as an undergraduate, I have an almost Pavlovian knee-jerk when I see un-cancelled octaves in atonal music. I haven’t written a doubled instrumental line in probably five years. The second step is probably to study pieces that do sound good and try to discern why. At that point it’s just a matter of writing new pieces that sound better. Easy, right? Just ask the dude who produced “The Reason.”

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28 thoughts on “Sound Good to You?

  1. kmanlove

    At first, I thought you were talking crazy in the same way that saying “It’s not that I think my food isn’t good enough, it just doesn’t taste good enough” is talking crazy. But, then, I realized that my Italian relationship with food prevented me from realizing that food can be good despite not tasting that good.

    Good sounding, amazingly orchestrated music does have that seductive appeal, especially when it is actually employed in well-written music. Here, we run into a worthwhile comparison with the visual arts.

    Good visual art does indeed have substance, but it also has something that draws you in. It has something intriguing; it has mystery. Good art will engage all levels of experience, and maybe that’s what you’re lacking in your own music. The surface value of things shouldn’t be overlooked. It certainly shouldn’t be so overly explored that you ignore the rest of what makes art great either. There does need to be something in there that makes the viewer or listener stop dead in their tracks. There needs to be something that tricks them into wanting to know more.

  2. pgblu

    Octave cancellation
    How do you cancel an octave? Erase one of the notes? Add a sharp/flat/natural? Add a quarter sharp? Transpose one of the notes by a tritone?

    I was trying to think of a piece of music that sounds bad but is good. I was having a little trouble. Then I settled on Schoenberg’s Variations op. 31. There are no octave doublings in that piece. In fact, the strategies of row disposition result in some “impossible” orchestration, such as triple divisi contrabasses in the lowest register. It’s so bad and yet so irresistibly “logical” that condemning it on the grounds of bad orchestration is to miss the point.

    One can hear the piece as a study in clarity (even as it is a study in the relation of meter and row form, etc), and the famous divisi passage is a kind of “extreme point” of non-lucidity. The fact that octaves are considered bothersome but the essentially unison use of string choirs is okay — is a contradiction that one has to accept as a by-product of the logic.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that the avoidance of octaves does not guarantee greater “atonality” nor does the inclusion of octaves suggest unwanted “tonality” — this is one of the oldest grandmothers of all misconceptions in connection with atonality; even Schoenberg never stopped being flexible in this regard.

    I assume this will not come as a surprise to you, but I’ll also say that if a piece sounds bad, then it won’t sound better by adding some octaves. You laugh, but the way you’ve stated your situation does call out for exactly this fatuous rejoinder. And yes, I have heard pieces where the composer attempted to save the day by re-“orchestrating” something that was already dead. That was, in fact, me in another life.

  3. siconesis

    I am happy someone addressed this problem (and it is really a problem). Paraphrasing Morton Feldman, composers, specially since the middle of the last century, are more concerned with how a piece is made than how it really sounds like. The mathematics of music has taken over the physics of it, which amounts in many cases to boring or exasperating logical excercises through sound (that’s me, not Feldman).

    What to do? I don’t know for sure, but we can start by listening first and then thinking.

  4. marknowakowski

    “Excuse me, Dr. X, but isn’t your music just a bit too beautiful?”

    Such was the question leveled by a student at Dr. X during an academic interview… it’s a true and tragic story, and perhaps the answer to your question. (Dr. X, by the way, is a real academic that we share in common.)
    It’s my hope that 50 years from now, most of the lies taught to us “young composers” are rejected, buried, and limited to the research of obscure musicology. I’ve had numerous teachers try to force-feed me the notion that Boulez is as good as Mozart. It isn’t. One did math, the other wrote music.
    When audiences and performers can’t stomach our main-fare even fifty years after the most sonically radical acoustic music was written, is it perhaps time to admit a few mistakes?
    The reason your afformentioned pop-song “sounds good” is because the songwriter and producer paid attention to the basics of good composition: it has quickly discernable elements, is clearly organized, and makes use of its sonic space well. If you can do that with “twelve-voice counterpoint”, then you’re a genius the likes of which has never been seen.
    One last thing: what’s the point of using twelve unique timbres, if none of them will be used in unison to create even more unique timbres? Such combinations are beautiful!


