Ontmusic28. Bad Music: What makes it bad?
Definition of Bad Music
What is meant by bad music?
Here is a report of one student's reactions to thinking about bad music.
After a semester of thinking about music, I am still unsure as to what constitutes "good" or "bad" music. I am also still inclined to think about it teleologically. Our discussion on profundity seemed to me to be very similar to our discussion on good and bad music. Perhaps we are simply stating preferences . . . perhaps we are muddling our terms . . . perhaps there is an objective "good" for music. Although I don't have any new answers, I have added a few more "good" pieces for you all to enjoy.
I originally thought "Oh good! Choosing a bad piece will be so simple! There is so much bad music out there!," but the task of actually sitting down and finding one was rather difficult. As it turns out, I have either seriously over-estimated the amount of awful music or I have had to repress the horrible "pieces" I have heard.
But this piece - "Ade! Ich Muss Nun Gehen" - by Friedrich Nietzsche - sprang to mind. On the surface, there isn't much to point to as to what makes the piece bad. Nothing sticks out as horribly offensive: no poorly-handled dissonances, no random fragments of melody, and no awkward rhythms. A casual listen-through might even spare the song some dignity. But something about the song is . . . annoying. While trying to put together my thoughts, I listened to the song on a loop and wanted to pull my hair out. Nothing breaks any "rules", the form is predictable . . . too predictable. As Levitin points out, there is a sweet spot between too simple and too difficult. This song is much, much too simple. There is nothing surprising and unexpected to catch the listener and draw them in.
And there is also something vaguely comical about it. For example, the thumping, plodding descending bass line at around 11 seconds is reminiscent of a portly older man trying to make his way down the stairs - neither elegant nor subtle. The exclamation at 40 seconds makes sense musically, but seems forced.
Overall, the piece is technically "correct", but lacks grace, elegance, and subtle points of interest. As Berlioz so aptly termed it, this piece is "insipid" and "innocently stupid". (bold not in original)
Here another student describes the properties that can be had by bad music,
Additionally, there are characteristics of the music itself that I could describe as "bad." It is loud and grating, repetitive, contrived, and commercially driven. (bold not in original)
What determines the badness of music?
Latin jazz trombonist and ethnomusicologist at Columbia University in New York City, Chris Washburne, discusses the topic area of what makes music be bad in his paper, "Does Kenny G. play bad jazz?".
In his paper, Washburne investigates the reaction people have had to the smooth jazz of Kenny Gorelick, better known as Kenny G. Not surprisingly, he finds that the music of Kenny G. has often been excoriated by other musicians and critics, but not by the general public where Kenny G's music has outsold mainstream jazz many times over such that at one point in time Kenny G's record sales accounted for over 50% of all jazz albums sold.
Washburne believes and develops the arguments supporting the thesis that ultimately the status and aesthetic qualities of being good or bad music ends up being a political decision. Washburne makes this political point at several places in his article.
“Insert quotations ” (bold not in original)
Is bad music bad only because of subjective and arbitrary criteria?
It is crystal clear what makes bad music be bad at the extreme end of the spectrum. Merely attending any beginner's violin recital and it could well happen that 100% of all knowledgeable critics would agree that the music was excoriating.
➢ What explains the unanimity amongst knowledgeable critics regarding the poor quality of this beginner's violin recital?
The answer is multi-fold, but might well include that the performer(s) could not play in tune, were incompetent on their instruments in numerous ways, did not play the announced song, played many wrong notes, or did not stay in the right key, or did not keep to an appropriate rhythm, and so on and so forth. There are many reasons why a musical performance can be bad and open to significant criticisms.
➢ What makes it possible to have bad music?
Again the answer here is clear. There are already well established, well justified, and well applied standards for degrees of unsuccessful to wildly successful musicianship and musical performances.
➢ What are well established criteria for judging what makes for bad music?
“Bad music: Simon Frith (2004, p. 17-19) argues that, “'bad music' is a necessary concept for musical pleasure, for musical aesthetics." He distinguishes two common kinds of bad music: the Worst Records Ever Made type, which include "Tracks which are clearly incompetent musically; made by singers who can't sing, players who can't play, producers who can't produce," and "Tracks involving genre confusion. The most common examples are actors or TV stars recording in the latest style." Another type of "bad music" is "rock critical lists," such as "Tracks that feature sound gimmicks that have outlived their charm or novelty" and "Tracks that depend on false sentiment [ . . . ], that feature an excess of feeling molded into a radio-friendly pop song.”
Frith gives three common qualities attributed to bad music: inauthentic, [in] bad taste (see also: kitsch), and stupid. He argues that “The marking off of some tracks and genres and artists as 'bad' is a necessary part of popular music pleasure; it is a way we establish our place in various music worlds. And 'bad' is a key word here because it suggests that aesthetic and ethical judgments are tied together here: not to like a record is not just a matter of taste; it is also a matter of argument, and argument that matters" (p. 28). Frith's analysis of popular music is based in sociology.” (bold not in original)
Let's consider Frith's three categories of qualities that will make music be bad: inauthentic, bad taste, or stupid. It is understandable why these three qualities contribute to badness. Each is problematic because they are lacking their opposite, which would help to contribute to good music if the music was either authentic, in good taste, or smart.
What makes the lacking of any of these properties to be bad is the negative aspects of failing to have these properties. One could fail to be smart and not be bad, just neutral.
- "Good and Bad Music" by Julian Cullen Budwey (submitted May 5, 2011) for Philosophy of Music class (Aesthetics 67) at Amherst College.
- "Good and Bad Music" by Joseph T. Kelly, "Disturbing and Comfortable", (submitted February 2, 2011) for Philosophy of Music class (Aesthetics 67) at Amherst College.
- Wikipedia: Aesthetics of Music, § Bad Music, entire section.