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Natasha Marsalli

I am on a quest...

February 9, 2007 at 9:25 PM

...a quest to determine what makes good music good and bad music bad. I want some input. I have convinced myself that, contrary to the beliefs of many, good music is not determined by popular opinion. Bach will remain better than the Beatles no matter what happens. But why? Why is that?

Music, like all art forms, is an expression of beauty. Sure, it can be eerie, angry, flippant, anguished, even harsh...but always beautiful. So I guess my question is more "What is true beauty?"

Complexity seems to play some role. No one can say that a rock song with two different chord progressions and a bridge is better than Beethoven's Fifth. But then, does a more complex piece make a piece better? Is Liebesleid (I know I spelt that wrong...) worse music than Dvorak's violin concerto just because it's simpler. Whatever happened to simple beauty?

Then there's emotional content. I think this is a key role. Some sixth sense (no, not the one you see dead people with...) can pick up emotional depth in any piece of music. Or any type of art. Even something like a painting of flowers conveys some sort of feeling. Right now, I'm sitting by a hall at school where nothing but paintings of flowers hang on the side. Some are elegant and tranquil, some are bright and spunky, some are dark and almost sinister. The skill of the artist or composer in evoking his feeling in others seems to be a vital role in making good art good. Even if we don't establish an emotional connexion with the art (i.e. even if we don't like it) we still appreciate it.

Beauty. It's what we spend out lives creating. Or trying to create. But what is it really. And will we ever know?

From Emily Grossman
Posted on February 10, 2007 at 1:23 AM
The statement "Bach is better than the Beatles" is an opinion, not a fact.

You pose a good topic of debate, though.

From Nicholas DiEugenio
Posted on February 10, 2007 at 2:58 AM

You have touched on an issue that continues to preoccupy the most inquistive and imaginative minds, and concerns not only artists, but critics. Based on what you have written, you might really enjoy reading the short book by American composer Roger Sessions entitled "The Musical Experience of Composer, Performer, Listener." He certainly addresses many of the issues you've raised, especially in his chapter (III) on the

And while it is true that you and I (and some others) may prefer Bach to the Beatles, that band stands apart from many others as a result of its members' musical curiosity. (Especially George Harrison and John Lennon, who continued to grow and search as the band enjoyed popular success.) In fact, if it were not for Bach, the Beatles would have been a much lesser band. So, even here there is a relationship.

Happy questing.

Nicholas DiEugenio

From Gabriel Kastelle
Posted on February 10, 2007 at 4:29 AM
Alright. If it's quest level, here are a couple of my favorite reads on the planet, and both are devoted to this question of music quality: Ernst Toch "The Shaping Forces in Music: An Inquiry into the Nature of Harmony, Melody, Counterpoint, and Form". For balance, add John Miller Chernoff's "African Rhythm and African Sensibility"-- genius work!! And since you're in Florida, you should be able to find a Coooper Book Sacred Harp singing nearby-- drop in and change your world view! (explore around, especially the link(s) to local sings, or, even better, directory of conventions and all-day sings). Enjoy! (But you may want to take all this with the proverbial grain of salt, since I like early Monteverdi and Bach and the Beatles and Prince) Here's wishing may your future be as stellar as your accomplishments so far!!
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on February 10, 2007 at 9:27 AM
I think the only answer is a psychological one. Look for what it might be a legacy of, something that would have helped early man survive. Godspeed you on your quest. Bring me a shrubbery.
From William Yap
Posted on February 10, 2007 at 12:32 PM
I don't believe it is right to look for an answer. Good and bad, beauty and ugly is merely judgement and opinion. When arriving to that judgement, it inevitably boils down to the person's background, knowledge and experience. In addition, many judgements and opinions are, either by little or to a huge extent, affected by others.

To find a common definition and get an agreement from everyone of what is good music and bad music is impossible.

As corny as it may sound, beauty lies on the eyes (in this case, ears) of the beholder. All that matters is what YOU think/feel is good music, without bias or influency by others (music teacher, idol violinists, Buri etc.). If Beethoven's 5th touches your heart like no other music, then that is beauty to YOU. If Beetles' music is what someone else enjoy much more than 5th, then that is beauty to that someone. Why should we force ourselves to get to a common ground and not celebrate diversity?

Many people find Beethoven's Romance in F being more "beautiful" that his Romance in G. I feel different and find Romance in G touches me more than F, but I don't seek for the answer, find ways to justify it, or get others to agree with me. All that it matters is how I feel about the music, and that it's personal, special and beautiful to ME.

I dunno what I'm talking about anymore. Better stop yacking. Happy journey!

