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What makes good music?

In the lead up to Christmas 2017 and with many other tasks to attend to, I’ve lagged behind with my guitar TIPS. All going well I will be able to pick up the thread in the new year. However, right now I have what I hope is a thought provoking item to toss into the air. Here goes…

Earlier this month and last I was involved in a music composition competition. It was a competition with a difference, where all the participants contributed to the voting process throughout the various rounds including the final. The compositions were listened to via recordings available online and votes were cast via email. The idea was to rank different sets of pieces, ignoring your own, in order of your preference. A number of pieces with the highest points went through to the next round, or won a prize in the final round.

Fascinated by the process and forced to make comparisons, I started pondering what actually represents good music. Is it music that follows strictly all the tried and true rules of western music? Is it music that mimics known musical styles? Is it music with complete originality that tries to break new ground while at the same time challenging the listener? Or is it simply music that, regardless of how it is written - faithfully observing rules or otherwise - is engaging in a unique way that somehow touches the listener?

It didn’t take long to realise that within the competition participants there were musicians with a range of different music experiences behind them, as well as differing tastes and views on what constitutes good music. It could be argued that unless everyone thinks the same way, the outcome could be as random as a lottery!  I imagine therefore there must be some great arguments behind the scenes of more traditional music competitions when panels of judges try to decide on the winners!

It’s easy to assume that music might be considered ‘good’ if it meets the expectations of judges and music experts. Perhaps when studying the technical merits of any given composition, it’s easy to miss the point or not recognise the impact a composition might have on the average listener. The music might not change key or have particularly outstanding harmonic interest but the listener can be equally captured by unique combinations of melody and rhythm. Sometimes the simplest musical ideas say more than those with great complexity.

I’m not sure if there will ever be a definitive answer to the question of what makes music ‘good’ but one thing I do know is that musical taste is very much a subjective thing.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!