What Makes It Good

About a year ago, maybe more, our friend Rich pressed me to articulate the grounds for my music snobbery. ‘If,’ he reasoned, ‘you are going to sneer at my taste, you at least owe me an account of why your taste is better.’ [Editorial note for the sake of Truth: Rich did not say that, nor did I actually sneer at his taste. I just don’t share his fondness for most of ELO’s or the Eagles’ oeuvre, and I did perhaps eyeroll or arch a brow at his playlist. OK, that’s the rough equivalent of a sneer. I’m sorry.]
Rich suggested that I might like or dislike music in an inverse proportion to its popularity, but that’s not it. I like plenty of popular artists, and haven’t acquired a taste for lots of acquired tastes.
At the time, I felt sure that I must be able to sketch some criteria for my taste, but every time a candidate occurred to me, I thought it sounded hollow, and I tallied a number of counterexamples from among my favourites. I decided to let the matter rest for a while, and as time passed and I compiled a list of grounds for admiring a particular selection, the composite list looked more reputable. It is not rigidly consistent; some songs hit one particular characteristic brilliantly, but only that one characteristic; others combine several characteristics, though none extraordinarily. And none really hit all the different points I’ve thought up, in part because some of my desiderata are contradictory.
But it’s time for me to begin speaking out in public about what makes music good (as far as I’m concerned, and that’s not just a pro forma qualification — though I think I have good taste, mostly, I really firmly believe that other people, you for instance, may have strong grounds for reaching different conclusions than I). So with that, I’ll being by stating the obvious: Good music can be identified, most of the time, by good musicianship. Skill, technique, precision, virtuosity, all contribute to a performance I might admire.
OK, counterexamples first: Much punk rock, and a lot of old-timey music (to name just two genres) place little emphasis on technical musicianship. ‘Anarchy in the UK’ as performed by John McLaughlin and Buddy Rich would… lack something. They might bring something else to it, but I’m not saving my farthings for their cover version.
But at the same time, the cult of the great guitarist (or the ‘general admiration for other musicians’) symptomatises something pertinent to my theme. When Eric Clapton and Duane Allman dial in to the same musical wavelength on Layla, something happens that you just don’t mess with. Intuitive musical gifts are not antithetical to technical musicianship; some extremely gifted musicians intensify the quality of their work with trained musicianship (though others rely principally on their casual understanding of music, to very great effect, and some attain greatness from sheer diligent determination). OK, now I’m just sounding pedantic and dull — but you take my point.
So, some moments where stunning musicianship carries the day? I suspect that most of what sustained the brief incandescence of jazz-rock fusion was musicianship*; certainly the roster of noteworthy performers associated with fusion included some breath-taking musicians. The Jeff Beck albums Blow By Blow and Wired have a lot going for them, but musicianship might be the albums’ leading quality. Whatever else one might say about Frank Zappa, he upheld the very highest standards of musicianship for his bands. Mark Knopfler’s work in Dire Straits really stood out for its distinctive, right, guitar lines (even when the other bits didn’t interest me so much). Carlos Santana’s work, especially his early work, demonstrates stunning musicianship, sometimes overshadowed by the distinctiveness of his Latin-rock synthesis. I’m a big admirer of Phil Manzanera’s solo albums, again exemplifying fine technical performance. Josiah reminds me to include the Roots, to which point I assent though without feeling that I really have lived into their recordings enough to say so on the strength of my own observations (though when we saw them in New York a few years ago, the musicianship in their performance was staggering). Andrew Bird, maybe?
One of the besetting problems of musicianship in popular music is the sense of formality, sterility, that sometimes attend it. One of the afflictions of popular music in the 70’s came from the sense that rock musicians were trying so hard to prove their worthiness that many of them adopted painfully over-serious, over-technical styles that just didn’t rock (and often didn’t satisfy the serious audiences they were trying to impress). Musicianship blends over to ‘professionalism’ (in the pejorative sense) and commercialism, too. When Rich caught me out for disliking music for being ‘popular’, much of what he was right about involved my lack of interest in bands that struck me as so professional that I didn’t feel especially drawn to them. ‘Commercial’ generally tastes bad to me.
That’s plenty as a starting point; I’ll put up another criterion sometime, and eventually develop it out into a whole series. There are lots of characteristics of the music I love, so it’ll take time to get more than a narrow slice of them written out. But now I’m at least beginning to pay the world hat I owe for my snobbery, and now to listen to the feedback from friends who know their stuff better than I do, or who remember artists and compositions I’ve neglected.


* And jazz, and ‘classical’ music, of course. They’re not the focus of my inquiry, perhaps as much for reasons of my taste and the limitations of my understanding as for any other reason, but I’m just not going to think first of Mingus Ah Um when I write on this topic even though I love that album.

4 thoughts on “What Makes It Good

  1. Here we agree (and by ‘we,’ I mean here ‘you, I, and Douglas Adams’):
    “Mark Knopfler has an extraordinary ability to make a Schecter Custom Stratocaster hoot and sing like angels on a Saturday night, exhausted from being good all week and needing a stiff drink.”
    Thanks for starting my morning off with “Love Over Gold” stuck in my head.

