Musical criticism is a curious thing. For most people who listen to and enjoy music but who are not, as they say, “musically inclined” otherwise, musical taste is purely a subjective matter with little or no need for elaborate reasoning. Someone either enjoys what they are hearing or they do not. We could make arguments about the conditioning of our collective Western aesthetic sensibility, or the multimedia aspects of the entertainment industry which influence the way we perceive the quality of certain music and/or its meaning, but I think it is important to realize that the ever-present and all-important truth that we need to recognize when discussing music critically is this: it is strictly a matter of opinion. Music is an art form which is amenable to criticism and analysis, but determinations about whether that art is “good” or “bad” can ONLY be made subjectively. And some people, musicians in particular, have very strict criteria for what resembles “good” or “bad” music.
I have heard a variety of criticisms of music from educated, thoughtful musicians, many of which contradict one another but are still equally valid given the subjective nature of the claims. Some people will say that a certain piece of music is too short, while another might complain about it being too long. I once performed a short, 1’30” movement of a guitar/violin duo that I was writing at the time, and was told by one of my fellow composers that he wished it had been longer. I was not sure how to take that. Was it criticism? Was it a compliment? Was he saying that it was good and he wanted to hear more, or that by virtue of its brief duration, it was somehow not as good as longer pieces of music that were performed that day? Does duration somehow determine quality? Conversely, I once read a blog post by Nico Muhly opining that many pieces of music written by modern composers seem too long. I have felt this way also, of course. I have sat through what seemed to be interminably long performances that I wished would end. I have also played shorter pieces on repeat because I did not want them to end when they did. But can the quality of a piece of music really be judged by its duration?
Similarly, I once heard a friend of mine talking about a top 40 pop song, castigating it for containing a limited number of chords and a relatively conventional (i.e. boring) chord progression by Western pop music standards. This criticism is not uncommon, and seems to imply that one of, if not the, main criterion for good music (or music worthy of praise) is more chords arranged in unconventional progressions. I asked him, “So, your idea of good music is lots of chords?” He was a little taken back by my reaction to his criticism. I think that this “three chords are not enough” sentiment is one that is echoed by a lot of musicians. I find it strange. A lot of art music is composed with limited musical materials and conventional appeals to tonal procedures with the purpose of evoking simplicity as a vehicle for profundity. Artists like Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt have made it their personal crusade to brandish tonality and create elegant musical experiences through the use of simple, minimalistic styles. Do they make bad music? Well, you could certainly feel one way or the other about that question. Sometimes when I put on Music for Eighteen Musicians in my car, the passengers do not take long to request that I change the music.
Similarly, “complexity” in music is not always what it seems. Twentieth century composer Elliott Carter once said, “When people listen to my music, I hope that they will notice that if you take a piece by a composer like Schubert, the major and the minor triad is an extremely important thing not merely as harmony, but in creating melodic lines. Schubert is always walking up and down with arpeggios on C, E, G and so forth. I am not doing anything different really, except using a different system of harmony.” This comparison is interesting because it seems that Carter is deliberately underscoring the simplicity of abiding by a harmonic system as a general practice regardless of which system you choose for yourself, and by doing so, he points out that so-called “complex” atonal music might actually be as simple as conventional tonal music, however different. Arguments for complexity over simplicity as a principle used to determine the quality of music become null if you consider the idea that “complex” music might just secretly be simple music with a new edge. That is not to say that complexity in music cannot exist, but instead to say that music that is often critically acclaimed for being complex might actually be fairly simple. And indeed, music that strikes the listener as simple at a glance might actually be exceptionally intricate. Either way, it seems logical to say that the complexity/simplicity with which music is composed is not an objective barometer for its quality.
Most music students are exposed to a variety of styles and opinions. A course in aesthetics of music, in my opinion, is integral to a complete musical education. By honestly exploring historical definitions of music and comparing them, you are practically forced to adopt an almost infinitely elastic definition of music, thereby accepting that your terms of “good” or “bad” with regard to musical quality are nothing more than your own personal tastes (for which there is no accounting). People throughout history have debated the meaning of music and the methods by which we can be sure of its quality. But twentieth century revolutionaries like John Cage challenged ways of thinking that offer a definitive take on music as a concept. Sounds and vibrations, whether they are intentional or unintentional, are able to be perceived as music and therefore cannot be discounted as such.
