I have already philosophized about the concept of value in music. Now, I would like to reflect on how I actually assess music qualitatively for myself.
What does quality mean anyway?
First of all, the term quality needs to be clarified. I understand quality as the sum of measurable attributes of something. For example, one could measure the amount of rust on the surface, the tightness of the screws, the wear of the brake pads, etc. on a bicycle and draw conclusions about how safe and usable the bike might still be (where each individual element also has its own quality!). This aligns roughly with the possible (german) meanings by the Duden, a German dictionary. For instance, "constitution" or "the entirety of characteristic attributes" or "goodness." Wikipedia considers "neutral" and "evaluative" qualities, at least in the german article. In other words, it is the "sum [or] goodness of all attributes of an object." This implies that quality should indeed be measurable. At least, that's how I interpret the definitions.
Without further considerations, I have always interpreted the term quality in relation to art as the result of subjective perception. I have also always contrasted quantity and quality - one being measurable, the other not. Even the german Wiktionary article defines quantity as an antonym of quality. So, I wasn't far off with that juxtaposition. After writing this post, it became clear to me that quality should also be measurable when it comes to artworks.
While writing, I also noticed that I was quickly tempted to mix up taste and quality. I certainly don't tend to like (according to my idea) inferior pieces. On the other hand, I can find a piece to be of high quality and still not like it. Therefore, it is important to consider and differentiate between the two.
Quality criteria in music
Before I can delve deeper, I would like to establish specific criteria that could help me reflect on how I ultimately assess the quality of music, enabling me to judge a piece of music as either high-quality or rather low-quality. These criteria are ultimately just parts of an evaluation.
Idea vs. implementation
Early on, it became clear to me that when I receive or evaluate music, I want to consider it from different aspects. I distinguish between the idea (the composition itself, so to speak) and the implementation (e.g., the sound character, the technical execution of the production, etc.). There can be pieces that I find conceptually (in terms of the idea or composition) rather inferior after all. However, I may still consider these pieces technically excellent in terms of sound production. On the other hand, it can also happen the other way around, where I find the composition of a piece good, but the sonic implementation unsuccessful.
All the following points should actually be applicable to both aspects and lead me to a judgment.
In itself, there doesn't always have to be a statement or a deeper meaning. However, I simply find art to be of higher quality when there is a statement involved. This statement can particularly take the form of a dramatic progression. For me, that would also be a kind of statement in a certain sense. Consequently, all the following points become more interesting to the extent that they support this statement effectively. How one recognizes or perceives this statement, for example, is also influenced by its accessibility. Or, the extent to which this statement is consistently pursued would be a matter of coherence.
A piece of music should exhibit a certain level of coherence. This means that it should possess a sense of internal unity. For instance, a composition should have a consistent concept that is maintained throughout. Let's imagine a piece that changes genres after every measure. Initially, this may appear very chaotic and potentially incoherent. However, it can still be coherent if, for example, the perceived chaos is reinforced as a pattern through repetitions, thus enabling listeners to understand it as a concept (more on this under Patterns). Alternatively, the piece may change genres every measure but maintain a recurring melody.
Of course, there is also the concept of aleatoric music - broadly speaking, art created through randomness. When this technique is employed with intention, it still establishes a concept and therefore coherence. However, this can be somewhat challenging: there could be a piece that relies solely on randomness throughout. That would likely result in a demanding listening experience. But if the idea of randomness is consistently utilized throughout the piece, it becomes coherent again, doesn't it? This brings me to my next point.
There might be a piece that I dislike because it is cryptic and thus likely closed off to a wider audience (which reminds me of the german saying, roughly translated: "Is it art or can it be thrown away?"). However, I might actually appreciate the same piece if I analyze it closely and recognize the concept behind it. So, it depends on how accessible the respective music piece is, based on the listening habits I perceive as mainstream music and my own listening habits. The above example with the random music piece would be such a candidate. I would assume that such a piece would be difficult for most people (including myself) to listen to, and the access to it would be either impossible or at least highly unlikely. I would consider such a piece to be "poorly accessible" on the level of "accessible to all," which would contribute to the overall judgment.
