Good Music

Good Music

There are two kinds of music, Duke Ellington is supposed to have said: Good music and the other kind. I wish this were true—if it were, we could all just figure out how to write good music, and then we’d be set. But it’s not that simple: Old myths to the contrary, there are no empiria to consult that might determine whether a piece of music is good or bad. The fact that this problem only materializes when a difference of opinion arises is cold comfort.

A recent premiere was the site of one such difference of opinion. I loved the piece—it enabled me to make exactly the kind of speculations that I treasure as a listener. But it was very clear that the rest of the room wasn’t on the same wavelength. What is wrong with me, I thought, that this piece presents a meaningful experience for me but not for hardly anybody else? I wrote earlier about the possibility that differences in personal context and formation may illuminate the incommensurability of viewpoints on music—in other words, that divergent social conditionings might preclude people from reaching consensus on their reception of music.

Frighteningly, my recent experience seems to suggest that this is even truer than I’d thought: Even a crowd of new music specialists generally sympathetic to one another’s orientation—and who are, moreover, friends!—might have diametric reactions to a new piece. “Good music and the other kind” is only a useful rubric if everyone agrees on what “good music” is, and in this case we certainly didn’t. So how do you know? What if you have an unquenchable desire to write music that nobody else “gets”? It would be like if every time you opened your mouth to say something, gibberish came out, but a particular flavor of gibberish that you found very aesthetic and couldn’t stop producing. I guess you just have to stop composing if that happens.

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14 thoughts on “Good Music

  1. pgblu

    What if you have an unquenchable desire to write music that nobody else “gets”?

    This question is slightly ambiguous: do you mean:

    What if the music that you have an unquenchable desire to write happens to be incomprehensible to everyone else?


    What if you have an unquenchable desire to write music that is incomprehensible?

  2. multiphonic

    Good music
    It’s a beautiful thing that music is much more variegated than “good and the other kind.” If what a person writes makes sense on certain levels to that person, others will respond to it as well. I’m guessing that casting away the worries of whether it’s “good” or not can allow music to make its own case for itself on its own merits.

  3. Daniel Wolf

    A piece of music is something of a moving target. Is its identity located in a particular performance or recording? Or is it either the sum or the common denominators of all performances or recordings? (What about bad or unfaithful performances or recordings?) Or is it the score? Or is it the composer’s idea of the piece or some platonic ideal of the work? When it comes to a qualitative evaluation like “was it good/bad/indifferent?”, the answer inevitably turns on the circumstances: for whom? by whom? with whom? when? where? or under what conditions? Obviously, a composer cannot compose a work that will “work” every time, everywhere, and for everyone, but isn’t that uncertainty and risk precisely the quality which makes the musical enterprise so exciting?

  4. colin holter

    To pgblu: The latter.

    To Daniel Wolf: Good point – and it also should be noted that the question I raise in the original post is made a lot less important if the whole notion of the “work-object” as a Platonic thing of which individual performances are aspirational reproductions is jettisoned, which it maybe should be.

  5. ChristopherAdler

    Maybe it’s time to find a new audience, or some new friends. I’m kidding, but only partly. I doubt anyone is so off-kilter as to be incomprehensible to everyone else, so part of the issue to find those people to whom your music will make some sense.

    But it may be helpful to remember that you’ve lived with a piece for months and months before a premiere, whereas most of the audience is reacting to their first and only experience of it, so it should come as no surprise that their reaction might be totally different. No brilliant program note or pre-concert talk can bridge this experiential gap.

    What is ‘good’ is similarly subject to evolution over time. There are works which I felt were total s**t for years but I have over time come to love. Likewise works which spoke to me profoundly can seem trite over time. It isn’t the works that are changing over that time – it’s me. And everyone else. So from a first performance: no judgements, and no conclusions…..

  6. mclaren

    If there’s no clear distinction between good music and crap, where does the canon that’s taught in music schools come from?

    Why teach it?