From William Yap
Posted on February 10, 2007 at 1:00 PM
Oh, and when/how will we know what beauty is? I think it's very much like love. You'll know it when you've found it.
From Natasha Marsalli
Posted on February 10, 2007 at 1:45 PM
I'm still not convinced. Saying that beauty is beautiful to one person and not another doesn't work for me. I read a very good article by this guy called John F. Crosby that dealt with that.
I mean, one can *appreciate* music and recognize it's beauty without liking it. For instance, I don't like Prokofiev, but I recognize without being told that it is good music and I respect that. Experience has nothing to do with whether music is good or not. There's a difference between beauty and opinion. Our opinion of something is based on experience and stuff. In one article I read, there was a lady who hated Beethoven's Fifth, because she was listening to it when her son died (or something to this degree). But she did not deny that it was good music. She simply disliked it because she associated it with a bad thing. But what we think or feel does not affect the nature of the music. The music *is* something without us doing anything. If a deaf soloist plays something all alone, it is still beautiful, even if no one is there listening.
From William Yap
Posted on February 10, 2007 at 2:15 PM
So you are saying that whether a piece of music is good or bad is just a fact, nothing to do with emotion, opinion or judgement? I dunno, but it sounds like you are putting music into a science context, a straight yes or no answer.

Say if someone decide that good music must be complex. What someone consider as complex may be quite simple to someone else who has more indepth musical knowledge.

Or, if someone decide that good music must be pleasant, someone else who has listen to Mozart all his/her life and got so sick of it and suddenly opened up to Bartok, that's because of his/her background and what he/she has experienced to date.

What about someone who had a bad day at work and just wanted to release the anger and frustration? Beethoven would suddenly be so "touching" than Mozart. That's emotion.

Whatever criteria you set for "good" and "bad", "beauty" and "ugly", those criteria opens up to emotion, knowledge, experience and judgement in the end. I do not believe beauty is a fact.

What about perfection? Does it really exist? I challenge you to define perfection (once you've got beauty out of the way) ;-)


From Laura Yeh
Posted on February 10, 2007 at 4:50 PM
It's hard to say that Bach is better than Beatles, it's just different. I sometimes wonder what Bach or Mozart would have written had they been jazz or rock musicians. Can't pop styles have genius too? I think that most of today's stuff is junk because it just copies what came before and therefore lacks the originality which is at the heart of "genius" in rock/pop art, but you can hardly say that groups like the Beatles don't have some amazing elements of freshness and innovation.
The genius behind Bach, Beethoven, etc. is admittedly much more intellectual, yet it is entirely opinion which qualities one appreciates most. Whether it's the complexity and structural ingenuity of Symphonic works, or if it is the freshness, rawness of emotion, or sheer expression of happiness that can be found in some of the great pop artists of previous generations.
I think good music is defined as good based on the clarity of qualities it expresses and the ability of the music to touch the listener with these qualities and emotions. For example, Mozart is better than his contemporaries because his melodies better expressed the grace and lightheartedness he intended to express (amoung other qualities as well).
You can't make broad generalizations though like the classical genre of music is better music than all others. It may be more complex and intellectual, but better, no. Such statements are what make people think we're snobs and alienates listeners.
From Natasha Marsalli
Posted on February 10, 2007 at 7:12 PM
Not yes or no...more or less. If you really want my definition of perfection, it would be "like God." But as I'm sure that's not what you had in mind, I'll leave that subject untouched.

Yes, I think that beauty, like truth, is completely seperate from the emotions of the listeners. That's different. I'm not saying that classical music is the greatest type of music ever. There's good classical, good rock, some good heavy metal...and maybe somewhere good rap (which I have not yet discovered). The listeners do not contribute to the music. What they think about the music is good and wonderful and unique and important, but they don't in any way affect the music itself.

I agree that a quality of good music is the clarity of the emotions expressed in the music, though. How that can be measured, I have no idea, but I (think I) agree.

I agree the Beatles were innovative and all that (I like them as much as the next guy) but you can't seriously say that they're better than Bach. I don't know why, but something really doesn't click there.

From Linda Lerskier
Posted on February 10, 2007 at 8:22 PM
At first, I thought you were on a quest for the Holy Grail. xD
From William Yap
Posted on February 10, 2007 at 8:38 PM
I think I sort of get you, but not quite get you. Beauty, Perfection etc. is a concept and is intangible, something "invented" by humans. I can't imagine what sort of answers you'll find other than setting criteria and putting a definition to it. Here's what an online dictionary define beauty as:

"the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest)"

Those words highlighted in bold italic is what I think depends on emotion, knowledge and experience anyway.

I'll stop debating with you here. Good luck in your quest and I hope you'll find your answer.

From Julia Alexander
Posted on February 10, 2007 at 9:14 PM
Through the years, I've noticed that generally the amount of beauty I find in a piece, and the amount it moves me, is based on memories. Generally the pieces I love most have some kind of good memory behind them (I, fortunately, don't really have any music with bad memories). And often, the better or more prominent the memory, the more I love the piece.

