Ontmusic29. Good Music: What makes it good?
What properties make music be good music?
“In effect, it should not be too difficult to understand Wimsatt and Beardsley's own intentions in writing the essay and attacking the "intentional fallacy." From their biographical data and the essay itself we can clearly see that they are posing as "New Critics," are positing the "objective theory" that a literary work has an independent public existence, are encouraging "intrinsic studies" while discouraging "extrinsic studies" of literature, are trying to replace a system of values (covering the ideas of sincerity, fidelity, spontaneity, authenticity, genuineness, originality, etc.) with another system (integrity, relevance, unity, function, maturity, subtlety, adequacy, etc.), and are disputing the Romantic view of the author as an important source of meaning for works and they are doing all these by arguing that the author's intentions are not the proper concern of the critic.” (bold not in original)
What is good music?
There are two different approaches for developing ways of trying to determine what counts as good music. Call these two approaches a subjective approach and an objective one.
The subjective approach for determining good music?
A subjective approach to good music determination entirely depends upon the likes and personal preferences of the music perceiver(s). On this approach, it does not matter intrinsically what features the music has objectively, as for example, what key the song is in, how the music is structured internally, or what genre of music it is. None of these musical 'structural features' are deemed relevant for determining why a piece of music is good or not since this entirely depends on the listener's preferences and beliefs, past memories and associations, and so forth; all entirely subjective by the subjects evaluating the music. The only thing that matters are the experiences and beliefs of the music perceiver(s). If the person listening to the music believes the music to have features that this person enjoys listening to then this is sufficient for the music to qualify as good music. If, on the other ear (hand), this person dislikes the music being played, then it is at least true that it is not good music for that particular person.
➢ Can it really be this simple?
No, it cannot because there remain several issues still to be investigated and what stance the subjective approach is going to take regarding them.
First, there is the question of comparisons. What does the subjective approach wish to say about two different people's preferences, especially when they are opposed to each other? Suppose that Fred likes Chopin and believes it is good music, but Biff does not. Is Chopin's music good or not? The answer has to be that it is both good and not good depending upon whom you ask. But this raises then an objection. It now no longer seems that the subjective approach is in the correct ballpark. This approach does not seem to be addressing the music itself, but only people's beliefs and attitudes towards the music. This though is not what was trying to be measured. It was not a question about people's enjoyment or about people's preferences, but rather a question about the merits of the music itself. Of course, people can have opposite beliefs about the same object without this affecting the status of the object in any way. How is it even possible that the very same piece of music, on the subjective approach, can be simultaneously both good and not good? Is this a consequence that should be acceptable to theorists? It would seem not because then the music in itself would have contradictory features and no object can have such features. The apple cannot be red and not red at the same time. The status of either state of the object logically rules out the other state as impossible. Hence, it is impossible for the very same piece of music both to have the note C and not the note C contained within it.
Second, what does the subjective approach want to say about the aggregate of people's subjective opinions? What if everybody, or a large majority of music perceivers all concur that they enjoy, like, and find to be good the same piece of music. Does this make the song in question even more good because it has a lot of support by music perceivers?
The subjective approach could go two different ways on the question of aggregate agreements that a particular song is agreed by many people to be good music that they enjoy. The subjective approach could claim that it doesn't matter how many or how few music perceivers agree. The subjectivist might wish to argue that music is only good or bad relative to single individual observers and not about any feature regarding the music in and of itself. It will always be good music for a particular somebody. On the subjectivist approach, goodness is a two place relationship that requires both a perceiver and the music, i.e, the music was good for this person.
Philosopher from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, Andrew Kania in the Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Music in his article on "Definition" argues there are at least three different objections to having music be determined by perceiver's judgments and personal experiences.
“A second strategy would be to adopt a subjective definition, claiming, for instance, that whatever sounds like, or is perceived as, music by a given listener is music, regardless of its intrinsic properties. This kind of approach gives rise to unintuitive consequences. For instance, if you leave the radio on when you leave the house, the sounds it emits cease being music, according to the subjectivist, since there is no one around to perceive them in the right sort of way. On the other hand, you can transform the sounds of a train into music merely by hearing them as rhythmic. More troublingly, someone ignorant of a particular culture’s musical practices may not hear a given performance as music. At best, the subjectivist may say that this performance is not music for this listener, though it may be for other listeners. This seems wrong. This listener is simply mistaken about what he hears, as much as if he denied that the Mona Lisa is a painting. (bold not in original)
The objective approach for determining good music?
On the objective stance towards analyzing the goodness or badness of the music one turns towards features of the sounds found in the music under review.
➢ What features of the sounds found in music can contribute to the goodness of the music?
- (1) Timbre. TIMBRE (prounced TAMber and not like "timber" meaning wood): (also known as tone color or tone quality) is the perceived sound quality of a musical note, sound, or tone. Using perceived timbre permits listeners to distinguish different types of sound production, such as choir voices or the distinctive acoustic features of musical instruments. It is timbre that enables listeners to hear 👂 different instruments from the same category as different, such as a viola and a violin. Timbre explains why certain sounds sound better than others. This is explained through overtones and how present they are in the sound. Human hearing tends to enjoy tones that are lower because they are simpler for the perceptual system to process.
- (2) Types of scales: major or minor. In western music there are two types of scales, the major and the minor. The easiest way to explain the difference between them is that generally speaking Western listerners perceive major scales as sounding happier with the and minor scales sounding sad. Each scale uses only 7 different notes. Given that music is typically made up of chords where a chord, in most cases, consists of three notes within a given scale played simultaneously, it so happens that major chords also sound happier with minor chords not so happy, but rather more somber or sad.
- (3) Change. if you listen to a song that stays within a single scale, it would sound boring or bland. Think “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. While “Mary Had a Little Lamb” doesn’t particularly sound bad, it’s not something I like to work out or study to, frankly it’s just not that interesting. So what makes a song interesting? To simply put it, change. We don’t expect change; we expect the same tune over and over again, so when something does change it grabs our attention.
- (4) Emotional. Good music is a vessel. It provides us with an escape from reality, or a plunge into its depths. Good music is sociable. It connects us to others and allows us to share common emotions. Good music is addicting. One hit and you’re stuck; left with an insatiable hunger to hear more. Good music is enriching. It makes us think. It makes us strive for more. Good music builds us up so we can tear down one of our generation’s greatest obstacles, apathy. I keep using the term “good music” purposefully. In order for a piece of music to be considered truly good by the general population it has to make them feel some emotion, inspire them, provoke some thought, create some human connection.
- Lindong Zhang, "The Intentional Fallacy" Reconsidered/LA RECONNAISSANCE DE "L'AFFECTIVE INTENTIONNELLE"," Canadian Social Science 8, no. 2, 2012. http://www.questia.com/read/1P3-2680647991/the-intentional-fallacy-reconsidered-la-reconnaissance.
- Andrew Kania, "Definiition," Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Music, edited by Theodore Gracyk and Andrew Kania, (New York and London: Routledge Publishing, 2011), 6.