    Why don’t all the music departments and conservatories just analyze songs by The Backstreet Boys and the hell with Bach and Beethoven and Wagner and all the rest?

    The behaviour of every single academic and expert musician and skilled performer so completely contradicts your claims that you cannot be taken seriously.

    Your attitude and that of so many other modernists is a wonderful example of what Theodore Dalrymple called “The Flight From Judgment,” one of the great follies of our time.

    Your post is a classic example of the modern pathology of Total Relativism run amok. In the infamous words of the despairing Argentinian motto: “Nada es mejor, todo es igual”: Nothing it better, everything is the same.

    The entire experience of our lives forcibly denies this absurd and delusional modernist fantasy.

  7. dB

    If there’s no clear distinction between good music and crap, where does the canon that’s taught in music schools come from?

    There are a lot of reasons, but none of them are proof that there is an objective distinction in quality between “good” and “bad” music. There are distinctions in the qualities of those musics, and those can contribute to subjective opinions about the quality of those musics, but I’m unconvinced we can say more.

    I think a large reason we study the things we study is because of their utility as heuristics. Sure, lots of people like Bach, but I believe we study Bach because his music is full of clear examples of counterpoint and tonal harmony. It wouldn’t make sense to look at Wagner or the Backstreet Boys when teaching an introductory course on those subjects. That isn’t a testament to the quality of a piece, just it’s usefulness in demonstrating a concept.

    I believe historical context also contributes a great deal to what we do and don’t study in school. Schoenberg and his students certainly weren’t the only serialists, but any education on serialism would be remiss if it didn’t cover Schoenberg. If time were no object, we would benefit from studying everything, but the reality is that we only have time to focus on a few historically notable (or wildly popular) figures. That isn’t a testament to the quality of the pieces that do or don’t get taught, just how important it is to know the composers who wrote them.

    We can’t forget the focuses of the classes where these pieces are being covered. Many of these are theory classes where the goal is to give the students a toolkit for analyzing music beyond the class. Unfortunately, the tools needed to analyze a good deal of music in the past century are piece specific, that is, they aren’t useful outside of analyzing that one composer’s body of work, or even an individual piece (think Cage or Stockhausen). That isn’t a testament of the quality of a piece, just how useful being able to analyze it will be for analyzing other pieces.

    I could go on, but I think this demonstrates that the reasons we chose to study or not study a piece of music often have nothing to do with the quality of the music itself. The fact that it is canonical does not speak to its quality. Many more piano students have played chopsticks than any one Beethoven sonata, but I wouldn’t hold that up as proof that chopsticks must be a better (or even more important) piece of music.

  8. Daniel Wolf

    Brian McLaren is, as usual, attacking his natural allies rather than the forces who make musical innovation difficult. The situation is not relativist but subtle, and it is not one of composers lacking the ability to distinguish good from bad. When a composer puts his or her own work into the public sphere, he or she makes a commitment to that work, identifying himself or herself as its author, a act that asserts value, not total relativism.

    The difficulty is that performance and reception are very subtle matters, often contingent upon circumstances that are both unpredictable and totally unrelated to the substance of the work itself. Works that we now identify as “masterpieces” often failed on the first public hearings, while other works, acclaimed at the premieres as “masterpieces” have (and, for the most part, justifiably) disappeared from memory.

    Moreover, analysts and theorists, both in- and out-of-academe, have spent generations trying to unlock the formulae and rules that make good music good, in both the classical canon and in popular musics. The best result of any method discovered to date (or likely to be discover, IMO) is that we can reliably synthesize mediocre-to-average stretches of music in a given style, and while the insights of so-called model composition can be useful, it doesn’t bring one closer to reliably synthesizing works which are good, let alone better-than-good, as they are as much dependent on exquisite rule-breaking and astylistic invention.