  5. Colin Holter

    Funny you should mention Mozart and Boulez – in my opinion, Boulez sounds better than Mozart, but Mozart’s music, especially the operas and quartets, is better. I’m in the Virgil Thomson “pretty monotonous and monotonously pretty” camp when it comes to PB. I think that what my friend identified about the Hoobastank tune that sounded so good to him had nothing to do with the song’s composition, but a lot to do with its production – maybe the vocals were EQ’d just right and there was a peak at some magical frequency in the mastering and the hi-hats were just crispy enough and the bass was punchy yet warm. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about (and pgblu is exactly right: No amount of octaves are guaranteed to do it). For what it’s worth, I think people are playing Boulez’s music better now than they did in the 50s, now that they’re not afraid to play it like actual music, which it absolutely is, instead of a “math problem.”

    P.S. If Dr. X is who I think he is, he’s one of the best at negotiating the “sounds good/is good” question, in my opinion.

  6. jonrussell20

    Of course music should sound good! If it doesn’t, you have absolutely failed as a composer, no doubt about it. Of course there are different opinions about what it means to sound “good”, for some people it’s Boulez, for some it’s Madonna (and some of us like both). And there’s certainly more to a good piece of music than that surface good sound; but a good sound is without doubt a prerequisite. If you’re the composer and even _you_ don’t think it sounds good, well, back to the drawing board, that piece was a failure, pure and simple. It’s kind of shocking to me that we even have to discuss this. What the heck is going on over there in academic music programs?? What could possibly matter more than how the piece sounds?? Last I checked, you can’t see, smell, touch or taste music, nor can you have it injected directly into your brain so that you can appreciate it’s deep structures directly without having to deal with those pesky sounds that mess everything up. Sounds are all we’ve got!

  7. RT

    pretty monotonous and monotonously pretty
    Actually, it was Stravinsky (in one of his last interviews in the NY Review of Books) who said, “Am I the only listener who finds Pli selon pli both pretty monotonous and monotonously pretty?” Unless Robert Craft is reading this and might finally like to take credit for that bon mot…. Right or wrong as an evaluation of Psp, the line does “sound good.”

  8. jbunch

    Just out of curiosity Colin, do you think that the ensemble interpreted the piece as you had wanted them to? In my experience, the musicians’ ability to access the aesthetic/sonic intent of the material (and not merely of the composer) has an enormous effect on their ability to create a convincing/balanced/nuanced representation of that material. Unfortunately I wasn’t there for the performance so I can’t add my 2 cents directly.

    Although I can confirm the ludicrous nail-biting over writing octave doublings. In a recent Sax and Piano piece I even found myself writing a melodically charged fugato section with said octaves in the piano right hand. The piece was based on a 12-tone row, but somehow things like f-minor-9 chords accompanying cheesy-ass Sax licks kept creeping into the piece. It even ends on a d-minor chord in the piano (only slightly de-centered [?] by a screaming d in the sax). The whole time I wanted to back up and reshape the row into nice well-behaved little (014)’s and (016)’s to make things more acceptable to my neo-modernist sensibilities. In the end, the thought of misusing the 12-tone row and allowing those repressed sentimentalities to surface make the piece a little more true to my own personality at the time (that of an aesthetic slut). I want people to hear the anxiety there, the conflict/confusion that informed the piece. Now if I could just get the damn thing played (it also features razor-sharp hocketed quintuplet counterpoint between the two players).