Accessibility also includes what the respective work presupposes in terms of (cultural) education and experience. If, for example, a piece requires listeners to have already heard a wide range of music in order to understand it, in my opinion, it is qualitatively detrimental.
Now I wonder how a listener can ultimately come to the conclusion that such a random piece of music from the example follows this random thought. This leads to the next elaboration.
A piece of music holds more value to me when it doesn't require any additional explanation (such as written text, additional images, etc.). In other words, it would be a piece of music that I can simply listen to and understand the artist's intention immediately (bonus points if I can grasp it while listening!). So, what qualities might such a piece of music possess to enable listeners to recognize an intention within the music?
When I think of patterns, I primarily think of recurring elements in music - such as rhythmic motifs, melodies, or repeating sections. When an element (or section) appears again in the music, I, as a listener, believe I can at least sense that it could have been intentional (thus still a prerequisite to recognize which intention). On the other hand, in my example of random music, there would be no patterns - let's assume that throughout the entire piece, there is pure chaos without any repetition. In such a case, this extreme "lack of patterns" could again be the intention of the artist. But that seems a bit hypocritical to me and ultimately not really self-revealing. Moreover, there is a question I haven't even asked yet: if the music piece were pure chaos, then what would the composer have actually done? Only the "conceptual thinking", right? That, in my opinion, would be a bit weak. However, this is a point that I might see differently in the future! While writing, I ponder whether there is or could be music without patterns that I would find qualitatively high-value in that regard.
Repetition is something I consider somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, repetitions can be useful to solidify a thought, yet on the other hand, there is a risk that something becomes inferior when it is repeated too much. This leads me to the next point:
Creating tension is achieved through imbalance. From this perspective, I consider all aspects of music, such as dynamics, note values, pitch, tempo, instrumentation, etc. Using all these elements, one can and should incorporate variations in music to make it more interesting, in my opinion. By this, I don't necessarily mean extreme and obvious variations. Perhaps a piece of music needs this apparent lack of variation to convey the composer's thought. However, I believe it is still possible to incorporate variations even in such cases and still create a certain monotony, if needed. Examples could be extremely subtle variations that are more subconsciously noticed. I consistently compare variation in an artistic or musical context to life itself. There is day and night, hot and cold, happy and sad, etc. And it doesn't always have to be the extreme. Sometimes, minimal variations might even be more effective. Ultimately, there should be variations so that I perceive a piece of music as high quality.
For the extreme example of random music, there is likely to be an abundance of variation. If there were no variation at all, would the piece ultimately be just noise?
I personally find this point very important. For me, it's about a music piece (also comparable to the definition from Wiktionary) being creative or original and introducing something new. This can be considered on several levels: either by examining and analyzing the piece itself. What elements are processed and further developed within the piece? Another level would be to compare and analyze the piece with other compositions. What elements of the piece already exist in a similar form in other compositions?
I have been experiencing art for many years in a way that it always seems to copy and depict the already known, perhaps only changing it minimally. Ultimately, I don't believe that one can create something completely new because what artists create always builds upon something already known - consciously or unconsciously.
For me, a musical piece would be more innovative and therefore of higher quality if it offers listeners something they have not heard before or have heard only rarely. In doing so, one can certainly play with this characteristic, in my opinion. As a musician, for example, you can incorporate elements that are already familiar but continue them in a way that is different from what is expected. This way, you can use an element that is not new in itself but appears new through an unexpected continuation (or through the combination of different elements).
