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Is Music Ever “Good”?

Beyond

Is Music Ever “Good”?

Julian Jacobs

Editorial by Julian Jacobs

‘The Angry Birds Movie Soundtrack is as good as Beethoven's 9th Symphony.’

While I can’t be sure, I suspect that this statement would arise deep suspicion from most people regardless of whether or not they actually enjoy classical music. Personally, if I were presented with such a claim, I would immediately dismiss it as an unfair comparison between two pieces of music: one a masterwork and the other a grating score produced for a film about explosive projectile birds.

However, beyond this rather extreme comparison, anyone who enjoys music will inevitably develop similar kinds of hierarchies and judgements.

For example, I think Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is better than Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music; The Wu Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is better than Lil Wayne’s Rebirth;  Radiohead’s OK Computer is better than their album Pablo Honey.

Beyond this, I have no doubt that if an audience were asked to compare these same albums, they would reach the same conclusions a majority of the time - in fact, online music communities (regardless of their background and emphasis) confirm this.

And yet, what makes any of these albums better than the other?

While the sentiment that musical quality is subjectively determined by the listener is a popular one, it seems to me that people don’t really believe it. At the very least, such a belief seems like a prescription for heterodox judgements, each just as defensible as more commonly accepted ones.

This is to say that if the quality of music were truly subjective, then “the Angry Birds Movie Soundtrack is as good as Beethoven's 9th Symphony”, and nobody can say otherwise - if their merit is subjective then they possess the exact same amount of (non) merit.

In my view, this is a kind of capitulation that would render music devoid of value. After all, none of the music generally accepted as “classic” would have any intrinsic merit and consequently be as equally ‘good’ as music generally accepted as, for lack of a better word, shit. Beyond this, artists would seemingly have no incentive to put effort into making music ‘good’ if their best effort was fundamentally of as much (non) merit as their best work.

I can’t bring myself to accept that.  

Instead, I’d like to consider if there’s some other way we can ‘objectively’ offer assessments of the music we listen to.

One of the most popular indicators of musical quality by which people defend their evaluative claims has to do with music complexity; that is, the technical proficiency and musicianship that is so central to much of classical music, jazz, hip-hop, metal, and progressive rock among other genres. This perspective, commonly associated with the ‘music theory/writer’ crowd is one that tends to emphasize the talent of the musicians involved in the composition and, in some cases, the difficulty of the performances.

While it seems as though musical complexity is generally appreciated when it’s present, it does not appear to be an effective means of assessing musical quality. For instance, Dream Theater is a heavy metal band of incredible musical prowess and technicality. However, much of their recent work has been lambasted by critics as ‘soulless’ music better suited for a talent show performance than a profound musical experience. The same criticism has often been levied at many other progressive rock bands as well as certain rappers. For instance, while Eminem has been lauded as a skilled rapper, his recent work has been criticized for lacking lyrical depth and originality.

Moreover, artists like Elliott Smith, Nirvana, and 2Pac did not become acclaimed artists because of their technical ability; instead they all were praised for their other qualities, such as their ability to be emotionally provocative. For this reason, I do not think musical complexity and skill can be the sole criterion for assessing the quality of a certain musical work. In other words, Yngwie Malmsteen - the incredibly skilled neoclassical metal guitarist - is not the high bar of music.

Another criterion often suggested is one of originality. While it is true, that the merit of artists like Swans, Kendrick Lamar, MF DOOM, and Death Grips seems to at least somewhat stem from their commitment to original and experimental music, assessments of originality also do not seem like effective ways to determine the quality of music. Ghost’s new album Meliora is a fantastic record that nonetheless presents a relatively unoriginal offering in traditional heavy metal. On the other side, there’s California Rhinoplasty’s A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure, which features the squeaks and squelches of a surgical procedure. Is it original? Yeah. Is it good? Nah.

One other criterion offered for assessing the value of music is its capacity to provoke an emotional response of some sort from the listener. However, this similarly does not seem to be true. If it were, then an angsty middle schooler (such as myself at one point) would be completely justified in declaring Papa Roach or Limp Bizkit as music of superior quality to Nina Simone’s work in Pastel Blues insofar as that middle schooler was more emotionally captivated by the former two bands. So this ‘criterion’ would ultimately be indistinguishable from the view that musical quality is subjective.

Given the deficiencies of these arguments, I think it can be helpful to look towards philosophy. In his Critique of Judgement, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant identifies four chief distinguishing features in our assessments of the ‘aesthetic’ merit of a piece of art. Among these, he contends that such judgements are universal and necessary.

In other words, while some people may espouse the position that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, our behavior seems to indicate that we don’t really believe it. On the contrary, we wouldn’t have a need for music review outlets like Pitchfork, Sputnikmusic, the Needle Drop, or B-SIDE Magazine if we did because music reviews would be utterly meaningless and intangible.  We don’t care how people would respond to the obviously subjective question of “what color is best” and it would be hard to imagine even having a ‘debate’ over that question as it stands because a discussion over this topic would necessarily require its participants to adopt their own criterion so as to make their conclusions appear objective. If assessments of music were truly subjective, then we would have a similar problem when debating the merit of a musical work.

However, this is not the case.

On the contrary, our appreciation of music relies on the presupposition of some necessarily objective value to each work - for example, the ratings on music sites that offer numerical indicators of an album’s merit serve as units of a certain kind. Moreover, as Kant states, a key aspect of appreciating art is assuming that others will agree with our praise of a certain work and, in cases where they don’t, trying to convince them to agree.

For these reasons, Kant argues that, while we have no reason to believe music (or any aesthetic entity) has an intrinsic value, it is psychologically necessary for us to believe that it does.

This argument makes sense. It suggests that musical evaluations are drawn from both the private assessments individual listeners develop when they hear music as well as the communal response to the work. For this reason, it seems that a musical piece derives its value from its sustained and widespread appreciation. While many people may not like OK Computer or A Love Supreme and have reasons to prefer other pieces of music, the presence of a near consensus that declares these compositions “classic” indicates that, even if these pieces are not enjoyed, they maintain their status as pieces marked by longevity and widespread acclaim.

As a result, a piece of music can be ‘good’ insofar as many individual listeners offer similar evaluations of it through their own subjective considerations. It is this presence of collective and sustained praise that separates “good” music from “bad music.”

So yes, music can be “good.”