That being said, there are exceptions. The Sibelius Violin Concerto, for example, is in my top 5 favorite pieces of music. It got up there before I had any memories of it. I had never heard it before, nor obviously listened to this CD; I set my stereo to wake me up, and that CD happened to be first in line. When I woke up to the beginning melody, I got goosebumps and moved me, and started trying to figure out what it was because it was so incredibly beautiful. Ever since it's been one of my absolute favorites.

There are obviously inconsitencies in my argument, and I have no definite answer, but take it as you will.

I have to agree that there's no way to say that Bach is ultimately better than Beatles. It is sheerly opinion, and what different people find beautiful. Of course, I haven't met a Beatles fan (or anything like that) who doesn't appreciate Bach, but they don't think he's better.

From Peter Schafer
Posted on February 10, 2007 at 11:12 PM
It's much easier to deal with beauty than with trying to make the case that something is better than something else. Good, better, best implies some objective, logical, defensible measure whereas beauty simply reflects the impact of something or someone on a person, with no need to justify. As for "true beauty," I think you're mixing terms that don't belong together. Truth is beauty and beauty is truth, but true beauty is a lie.

Though you dispense with popularity as a measure of quality, which is wise, there is a related quality of universality which maybe gets at you mean by "true beauty." Music that continues to move people over generations of time and across cultures can claim to tap into universal aspects of being human. And that should count for something. I just don't think it's points toward a score of what's best.

To me, Bach's Chaconne, Duane Allman playing guitar, or that moment when the third movement of Beethoven's 5th breaks into the fourth are examples of unspeakable beauty. But don't ask me which is "better" because it doesn't matter.

I think your quest is, to be blunt, both foolhardy and beside the point. Because the point is beauty and truth, not some objective standard against which music can be measured.

From Ross Christopher
Posted on February 11, 2007 at 1:19 AM
I think art is beautiful because it is an extension of one's self. Sincere, heart-felt art, in any form, is beautiful because it is the essence of the humanity that created it.

I also believe that God created all humanity, and that in humanity's creation is a glimpse toward the creator - i.e. "we were created in his image."

Creation is powerful and creation is good. I believe creation to even be an extension of love - i.e. "God is love." And surely God is also beautiful.

That's my 2 cents.

~Ross Christopher

From Mitchell Pressman
Posted on February 11, 2007 at 1:58 AM
I think it's great that Natasha is seriously trying to think through these issues. Reminds me of myself and my friends at her age, except we were mainly hammering away at the issue of whether God existed. I was pretty sure God existed; and his name was Thomas Payne:)

Regarding musical "quality," I'm reminded of Bruno Walter's book about his mentor, Mahler. As Walter characterized it, Mahler's early symphonies were brilliantly expressive of Mahler's emotional response to the world and of his personal metaphysics, so to speak. But in Walter's view, Mahler really became a great composer in the later symphonies when his work morphed into the realm of "pure music," with its roots in the feelings and metaphysics but no longer expressing them either directly or indirectly.

Maybe this is a difference between the highest forms of "serious" music and more popular music. The popular music can be great but can never really get past the realm of expressing emotions into that level of "pure music." Now if you want to know what "pure music" is, read Walter's book:)

From Elizabeth Smith
Posted on February 11, 2007 at 2:15 AM
We are no longer the knights who say ni. We are now the knights who say ekki-ekki-ekki-pitang-zoom-boing.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on February 11, 2007 at 4:09 AM
Really, thank you for posing this question, Natasha. I've not been able to stop thinking about it all day, to the point that I was bothered because I wanted an answer so badly. Is that how you feel, too?
From al ku
Posted on February 11, 2007 at 11:15 AM
it is 6 am and i am about to open the fridge to prepare some breakfast. and i wonder, what will be considered as a good breakfast for everyone....

to search for AN answer, not THE answer to the original question, is a philosohpical pursuit, a personal choice. we set out in search of the truth,,,but there is no TRUTH on this, at least, no universal consensus.

once we clear up this mindset, then we can talk. otherwise, a great thought provoking topic will end up on a slippery slope like religion.


From kimberlee dray
Posted on February 11, 2007 at 3:50 PM
This can be said a multitude of ways, but I am satisfied to call it:

good chi
bad chi

From Patty Rutins
Posted on February 13, 2007 at 9:52 PM
Natasha, I think there is a mistake in your basic question.

You assume that music is good because it is beautiful, and you seek a logical explanation of the concept of beauty. I propose to you that first, you should get rid of the terms "good" and "bad" music, and first find out what "music" is. I suspect that will raise new questions that will better point your way on your quest.

I submit to you that "music" is a sound that communicates or evokes emotion and/or understanding in a listener or performer. There is music that is more effective and there is music that is less effective. The emotion may be either positive or negative; the understanding may or may not be something that you agree with.

If I ever again have the time to read real books (like, not "goodnight moon"), I'd love to pick up some of the above recommendations. I hope you enjoy your quest!

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