Updated: Apr 20, 2020
In order for good music to exist, there must be bad music. But can bad music be objectively defined?
Balance... we instinctively understand it. In order to have up, we need down. In order to have left, we need right, etc.
By that logic, good music needs balance as well.
It's easy to define left and right, up and down. But how do we objectively define good and bad music? Or can we actually define good and bad music at all?
This is what I will attempt to tackle in this article, so grab some coffee, sit back, and (hopefully) enjoy!
The difficulty in objective reasoning
The reason it is easy to define the terms left and right is because as concepts, they have been collectively agreed upon.
Once that happens, definitions fit easily into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle...
...or do they?
Let's put that statement to the test.
If I were to place two people in a small room and stand them facing each other, left and right would take on different meaning to those particular individuals.
That's because directional concepts such as left and right only work when you have a sense of unified or shared perspective.
As a result, if I were writing out a set of directions in this manner, they would be either good or bad based in part on the perspective of the individuals involved.
We can apply the same concept to music. One way to objectively determine whether music is good or bad is to come to some consensus as to what composed music actually is.
This is because the definition of good music and bad music would, by necessity, depend on the perspective of the individuals experiencing it — unless that perspective is collectively shared.
Keep in mind that I'm not talking about individual "taste". I'm talking about a commonly shared perspective. Taste will always be subjective.
What is music?
Music is defined by Merriam-Webster as "the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity".
As a basic standard, if we can agree on this definition of music, we can also agree that any attempt to construct sound design in a way that fails to adhere to the shared perspective of what music is, would be flawed at its core and would fall into the category of objectively bad music.
Let me provide an example to demonstrate this point...
Imagine that I compose a piece of music for orchestra and it's 600 measures. On the 600th measure, I give the piccolo a C quarter note on the second beat of a 4/4 measure.
That's it. That's the entire score — one note. Is that objectively good or bad? Based upon our premise, it's objectively bad.
Because based on our shared perspective and our agreed upon definition of music, this piece has failed to meet the basic standards we set forth earlier.
In other words, the musical directions fall outside of our common frame of reference. Consequently, it's objectively bad.
Now, someone could enjoy that single note after 599 measures of silence and it could have real meaning to someone else. It could be a meaningful note, but it would still be objectively bad music.
Just to summarize...
Directions given with no frame of reference and outside of a common, shared perspective are objectively bad. They are objectively bad because they fail to fulfill their intended purpose.
In the same way, music composed outside of the shared understanding of what music actually is, is objectively bad as well. It fails to fulfill its intended purpose.
As a final note, I'll say that while the conclusions presented here may be true theoretically, as a practical matter, not everyone agrees with the definition of music.
So until we can all come to agreement on how we define music, we're stuck with our own individual taste... and that's not a bad place to be.
What do you think?
Do you agree with the premise and conclusion? Do you think there is such a thing as objectively good or bad music? Should there be an objective standard for music? Let me know in the comments section below...