During the past few months, this question has occupied my brain enormously. How is it possible that society and individuals readily categorize music as good or bad when there really isn’t a criteria for good music beyond “it sounds good”?
I remember attending a Don Freund masterclass in fall 2013 where he presented us with ten anonymous pieces from a former contest he had judged. He asked us to rank them as a class and decide 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners. After hearing excerpts of the compositions and looking at scores, we narrowed our selection down to the three compositions we felt were the best. Why these pieces stood out to us, I believe, is best summarized in an observation made by one of the doctoral students in the Freund studio that year. I don’t remember it verbatim, but it went something like this,
“These pieces achieve the goals they set for themselves, artistically, technically, emotionally, intellectually, etc.”
Today, this way of looking at a composition continues to resonate deeply for me.
When I think about the music that I love, I find that these pieces don’t just achieve the goals they appear to have set for themselves; they seem to achieve them to the fullest, possible extent. There doesn’t seem to be any stone left unturned, any crack unexamined. By this achievement, every note, every expression, every timbre, really everything seemed to matter and take part in creating a higher, unified artistic purpose.
When describing this sense of achievement and fulfillment, I like to use the term “compellingness.” For me, it accurately describes the integral use expressive and intellectual content I personally desire in music. However, the natural issue with trying to judge such a subjective topic as music is that individuals will perceive the "compellingness" of a work in several different ways. Even the concept of why we feel a need to define music as good or bad reveals something about us and society. (See Part 2: Why have it?)