How do you decide if a piece of music is good?
There're maybe 2 aspects to the question: what makes you prefer a certain genre over another? and within that genre, what criteria makes you think one piece performs better than another?
I get that this is a very subjective and probably subconscious thing. Just curious to see how everyone would describe their own tastes.
For me I'm not much of a music person, most music I found were just soundtracks from films or videogames. So I guess the music is good if the film/game is good. Listening is a way to put me back into the moods of the scenes it came from.
Edit: I also listen to meme songs a lot so I guess I like them for just being funny, which is not a very musically relevant criteria I suppose
I'll preface this by saying that I probably overthink music a lot. I have studied and listened to music a lot over the years.
The things I think about when evaluating music are:
For me, the former is much more important than the latter, but this is almost a non-answer, as it turns the question into a form of "what music do you like?" so I'll try to talk about feelings in music.
When I was a young, I would listen to hard rock or "classical" (I hate the term, but it causes you to know what I mean), almost to the exclusion of all else, when left to my own devices. I would say things like, "[Genre] sucks!" when asked, where the genre could be anything popular, or out of my immediate comfort zone. As I got older, I removed some genres from the list of genres that suck; I started listening to more jazz, so I would never say "Jazz sucks", for example. As time went on, I maintained a list of genres that I didn't like because I thought they were bad, and they were mostly variants of the Big Three That People Don't Like - Pop, Country, Rap - and then one day one of my friends threw on a Tupac album and said, "hey, actually listen to this and feel it," and I shut my mouth and listened.
I still sometimes have kneejerk reactions to things; I'm only human. But that day was one where I elected to let go of all my preconceived notions of what I like and what I don't like, and to listen to music without trying to bring all my stupid baggage with me when I listen to something.
When I listen now, I am listening for things like:
And with all music, instead of facing it with the attitude of "will I like this" I face it while thinking "what do I like about this" which makes a lot of difference. And I try to never think of things like "is this too popular for me to like" because I was the embodiment of "you wouldn't know this cool band that I like" from age 13 to 16 and nobody liked it. Popular music tends to be popular because it makes people feel things, and feeling things is good. And yes, some of it is a bit soulless now - there are sound engineers who catchy-ify everything they can get their hands on - but that doesn't mean it's not good.
All that is not to say that there aren't genres that I prefer - if I'm putting on music that's my own choice, it is likely to be in my preferred genre, or my preferred artists. But I also add and curate lists for my wife and kids, and select good music that I think they'll love as well, and sometimes I throw on things that none of us have heard, and sometimes my kids bring up songs that they've heard and want to listen to, and I take them in with an open mind, like "World's Smallest Violin" which seems like it's everywhere on TikTok but is a fun and catchy song, or a boatload of Nicki Minaj, who likely wouldn't be my cup of tea normally, but who makes a lot of pretty good stuff. They all make me feel pretty good, so I think the music is pretty good.
Beyond that, there are things that I think are important and difficult, like Coltrane's Giant Steps, which don't really resonate with me deeply, but are incredible from an expertise standpoint; the music itself is jagged and complex and most of my appreciation comes from an almost mathematical understanding of what is going on. I think that's also an important part of music.
I also would say that just because a piece of music doesn't make me feel something and doesn't seem like it requires much in the way of expertise, I don't necessarily dismiss it as "not good", but think about it more as "not for me". I'm struggling to remember the exact song, but I heard one today by Justin Timberlake that fit this. I generally enjoy listening to JT sing - he is superlatively talented - but this song had me unenthusiastic the entire way through, and it seemed relatively simple (four chords, I could have sung and played every single part with ease). But it was popular enough that other people listen and enjoy it, so it just wasn't for me.
I think where I draw the line on what is "bad" tends to be at competence for making music. I have seen any number of live bands that were bad, but it mostly came down to the fact that they did not play the music well for some reason, be it drunkenness, stage fright, or some other issue. I have left shows that were playing bad music, and endured many more.
I find it understandable why people of my generation grew up not liking rap and country music. Rap had a lot of barriers to entry; not only did a lot of popular songs of the time not have any melody, the lyrics used terms that people outside the culture wouldn't have understood. Country was turning into pop with a steel guitar, led by lyrics that were alienating to people who didn't subscribe to the "country way of life" (which I say because I found it was more of a state of mind or subculture rather than being a result of a real urban/rural divide); Bo Burnham explained it pretty well.
