Bad Music, Good Music: How We Assess Sound

by Thomas Brett

How do you know when some music is just plain bad?  Not bad as in really good (“That was badass!”) or badly performed, badly executed, but just stylistically bad–bad as in: “That’s terrible, awful music.”  What do we mean when we utter such a harsh critique?  And–to paraphrase Napoleon Dynamite’s brother in the scene in the movie Napoleon Dynamite where he hears Napoleon sum up the lameness of their uncle Rico’s home movie that chronicles his squandered quarterbacking potential (“This is pretty much the worst movie ever made.”)–how can we know this?  Do we even have the right to such judgement?

I was thinking about what makes bad music this morning as I gave a listen to a CD passed on to me by an acquaintance.  My judgement was instant, reflex-like, almost a revulsion like being fed artificial sweetener en lieu of the real thing.  My wife pleaded for me to make it stop.  It wasn’t the “fake”, sampled instruments or the overly lush orchestration or the easy listening vibe that sealed the deal either.  Was it the hackneyed chord progression?  Maybe.  Was it all of these things together?  Maybe.  The answer still eludes me, but I just knew.

The truth is, answering the questions Why is some music is bad and how do you know that? is a complex business.  All of us are constantly assessing the good-bad ratios when we listen, expressing our tastes vaguely by way of “I like this” or “I don’t like this.”  However, it’s hard work uncovering the deeper underpinnings of our aesthetic valuations–realizing that we have an unspoken aversion to dance musics, say, or that we find the sound of acoustic strings an instant turn off.  We’ve been enculturated without ever having given our permission (imagine!), picking up notions about how music should and shouldn’t sound like from our parents, our friends, our general social milieu, from advertising, from inherited tradition, from music teachers, from our desire to be different from our teachers, friends and family, and from our time.  What all this means is that how we come to know what we like or don’t like is not always obvious even to ourselves.

The ethnomusicological position on this is that all the world’s musical traditions are equally valid as human expressions, and thus equally good too.  But the ethnomusicologist would want to understand more about the music I heard and disliked this morning: Tell me more about who made it and their reasons for making it.  How does the music connect to their life experiences?  What makes the music good for them (rather than bad for you)?

If you follow the stylistic innovations in a particular musical idiom such as electronic music, you realize that a lot of what makes a music “good”–even in some instances, innovative–happens incrementally, an accruing of little details and changes that mean something to a community of practitioners and fans.  Here we are reminded of anthropologist-cybernetician Gregory Bateson’s notion of information as “differences that make a difference.”  As we learn about style–as practitioners and listeners–we learn how to pick up on these differences that can mean all the difference in whether or not we deem the music to be good or bad.  Amass for yourself enough of this understanding of style and how one style relates to or overlaps with another and pretty soon you’re making what feel to be very natural assessments of the goodness or badness of a music.

Having said all this, there are always loose ends in matters of aesthetic critique.  One particularly tricky issue is the possibility of ironic intentions, where we encounter a music that seems to be metaphorically winking at us knowingly by way of stylistic allusion, reframing a dated instrumental timbre say, or revisiting low-fi sound fidelity in an obvious way (“Hey, I recorded this on my vintage 4-track cassette recorder!”) just because…Because it signifies a new brand of cool, a new difference that makes a difference.  This requires us, as listeners, to be in the know, to be with it, in sync with the subculture or zeitgeist, to get it, to be open to the cool, to know when something might be bad–but in a good way–and so be good after all.  We need to be able to heed anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s advice to make “thick” assessments of social things, distinguishing all the subtly different ways someone’s eye wink–or musical wink–can mean something.  When we do this, we move away from the question of whether something is good or bad into a more fruitful realization: someone took the time to organize sounds in this particular way because it felt right to them.

And so, as the saying goes, it’s all good.

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