  9. davidcoll

    you CAN see music! and sometimes you can smell it, and sometimes, depending on the situation you can touch it. Of course it matters how it sounds but last time i checked we’re not all the same person. I wish sometimes people were less scared of failing.

  10. Colin Holter

    Actually, it was Stravinsky (in one of his last interviews in the NY Review of Books) who said, “Am I the only listener who finds Pli selon pli both pretty monotonous and monotonously pretty?”

    I stand corrected. You have to admit, though, it sounds like something Thomson would say. He liked those symmetrical quips. Please don’t hold this against me in (ahem) the future.

    How can music “be” good without sounding good?

    Because music isn’t just sound. It’s pacing, networks of internal relationships, and connections to the outer world. The George Duke sample in Daft Punk’s “Digital Love” sounds terrific, but the tune itself is not especially tight. Conversely, when pianists play Bach, nobody can deny that the music is great stuff – but to my ear, at least, it sounds pale and unconvincing on that anachronistic instrument. I’m actually kind of surprised that you guys are sticking it to me on this issue; it’s absurdly reductive to pretend that music is only sound. It’s a huge field of human endeavor whose medium is sound, in the same way that the media of a house are brick, mortar, and aluminum siding. As Manlove pointed out earlier, though, if the bricks and mortar and siding aren’t inviting enough, nobody’s going to want to come inside.

  11. Chris Becker

    I was going to write: “If your music sounds like crap, musicians won’t want to play it, audiences won’t want to listen to it – you’re only supporters will be other composers who are comfortable saying (without a trace of irony) ‘This piece is better than it sounds…'”

    BUT – that’s not really helpful. And it doesn’t represent my first reaction to your post which was simply – maybe you just need to continue developing (and this is a lifelong endeavor) your orchestral chops? And build relationships with individual instrumentalists (another lifelong endeavor) and ASK them what sounds “good” on their instrument, what sounds odd, what sounds milky, what sounds brittle, what is impossible and what isn’t, etc, etc.

    And yes, LISTEN to recordings and live performances (two different things, right?) and study scores then steal and try out the instrumental combinations that get you off and see how it plays in the realm of your compositional voice.

    The advice I’m reading in this thread is doesn’t read to me as being particularly helpful…it is strange – but I’m a strange cat…

  12. ydandaman

    If there are honestly people who believe that a piece can “be good” without “sounding good”, I urge you to get of music composition immediately. Last time I checked music is expressed through sound. This is possibly the most asinine thing I have ever read on this website (and that’s saying something!). Here’s a thought experiment for you Colin, if your piece is better than it sounds, would a deaf person derive more enjoyment from it than someone who can hear?

  13. EvanJohnson

    Last time I checked music is expressed through sound. This is possibly the most asinine thing I have ever read on this website (and that’s saying something!).

    I agree! Oh, wait, you weren’t talking about your own last sentence.

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

    No. Music – at least music that exists in a form other than tape – is not “expressed through sound.” It’s expressed through instruments, by the physical use of those instruments by choreographed performers, by performance spaces, by ambient environment, by dress, by theatre, by notation, by scores, by discourse, by listening.

    And “sounding good” is not reducible purely to sound. We all know that “if it sounds good, it is good”; but I’d like to counterpropose that “if it is good, it sounds good.”

  14. Colin Holter

    You have to separate notes of the same pitch class by two octaves and move away from the first by the interval of a major or minor second.

    And when I say “you have to,” I mean you have to. I know where you live.

  15. ydandaman


    Faulty grammar aside, I don’t disagree with anything you said. I’m not saying there can’t be more to music than the sound. I’m just saying it’s not possible for a piece of music to “be good” without “sounding good”. When we are referring to music those two phrases in fact refer to the same thing. Which it sounds like you agree with, so cool.

  16. EvanJohnson

    I’m just saying it’s not possible for a piece of music to “be good” without “sounding good”. When we are referring to music those two phrases in fact refer to the same thing. Which it sounds like you agree with, so cool.