I remember telling people I didn't like rap and country music when I was young, but it was for different reasons. For country, it was because I grew up spending a lot of time with my grandmother who listened to a lot of older country songs which were pretty great, and the newer stuff really felt like pale imitations. And I didn't like rap at the time because everyone was doing gangsta rap and I really didn't like the negativity, disrespect, and violence in it - especially because at the time I was a Good Ol'e Christian Boy.
And honestly it's all of this that makes me kind of hate the entire concept of genre. Gangsta rap made me hate rap, but rap is such a wide genre that encompasses so many different types of music that could have a high degree of musicality, or it could be atonal, and you might even be able to fit spoken word into that pidgeonhole. In the meanwhile there were many artists I could have enjoyed at the time If I weren't closed to the idea of their music.
Genres are just generally too vague to talk about music. Like you mentioned classical music in quotes - is that because you meant orchestral music generally? Are you talking about the classical period specifically? Or are you talking about new orchestral arrangements that are composed in a way that mimicks the style of classical period composers? Or are you talking about smaller bands, trios, duos, or solos that are written in a style of music from the greater time periods that tend to be lumped into the term "classical"? Of course there are more specific genres like synthwave or post-punk or trap that work, but the big overarching ones like pop don't help anyone (especially because there is such a wide range of them that don't appear to have any widely accepted genre names).
I don't have a problem with popular music, but I do have a problem with how often I hear them being played. Combined with how simple they tend to be it gets annoying really quickly, and that breeds resentment. Listening to popular music after they get unpopular seems to be the best solution for this.
Your insightful comments about country seem to really mesh with @TooFewColours great comment about authenticity; it can be hard to swallow a song about being a working man delivered by a multi millionaire. I think that, as a whole, this doesn't mean that country is bad. While I don't want to be defending the Garth Brooks or Toby Keiths of the world, I would say that people who write songs - or, more generally, make art - do not have to do so from a place of first-hand knowledge, but that it does help to loan authenticity. One need not be a working man to write a song that resonates about being a working man. It does, however, require empathy to write that song in an effective and authentic way.
With regards to Rap, you said "I really didn't like the negativity, disrespect, and violence" and I think that a key thing that you didn't say was "Rap is bad because of these things I don't like". What I was fumbling towards in my lengthy top-level comment is that there are a subset of people who say and think things like, "Rap isn't good" when they mean "Rap isn't for me". I used to conflate those things myself, and I did so from a place of ignorance.
I think that genres are generally just tools for conveying information about music, which allows us to organize our understanding of songs relationships with each other. I think it is an incredibly useful tool for talking about music, but what people often do is generalize to a whole genre based on limited interactions with the genre. We might listen to three pop songs and then think "I don't like these three songs, so I don't like pop music", and that's where the problem lies with genres. This is not limited to music either; any art form is subject to this, and more broadly just about everything humans do. We make generalizations, and making generalizations with limited information, and those generalizations are sometimes useful, but more often ignorant and useless.
re: classical music, I meant formal (ie. non-folk) European music that spans roughly the 9th century via Gregorian chants to Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern / Neoclassical music, until the general dissolution of stylistic unification with the onset of popular contemporary music. Or, less pompously, orchestral music that isn't for movie soundtracks. I think part of the issue is that if I was writing something scholarly, I would use the correct "expert" term for whatever I was discussing, instead of the more day-to-day / OED version that people use. That said, i think this is an example of how Genres can be quite useful when discussing things; if I was writing an article and I said something like "this soundtrack shares similarities with some Romance Era compositions" then that could have a particular meaning and set a particular tone, distinct from if I said, "this soundtrack shares similarities with some Baroque Era compositions" - one could deduce generally what the soundtracks might sound like.
My favorite album purchase of all time, was buying "Has Been" by William Shatner and Ben Folds on CD out of the Rap section in the record store.
A fantastic album, and shows that a brilliant musician can bring out the best in even the worst singers (no offense Will).
This is a thought-provoking line of questioning. I think there are so many different reasons I am drawn to all sorts of music, that it cannot easily be distilled into a single point or two.
