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What Makes 'Good' Music? (Measuring Music Quality)

Music is all around us, and practically anyone can create a series of sounds that can be justifiably defined as music. However, what factors determine the quality of music? Is it to win an award, or the number of streams on Spotify, or perhaps something about the music in itself? Let’s dig a little deeper to find out.

Many of the ideas and concepts in this piece are taken from Chapter Six, ‘Physical and Verbal Behaviour’, of The Anthropology of Music by Alan P. Merriam.

Physical and Verbal Behaviour

Merriam writes that various kinds of behaviour will result in culturally acceptable musical sound, two of which are physical and verbal behaviour. Physical behaviour refers to the fact that individuals must simply make physical movements in order to produce sound, and the nature of these physical movements determines what is culturally acceptable and deemed ‘good’ or ‘not good’. Verbal behaviour refers to what people say about music structure and the criteria which surround it.

For the sake of simplicity, we’re just going to focus on vocal production, which is arguably the most widespread mode of music production. We’ve all heard amazing, mediocre, and bad singers before, and a quick look at award lists will show you all the top singers in the music industry today. But do these singers necessarily sing better than the rest, or are they simply popular for other reasons?

In the realm of physical behaviour, the quality of vocal utterance is of utmost importance. This, however, is highly subjective in nature. A quick comparison of the top singers of Italian opera and Mongolian folk song will show such a vast difference in vocal quality. Operatic singers prize a vocal quality full, resonant, and ringing, while Mongolian singers strive for one crisp, nasal, and tight. Both these vocal qualities are 'good' in their respective musical styles, while an operatic voice might be deemed 'bad' in Mongolian folk song, and vice versa.

In the realm of verbal behaviour, the significance of the specific song or piece of music is highly important. In other words, it’s what people say about the music and what it represents, the message it conveys and it's reception by listeners. Let's take nationalistic songs for example. For the most part, we feel a sense of ownership and fondness of our own national anthems. Now they may or may not be the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, but it's the meaning and significance that we as individuals and communities ascribe to it that makes it important or 'good'.

The Best Music in the World

But if these physical and verbal behaviour are so systemised to define what is 'good' music, even if taking into account cultural contexts, we may often overlook some of the best music we’ve heard in our lives, ones that are closest to our hearts.

I’m talking about the lullabies your mother sang to you to help you sleep, or that one song you wrote to your spouse, or even the melody of your school bell that signalled the end of the day. These songs are truly special and set apart from the rest. But are these songs necessarily 'good'?

Yes and no.

Did your mother have the best vocal technique as she sang you to sleep? Probably not. But did the physical quality of her voice, as shaky or wavering as it may be, make it good to the extent that no other voice in the world could ever compare? Maybe yes!

Would other listeners give critical acclaim of her song and nominate it for best female vocal? Probably not. But would you yourself say that your mother's singing is the best music you've ever heard in your life? Maybe yes!

Of course I'm using a specific example here, but you can see how subjective 'good' music is. While there are standards of excellence agreed upon within various communities, ultimately these standards are still subjective and flexible.

But let's not dwell on putting 'good' music on a pedestal and casting others out as 'bad'. Instead, let's appreciate music in all its diversity, acknowledging that each person or community enjoys different qualities of music, and being comfortable with that difference.

By Neil Chan

This piece is inspired by Chapter Six, ‘Physical and Verbal Behaviour’, of 'The Anthropology of Music' by Alan P. Merriam.


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