    Well, maybe. But it depends on the definition of “sounds.” Oh, and the definition of “good.”

    To my mind, it’s entirely possible for there to be a piece of “good music” that is so unpleasant to listen to that you never want to hear it or anything like it ever again. Or, less histrionically, that “sounding good” is only the same as “being good” if “sounding good” can be divorced from sound.

    Take Cartridge Music. Or Mikrophonie I. Or, if you prefer, Metal Machine Music. I think it’d be hard to argue that any of these pieces “sound good” in such a way that the phrase retains a usable general meaning. It might be somewhat easier to argue that they are not “good music,” but I’d still disagree with you if you tried. Particularly in the case of Mikrophonie.

  17. ydandaman

    I don’t think we need to radically change the definition of “sounding good” to include those pieces you mention, since it’s a highly personal subjective phenomenon anyway. I think it just means that after hearing the piece you come away with some sense of enjoying what you heard. That enjoyment could be many things other than just sensual pleasure at “pretty” sounds. That could mean that the sounds were extremely ugly or irritating, as in the pieces you mention. In fact most of my favorite sounds are what could be described as ugly or irritating.

  18. JKG

    As if…
    its not enough to expect others to give our music the time of day, yet it is nice occasionally to have someone not only “like” one’s expression, but also to understand it. We composers are at times a sad lot. Not only are most of us performers on an instrument to varying degrees of expertise, but we ALL happen to be listeners regardless of what we choose by an act if will to listen to. The creative process at times itself engenders the insistence of weightier textures or more involved polyphony, yet we oftentimes do that for ourselves as the “first listener” to our pieces. Thus, it may be of no surprise when the more casual and informed listener decides its “too many note” because we expected too much of him/her. That is why I personally maintain for myself the adherence to some form of personhood, however mystical that may sound. It is important for me to realize that, just because something has reached a balance to my own ears, doesn’t mean the casual listener will understand or receive the piece at all. Thus, the “tyranny” of the listener – I suggest many of us are simply getting out just desserts for having read too much into our work to begin with.

  19. nxnw

    Interesting! For arguments sake, let’s take “classic rock” 50’s music that has held up well for 50 years but the sound recording is awful. Compare that to, let’s say a plodding “new age” piece that is immaculately recorded, produced and mastered. Which one “sounds good”? Does the average listener know, understand or perceive the difference?

  20. curioman

    Jan Swafford: ‘In his Essays Before a Sonata, [Charles] Ives called the exterior part of music “manner,” the inner spirit “substance.” “Manner” is mere consistency, polish, style—even sound itself. “Substance” is the feeling behind the notes, the deeper consistency that can unite apparent contradictions. Thus Ives’ startling question, “What does sound have to do with music?”‘

  21. philmusic

    There is a certain difficulty inherent in describing musical “sounds” with words alone. If I am hearing you correctly Colin I think that your saying that your musical rhetoric, for all its wonderful content, is not “brilliant” enough. Brilliance is something that is generally understood immediately as its easy to notice. Brilliance is a fine thing but its not the only thing that makes a composition interesting. To be known as a “brilliant orchestrator,” for example, is a back handed complement.

    Phil’s Page

  22. Leos

    “Counterpoint is out.”

    I wouldn’t count it out just yet; there are just those who would seriously limit themselves by choosing to see it as oppressor than ally.

  23. geordiem5

    Hey Colin:

    This is one of the same problems I am experiencing with my atonal music. It a.) seems to thick at times, and b.) my atonal music has a lot of recurring octaves. The way I see it (or as my teacher told me), there are two possibities. You can eliminate the octaves completely. You can also find a way to integrate them more cohesively in what you are doing. I don’t think that octaves are necessarily incorrigible, I just think that if one uses them, their use must be warranted by what’s going on in the music.

    Keep me posted. I’d be interested in hearing how this turns out.

    Best wishes,



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