The interesting thing is- all of these items above- sometimes they can be at the expense of another, and that's okay. Sometimes there's a simple metal song that provokes emotion, makes me feel good, etc without being technical or even any kind of pinnacle of songwriting. I like that sometimes a single facet or two of a song can be good enough for me to enjoy it.
I also, time and again, keep trying to make sure I am not gatekeeping music. I might joke about certain genres, fanbases, etc. and/or point out legit problems with various acts, but gatekeeping has been a thing for a long time and it's really time for that elitism to die. I started enjoying way more music when I stopped being so damn critical of it
I listen to all sorts of genres of music, with a heavy rotation of metal, indie rock, synthpop, synthwave. Music is such an important part of my life- one of THE most important. I am not religious anymore, but if music were a religion I'd be an adherent
I'm a very visual and spatial person, so I listen to music visually. (I also see programming spatially too.)
I envision music videos, people dancing, people singing, cinematic scenes, different camera angles, audiovisual art installations, timelapsed landscapes and cityscapes, and abstract colors and shapes and lights in motion.
With good music, I can see in my mind's eye these moving images beautifully and with crisp detail. With good music, these images just manifest effortlessly.
With bad music, I struggle to put together scenes. The music appears in my head as mushy, unclear, muddled, dull, lifeless images.
Interestingly, I have a hard time hearing lyrics. To me, vocals are just another instrument to visualize, but I barely ever remember what the singer is saying. I know people who know the lyrics to every song, whereas I can't conjure any lyrics, even those of my favorite songs.
Same! I thought it's because I'm too used to soundtracks and those don't often have lyrics but seems like it's a more general trait than I thought. Do you sing if you don't mind me asking. I'm terrible at it, just wondering if there's a connection between being bad at following vocals and producing them.
I'm also terrible at singing! I can't reproduce pitch, tone, rhythm, or anything.
I want to take lessons sometime. I can't consciously control my larynx; other people's ability to control their own appears simply as black wizardry to me.
Although I don't think art is completely subjective, I've neither the time, inclination, nor education to debate the matter at length. So I just go with what resonates with me and what aligns with my aesthetic worldview. This puts me firmly in three genre camps: jazz, folk, and modern classical. I like other genres, of course, but those three are the genres of resonance. I listen to music that reminds me of what I am, and therefore it's good.
Interesting, can you go a bit more into what you mean by resonance? I've only listened in passing to the three genres you listed so them sharing some commonality surprises me.
I just mean music that resonates with me. You know, the way people use the word "resonate". I'd like to take it a step further and say it's some kind of ineffable artistic resonance based on who I am, but I dunno. Maybe.
Ah gotcha, I get how we often sense a special connection to some music that's hard to describe. For me I usually listen while doing other stuff but sometimes the music just hit a certain way that makes me stop doing whatever I'm doing and give it my full attention. It's a very wordless feeling.
Super interesting question! I thought it quite a bit in the past. I really wonder what makes differwnt people like different genres. Is it about what they listened to when they were young?
For me, I like mostly alt rock I guess and stuff adjacent to it. The artists I like the most are quite experimental -- I really like when the music is somewhat unique, so I can listen to the same album many times over a long timeframe without getting bored of it. I don't like catchy songs too much, for example 100 gecs (which I really like) are too catchy and the songs get stuck in my mind which I hate, so I dont listen to them too much. I think a quality I really like in a song or album is length. There are things like drone which I really enjoy even if it contradicts the "uniqueness" i mentioned before, cause it repeats so much. I think long music really allows me to immerse myself in the music, which can make it much more potent. For example Natural Snow Buildings or the album Microphones in 2020. I also think that music that is emotionally powerful is often more enjoyable for me -- I can really like screamo-y vocals if they feel genuine. Actually strange vocals might be another thing that I like -- Jordaan Mason, The Brave Little Abacus or Joanny Newsom are some examples of vocals I think are a bit unorthodox but I like. In the end I just dont exactly know. Its interesting.
We often conflate value and enjoyment. Is music 'good' because it's something we should value, or because it's something we enjoy?
I strongly believe music is the most subjective art form. I've thought about this a great deal, and the one system that hasn't failed me is authenticity. Music is subjective because it's abstract, and something we pull from ourselves - it's pure self expression.