    Finally, none of this discussion should lead anyone to conclude that modernism is about total relativism, an inability to distinguish bad from good. The entire modernist project has always been a qualitative one, combating indifference and —as Heinz-Klaus Metzger put it so well — against criterion-free evaluations in the face of mass reproduction, mass access to training, media and information, and the power of the market to put its own bottom line on every good or service in terms only of supply/demand, the driving down of costs and the maximization of profit. The assertion of modernism is, instead, that there is value in work which simply does not compute in these economies of mass or market, that potlatch trade media, individuality, and ironic distance (i.e. Pynchon’s counter-force) are valuable on their own terms, whether as sensation, sentiment, reaction or construct, or simply valuable because they are not the standard-issue alternative. As Jasper Rose put it, the great lesson of the age of mass manufacturing, in which we have the possibility of producing millions of identical cars, is that we don’t want to produce millions of identical cars, as otherwise, we’d never find our own car in a crowded parking lot.

  9. jhyde20

    Perhaps the good in a piece of music isn’t always obvious yet is still there.
    There is a story, I think that it is in Ross’s first book, about a Bruckner premiere that had lost all but five members of his audience by the last bar.
    One man gave him a standing ovation. His name was Gustav Mahler.
    There are other composers that I prefer to listen to but Mahler had ears to hear what others could not.
    I think that it is easier to miss the good than it is to imagine it.

  10. Marc Weidenbaum

    Colin, I politely submit that you are mistaken, at least in regard to the meaning of Duke Ellington’s assertion.

    You dismiss what Ellington said as an “old myth,” but it’s a myth precisely because, by definition, the context in which it was uttered has been forgotten — needlessly so, since voluminous amounts of Ellington’s utterances and writings are readily available. A quick search on Google Books will fill in the blanks.

    His comment is famous, indeed, but to critique his assertion out of the context in which it originally appeared undermines your effort. He did not utter the sentence to stand alone, and so the statement shouldn’t be viewed alone. (And you’re not alone in doing this sort of thing, by any means. The often-quoted Stewart Brand statement “information wants to be free” is rarely quoted alongside the contrary formulation that appears two sentences prior in its original context: “information wants to be expensive.”)

    Ellington was addressing a misconception — when he laid it out in a piece in a 1947 issue of Etude magazine, shortly after having established an instrumental scholarship at Julliard — that he felt was fairly prevalent at the time: that jazz was bad music and classical good. (I’m not suggesting this Etude piece is the only time Ellington employed this concept, just that it’s a useful means to understand what he meant when he did employ it.) He writes in the piece, “[I]t becomes increasingly difficult to say just where ‘good music’ leaves off and jazz begins.”

    Ellington’s statement does not lead to your inference, that one might or might not come up with the means to universally determine which music is good and which is bad. He’s discussing something else entirely. Ellington is referring to perceived borders between types of music. When he says there is only good and bad music, he means there’s no such thing as jazz or classical, just music.

    1. Colin Holter

      Ellington’s statement does not lead to your inference, that one might or might not come up with the means to universally determine which music is good and which is bad. He’s discussing something else entirely.Thanks, Marc, for giving us the background on Ellington’s comment. While I would hate to be thought of as someone who doesn’t respect the historicity of historical aesthetic positions, I don’t think it’s necessary for Ellington to have been addressing the problematic my post was about in order for that problematic to be a pernicious one; I may have said something nontrue about Duke Ellington, in a way, but I don’t think I said anything untrue about music.By the way, your Wikipedia page is surreal. It looks like somebody selected improbable facts about other people at random and added them as a prank.

      1. Marc Weidenbaum

        I was only trying to correct the record in regard to the quote’s context. I don’t have much to say about your argument.

        And yeah, my Wikipedia page is peculiar. I didn’t write it. It is against the rules to contribute to a page you have a vested interest in. The closest I have gotten is putting out word that my hometown was incorrectly identified, and that was quickly corrected by a third party. The rest of the facts were accurate. Several of them, to your point as well as to mine, don’t mean very much out of context.


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