What makes ‘good music’?
Here are some musings based on my experiences of playing jazz
Firstly how do you define ‘good music’?
I’d suggest it must mean something to the listener, and what it means should be at least close to what the performer intended it to mean.
But that’s still pretty ambiguous – what do I mean about ‘what music means’?
Music is created to stir emotions – excitement, melancholy, wonder, awe, calm, love, laughter, fear, lust, nostalgia, intrigue, elation… music with meaning will touch on a mixture of emotions carefully woven together.
Music that is awe inspiringly complex and virtuosic is likely to catch your attention for a period, but without some other emotions being involved it is likely to become tedious.
A musician or band that is not virtuosic can obviously still make good music. In fact I’d suggest the pursuit of virtuosity, particularly in jazz, can often hinder the effort of making good music. But this doesn’t mean that virtuosity in itself takes away meaning.
Many great musicians had technical limitations but decades later people still listen to their recordings and try to imitate what they did. Within their limitations they were able to convey something very personal and unique to the listener.
But people shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that because of someone’s apparent limitations of technique on their instrument they should be easy to imitate. Trying to copy someone’s notes, inflections, timing, accents and everything involved in playing even a simple melody will sound contrived unless the thought process comes from deeper down inside you, somewhere in your subconscious.
It’s your subconscious that conceives good music, aided by your conscious to convey it. If, as a musician, you can then weave your musical meaning into the subconscious of your listener then they will be inspired.
But then a composer or performer can string together a series of tried and tested cliches to create an effect. Is this good music? To untrained ears the effect might be very moving, while to someone who recognises the cliches it might be nauseating. Cliches in themselves don’t make music bad though. The cliches only became cliches because they were an effective musical device that was repeatedly used.
To really judge a piece of music one needs to be familiar with the nuances of the genre of the piece. These nuances can be very subtle. In the jazz world control of the timing of exactly when a note is played (on the beat, ahead of the beat, behind the beat, and how rhythms are subtly stretched, compressed and altered) is what makes a great jazz musician great. You will hear jazz musicians discussing how someone really “swings” - it’s their control of time and rhythm.
But jazz is jam-packed with cliches, and every musician has their own set of cliches that they draw from when improvising. It’s a musician’s taste in use of these cliches which will decide if a piece of music is good or bad.
But then “taste” is an ambiguous term. Who is to decide if a piece or performer is tasteful? Often it may take years for musical opinion to decide, and maybe this is really the big decider. If people are still listening to the music years later then it must be good. Maybe? It doesn’t help decide if a live performance is good though.
Live music has the added magic of being created in front of your eyes and ears. As a musician who makes my living almost entirely from performing live I’ve thought long and hard about what is required to do a good job. The happy conclusion I have come to is that the greatest part of my job is to enjoy myself! If you are watching a band (or choir) that is loving doing what they are doing, loving performing with each other and enjoying being part of a collective, it’s fun to watch and draws your audience in to the experience. The down-side is that it’s not always easy to enjoy yourself – the circumstances of the gig might not help, and you have to give at least as much as you get from the other musicians in the band. You need to keep exploring and discovering musically, which requires work at home in your own time.
So good live music must be magical. If as a result of listening you decide it’s good then it is good, for you at least. Sometimes it’s worth exploring music that other people are inspired by. It may take time, but you may discover a new musical genre that inspires you in new ways. Or you may just decide it’s not your thing.