And I really do believe this applies to any genre. Pop is its most genuine when it's fun and not too complicated - otherwise it becomes pretentious. Progressive music demands itself to be more complex - dumbing itself down for a wider audience becomes pandering.
One of my pet peeves is when we expect something we enjoy to also be high value. We like to think that the things we enjoy are important and clever in an objective way, and that's why we enjoy them. There's something in it, something identifiable, that you can pull and extract and declare is the reason it is high value, and that is also the reason to enjoy it - be it a chord structure, melody, harmony, rhythm etc. There's a billion YouTube essays out there telling us why the things we like are reflections of our own good taste. I don't think it's ever so simple.
An Enso is a circle drawn purely by feeling, with no calculation. There's something so satisfyingly human about it. Is it less valuable than the Sistine Chapel? I don't think so. Both are drawn from some kind of human belief to create something.
Next time you're enjoying a certain piece of music, ask yourself if it feels authentic - the answer is probably yes. The difficult bit is then figuring out exactly how you've been convinced of that authenticity - it's usually something less concrete, like a context or a voice or the quality of the recording. Those give it value, and I believe those are the things that are the most fun to discuss.
To speak to your example, soundtracks are successful when they evoke the feeling of the thing they accompany. They often gain a good deal of 'value' simply from the success of that film or video game. That magic happens when a soundtrack so perfectly reminds us of an exact moment that made us feel a certain way - that's context, and it's the artist understanding what they're composing for, and that's the authenticity. Have you ever listened to a soundtrack for something you've never watched or played? It's a totally different experience.
I would agree to this. I think - or hope, at least - that most people have a time in their lives when they realize that there's a difference between music that is "good" and the music they like. And personally speaking I find there's lots of times when I find myself listening to music I find unpalatable because there's something that's innately fascinating about it. Music like that is probably the closest we can get to experiencing life through someone else's perspective. That's why protest/purpose music can be such a powerful tool.
Two ways: physical response, or intrigue. If I get a tickle in the back of my head it means I like it. If it piques my interest, I'll listen until I have an opinion and see if I like it.
The third is "is it entertaining?" There's plenty I listen to that is entertaining but not intriguing.
There is no simple explanation. If I like it, I just want to listen it again, and again. I might not understand the language or it may even not have one, but if I like it, I know.
There was an excellent radio program that ran for years called The Shickele Mix. Near the beginning, he would say that he dedicates his show to "the proposition that all musics are created equal, or, as Duke Ellington put it, if it sounds good, it is good"
I agree with that. If I like a piece of music, then, to me, it is good. Simple as that.
I have good memory for melodies and patterns, so I end up hating most simplistic catchy songs, since even if I stop listening to them they'll keep playing nonstop in my head. So strictly speaking I tend to prefer complex, rich genres that overload this feature of my brain, such as by having songs that have several or unconventional instruments/synthesizers and voices, or that are very long.
I also appreciate musical complexity for the skill it demands from the composer and performers. Better music for me tends to be a demonstration of skill. Naturally I don't just mean a band should throw a mess of sounds into a blender and hope for the best; I expect the different parts to work well together, or to contrast in a meaningful way.
When singing karaoke on the other hand I'd rather exploit my memory and sing something I know well (I probably know hundreds of songs). I prefer songs in which the vocals are in tune rather than that thing some singers do with their voices going all over the place, it's so hard to replicate. Or rather than spoken words in songs (sorry, the entire rap genre).
That said, in the end my taste converges with yours somewhat. There are soundtracks from movies and games that I really like.
I also prefer more complex music, and that’s why a lot of the stuff I listen to is vaguely prog rock or jazz in style. It’s one of the reasons why I really liked the resurgence of the City Pop genre, and why I find myself occasionally listening to metal even though I don’t really like a lot of the aesthetics of the sound.
I also like music that is in unusual time signatures. It’s enough if it’s just in waltz time but more irregular times are always interesting to listen to.
But even though I say this there is always times when I am surprised when an artist can take an aspect that I generally don’t care about. I don’t care for lyrics and listen to a lot of instrumental music, but I listen to Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals in part because the lyrics are so good; they mesh with the song really well and there is a synergistic effect which makes them fantastic and especially well suited for numbers in a musical. Climb Ev’ry Mountain from The Sound of Music is a real triumph of a song (and it’s a shame most people these days know it from the movie because it may honestly be the worst version of it).