[Discussion] It sounds good, is it good?

Here’s Johannes’ original message sent to me regarding the subject:

This is one of the more substantive on-line discussions I’ve read so far on the topic:

Interesting. Apparently, Duke Ellington said that “if it sounds good, it is good.” I disagree vehemently. I’ve had many experiences where I listen to something for the first time and get super bored thinking it’s just a bunch of notes or even just noise. Perhaps to your surprise, examples include Chopin’s 4th Ballade, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, all of Beethoven’s late sonatas, and Prokofiev’s piano concertos.
I remember having a discussion with a music teacher at my high school about Beethoven where I basically said “Moonlight, Pathetique, and Appassionata are the best, the later stuff is just weird.” To which he replied, “I think a lot of people, including myself, find the late sonatas to be his best work.” To which I replied, “that sounds crazy to me.” Now, I’m much more tempted to agree with him. The 4th Chopin Ballade I heard for the first time in 10th grade, roughly, and I had a conversation with a pianist friend in the grade above me who said he really liked it. But I could only say, “I don’t get it, what is this supposed to be?” And Stravinsky I heard for the first time in the summer before my last year of high school. A math + bass guy in the summer camp had me listen to it (his orchestra was working on it) and he said that he really liked it. But I just found it dry and unpleasant. And Prokofiev, of course, is often still considered “weird” even though I’ve grown very fond of some of his sonatas and piano concertos.
Nowadays, all that music is among my all-time favorites. So what I’ve learned is that for complex or unfamiliar music, you first have to come to terms with the language in which it is written. Once informed, you can make an educated decision about whether or not you enjoy it on aesthetic grounds. Duke Ellington was advocating for the “natural” approach in that quote, but unfortunately, ignorance is also natural (and limiting)
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2 Responses to [Discussion] It sounds good, is it good?

  1. csubakan says:

    Jo,

    My interpretation is, he is trying to say that a musician shouldn’t take the theory as the ultimate truth, and instead be guided by their ears. E.g., on guitar there are multiple voicings for the same thing which are theoretically correct. If you just play a ‘correct’ without paying attention you eventually sound bad.

    Yes, some music is acquired taste. But I also believe that if you are the one making the music your ears ‘open’ and try to find more interesting sounds.

  2. joh says:

    I agree that a musician should always be guided by his/her ears. Apart from a very small minority of deaf musicians/artists, this is a universal aspect of good music-making. Obediently following what is on a score is only a first step towards expressing what was in a composer’s head before those ideas made it onto the page. Expanding on a written score along every dimension of music-making should be in the front of a musician’s mind.

    At the same time, great composers are great for a reason. For example, as far as I’m concerned, practically every attempt to deviate from Beethoven’s writing inevitably leads to music of a much lesser quality and interest. Same goes for Mozart, although perhaps to a lesser extent. That’s not to say that in the right hands, a theme by a long-gone composer can’t be transformed into an interesting new work of art. I’m just wary of unskilled composers who can so easily disregard what I think of as (perhaps local) optima in the landscape of music.

    That being said, there are score extremists who think it makes sense to be obedient to the “authority” of the score, to do as they are told. Truth is, a large part of the real content of a piece of music is not annotated on the score. Up until Mozart’s day, it wasn’t even customary to write down all the fortes, pianissimos, ritardandos, and other expressive inflections. Mozart scores are pretty bare. Bach’s scores are even more bare. That’s partly because instruments back then (harpsichord, pianoforte) didn’t have the dynamic range of modern instruments (concert grand piano). Harpsichords don’t have any dynamic range, actually, so players have to be expressive along other dimensions (tempo, ornamentation, etc.).

    Chopin’s 4th Ballade is an excellent example of how musical notation can actually directly interfere with expressiveness. The piece is chopped up into bars (measures), but some parts require an ambiguous sense of beat/rhythm. When people play the opening as if the beginning of each measure is a strong beat, it sounds forced. And about 2/3 of the way through, there is a section with a hemiola that makes you totally lose the sense of meter. It’s a wonderful moment that gets ruined if a pianist hits the main down-beats. This is even more clear in impressionistic music. And, in fact, some later composers didn’t even bother dividing their music into measures (e.g. Satie’s Gnossiennes). If they had, it would have only interfered with their message.

    It is interesting to note that improvisation in classical music used to be more common. Nowadays, jazz musicians are the masters of improv, while classical musicians stick to the notes on the page (while hopefully extemporizing along other dimensions). Mozart was said to improvise all of his cadenzas. He wrote many of them down, but this doesn’t mean that they weren’t mostly sketches that he formalized after many live test-runs, much like a stand-up comic who tests new material onstage before putting it in his book.

    In general, though, the classical music world does seem to be stagnating in a way not seen in jazz and pop circles in the past 50 years or so. Part of it might be the extremely high standards placed on classical musicians as compared to pop singers. If you set the bar too high, few people will be able to reach it. Also, everyone seems to like a short, easy-to-listen-to song, whereas far fewer people have the energy to understand and listen to a half-hour-long sonata, no matter how much of a masterpiece it might be.

    In the end, I think it’s a question of values. What do we value as a society and as individuals in music? Personally, I tend to value most the complexity and beauty of the romantic style as it was rendered in 19th-century Paris. That largely determines how I value the music of other genres/eras/etc. Of course, everyone has their own reference(s) for their values. So it’s important to understand what those “aesthetic home bases” are if we want to understand what draws people (especially musicians) to this style or that style.

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