Normally, I prefer to appreciate music on its own, without considering the lyrics. However, there is a significant amount of music that also contains text. In such cases, there is another factor that greatly influences the evaluation: the connection between words and tones. How well does the word align with the melody, for example? Does the direction of the melody make sense in relation to the meaning of the word or sentence? Does the melody or rhythm reflect the intended message? Or does the musical aspect, through which the lyrics are conveyed, appear to be arbitrary?
Assessing quality - an example
So far, the characteristics mentioned were all more or less abstract. But what happens in my mind when I listen to music?
Earlier, I called a doctor's office and was put on hold with music playing in the background. Now, I'm trying to roughly assess the quality of that piece of music from my memory. Since it doesn't have any lyrics, I'll leave out the aspect of word-tone reference.
Idea, which refers to the compositional aspect, had the following points:
- I couldn't identify a deeper message or a dramatic progression.
- Coherence was present as it repeated musical ideas.
- The piece was accessible, having a familiar quality that one might recognize from the radio.
- It's difficult to determine if it was self-explanatory since I would classify the music as functional and it may not have had an artistic statement. At least for me, it's not clear what the musician intended to convey with the piece. The intention, however, can be understood from the context.
- Patterns were established through repetitive rhythms, harmonies, and melodies.
- There were almost no variations, and the patterns were consistently repeated without much change. Additionally, there was no variation in dynamics, instrumentation, or tempo.
- The piece was not innovative since the harmony was already familiar from many other musical compositions, and the melody was extremely simple.
Implementation, i.e., the production quality, had the following points:
- Since I couldn't identify any statement or dramatic progression, I couldn't see any parallel in terms of implementation.
- Coherence was present, as the production quality remained the same.
- It was also accessible, as the sound was "familiar" and all instruments were clearly audible. Especially the electric bass was extremely "understandable," which impressed me, considering that it was all played through a bandwidth-limited telephone signal. That's technically quite challenging!
- It was self-explanatory in itself, as it was evident what instruments were playing.
- It's difficult for me to assess patterns here. One could argue that the same instrument sound was used.
- Variation was not present, as everything sounded the same throughout.
- There was no innovation here either, as the piece sounded consistently and overall similar to what you would find in production music archives or similar telephone hold music.
If we were to count the points, this piece would have achieved three out of seven points in terms of idea and three out of seven points in terms of implementation. There might be some points to be gained in terms of self-relevance in the idea and patterns in the execution. Overall, I would roughly assess this piece as inferior in quality.
I would like to summarize the criteria I consider when assessing the quality of music first:
- I divide it into concept and implementation.
- The piece should have a statement.
- The piece should exhibit coherence.
- The piece should be accessible to as many listeners as possible.
- The piece should be self-explanatory.
- The piece should establish patterns.
- The piece should contain a lively and appropriately fitting level of variation.
- The piece should be innovative and strive to be something new.
- If the piece has lyrics, it should have a good word-tone reference.
Coherence, accessibility, and self-referentiality are aspects that I consider to be less context-sensitive. For example, a piece should be coherent, but it cannot be "too coherent". Patterns, variation, and innovation, on the other hand, can be heavily context-dependent. A piece may potentially contain "too much repetition / pattern" or "too much variation", which, in my opinion, would diminish its quality because these features would be extreme. Similarly, a piece that is too novel and unheard of might be difficult to assess. Then there is the interplay of all the mentioned characteristics: being too novel could mean that the piece is not accessible and, from this perspective, it would be considered of lower quality. A piece that is too variable might appear incoherent under certain circumstances. Too much repetition could contrast with the aspect of variation. In summary, it's all a interplay of the enumerated characteristics.
I have to mention that writing this post has actually prompted me to think more deeply about the subject matter. I believe that if I were to contemplate it further, I might determine certain characteristics differently or discover new ones, while some might fade away. For me, it seems elusive – and I attribute this intuitively to the fact that ultimately, we are dealing with art here.
05.10.2022: I have added another feature: Word-Tone reference.
06.10.2022: And here's another feature that came to my mind: Does it make a statement?