One of my personal favorite artists is Brian Eno. I am particularly a fan of his Ambient Music albums, named for their genre, a term which Eno himself coined. Even if one does not find pleasure in listening to Eno’s ambient masterpieces, one can scarcely deny that Eno perfectly cultivates the simple, yet profound concept that he expounds in the liner notes of Ambient 1: Music For Airports. He describes his music as “original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and places” and “environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres.” He goes on to say that, “Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” The degree to which Eno’s exemplary style fulfills his conceptual goal is remarkable. While it is easy to play this music in the car or when going for a walk (and yes, at the airport) and allow it to fall into the background and set a scene, it also offers an intriguing and gratifying listening experience when you give it your full, undivided attention. Its gauge of usefulness is defined by the listener. To compose music beautiful enough to get your attention, but atmospheric enough to not demand it, seems to me a more challenging task than doing one or the other. More interesting than that, however, is the artistic attempt to appeal to the subjective nature of music by deliberately avoiding explication.
Granted, Eno does title his music. Titles endow music with explicit meaning via the intentionality of the composer, so Music for Airports, for example, can be said to have a meaningful, intended connection with airports (although Eno disclaims the exclusivity of this title in his liner notes). Eno’s Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror album also titles the individual tracks. So, this aspect of Eno’s ambient music project does seem somewhat peculiar to me. Perhaps he titled his pieces retrospectively in an effort to increase their marketability. I once had a conversation with composer Andrew York in which he explained that he does not believe that music has explicit meaning. He said, “An attentive person can respond any way they want with their own personal imagery or history or emotion. So, I would be limited by saying, ‘this piece means this.’ I know I title my pieces which tend to point in the direction of certain imagery, but that shouldn’t be taken very literally.” Thus, he only titles his pieces in an effort to “try to think of something colorful that would be evocative to a person looking at the name on a program or something because that helps, I think, identify the piece in someone’s mind as well.” The title is an expendable extramusical association that perhaps even somewhat compromises the purity of the music itself by providing the listener with a meaningful suggestion. Does Eno think about his music similarly? I cannot say for sure, but given Eno’s previously stated philosophy, it seems clear that he does not intend Music For Airports to be played exclusively in airports or when thinking about airports. Therefore, the titles of these works seem fairly extraneous. And it is also important to note that the language used to explicate meaning (i.e. titles, lyrics, etc.) is also inherently meaningless. If you do not know what the word “airport” means in English, then this title has no meaningful effect on your listening experience.
Ultimately, the point I am making is that music can only be measured as good or bad on a purely subjective basis. Music, like language, can certainly have assigned meaning and/or conventions that can be used to measure its quality within the context of these imposed meanings/conventions. But stripped of its context, music is without explicit meaning. Therefore, the quality of sounds cannot be objectively measured. This notion should temper pretention in musical criticism, and disabuse critics of the importance of their meager opinions. I once had a conversation with a guy who compared being a musician with being a chef, arguing that if you are eating a McDonalds cheeseburger and enjoying it, a chef is within his rights to inform you that what you are eating is of a lesser quality than the food he makes and that you need to refine your palette in order to have a better understanding of this. This seems compelling at first because, in our society, we all have generally agreed upon the quality of a McDonalds cheeseburger versus five star cuisines, but actually it is still a subjective argument. Someone is totally within their rights to claim that they prefer a Big Mac to a burger made by Bobby Flay, and you cannot reasonably tell them that their preference is wrong. No matter how well you contextualize your criticism, at the end of the day, your standards do not apply to everyone. So, while it can definitely be edifying to indulge in listening to music critically, sharing your thoughts, and working to understand your own personal tastes, it is not really justifiable to tell anyone that there is something wrong with their music or their taste in music, or to state your opinions as if they carry any more weight than other listeners.
Please feel free to disagree in the comments section!