  2. “Once, the Andalusian ‘Flamenco singer’ Pastora Pavon, La Niña de Los Peines, sombre Spanish genius, equal in power of fancy to Goya or Rafael el Gallo, was singing in a little tavern in Cadiz. She played with her voice of shadows, with her voice of beaten tin, with her mossy voice, she tangled it in her hair, or soaked it in manzanilla or abandoned it to dark distant briars. But, there was nothing there: it was useless. The audience remained silent.
    …Only, a little man, one of those dancing midgets who leap up suddenly from behind brandy bottles, sarcastically, in a very soft voice, said: ‘Viva, Paris!’ as if to say: ‘Here ability is not important, nor technique, nor skill. What matters here is something other.’
    Then La Niña de Los Peines got up like a madwoman, trembling like a medieval mourner, and drank, in one gulp, a huge glass of fiery spirits, and began to sing with a scorched throat, without voice, breath, colour, but…with duende. She managed to tear down the scaffolding of the song, but allow through a furious, burning duende, friend to those winds heavy with sand, that make listeners tear at their clothes with the same rhythm as the Negroes of the Antilles in their rite, huddled before the statue of Santa Bárbara.
    La Niña de Los Peines had to tear apart her voice, because she knew experts were listening, who demanded not form but the marrow of form, pure music with a body lean enough to float on air. She had to rob herself of skill and safety: that is to say, banish her Muse, and be helpless, so her duende might come, and deign to struggle with her at close quarters. And how she sang! Her voice no longer at play, her voice a jet of blood, worthy of her pain and her sincerity, opened like a ten-fingered hand as in the feet, nailed there but storm-filled, of a Christ by Juan de Juni.” -Federico García Lorca, Play and Theory of the Duende.
    Essentially, musicianship correlates to “good music” for me if it is also expressive. Technical musicianship is all well and good, but, as in the lyrics of Imogen Heap, “Music is worthless / unless it can make a complete stranger / break down and cry.”

  3. Thanks AKMA, please do continue this series. For those of us out in the wild west of the “free church tradition”, this conversation about music and worship continues to rage… What strikes me most about this is the impoverished language we use to talk about things that reach so deeply into our being.

    I realize you’re probably not trying to enter this dialogue at all, and I don’t want to encumber you with it… but it turns out that the matters you talk about affect some of us in our worship lives very directly.

    Doug Gay rightly pointed out, as we struggled to plan a worship service together a few years ago, that this is so deep, the alt worship movement quickly lost it’s ability to sing together.

    In simpler moments, I ascribe the whole business to the cultural journeys we’ve found ourselves in, and yet, I am the perfect argument against… Growing up in a slightly more conservative home, I was not allowed to listen to rock music until grade 7, so I had little background to place it in when the doors were opened. The first time I heard “Won’t get fooled again”, my life changed. I resonated so deeply with the sounds and passion, I nearly exploded.

  4. Comment thread from Facebook:
    Matthew Pappathan I agree with what you write in your blog about technical mastery of musical instruments being a primary criterion for goodness, Akma, and very much applaud your efforts to define what goodness means, musically. While other musical styles might be evaluated differently, when appreciating rock music, there are a few more criteria, I think. First, rock is all about the beat, so, uninspired drumming or overly simple rhythms usually prevents something from being categorized as good, or great, in my opinion. Secondly, while I appreciate mastery of musical instruments as much as you, I think there is something to be said about good music eliciting a visceral, emotionally positive response. A somatic response, I suppose. As if the body informs the brain that what is being sensed, “feels” good. And then, there are good lyrics to be considered, too.
    Wednesday, 18 April 2012 at 22:23
    Akma Adam Matt, on the scrap of paper on which I’ve been taking notes for the series, at the top of the page, it says ‘Beat (duh)’ — I kinda wanted to get musicianship out of the way; it’s (in a way) the least interesting to me as a category. And although I hadn’t exactly written in the somatic response, I’m adding it to my list now. There are no words for how great it feels to resume this conversation with you!
    Wednesday, 18 April 2012 at 22:28
    Neil Erskine An interesting little blog, Akma. It’s a question I am asked often, especially given my predilection for music that to many essentially sounds like sandpaper. It’s a difficult question, and for want of less of a cliché, the answer is music that speaks to me personally is good, be that aesthetically, socially, emotionally or otherwise.
    As usual, context is everything!
    Wednesday, 18 April 2012 at 22:29
    Akma Adam Rest assured that I have a lot more to say, Neil, and your response will always be welcome.
    Wednesday, 18 April 2012 at 22:30
    Neil Erskine I certainly know you do. I thoroughly enjoyed our last conversation on the topic!
    Regarding technical grasp of a given instrument: it’s something I strove for for a long time but as I’ve gotten a little older I actually gravitate to more simplistic and rough approaches. Not poorly played, but an ease of “mistakes aren’t desirable, but if they happen they happen…”. So I enjoy Crass and Neil Young as much as I do Zappa and McLaughlin. I repeat myself, but context IS everything in my book.
    Wednesday, 18 April 2012 at 22:40
    Andrew Pitts Hiphopnosis.
    Thursday, 19 April 2012 at 01:12
    Rich King That’s a nice beginning to answering my question Akma. If I remember you said you did not like what ELO did because its musical manipulation of you was too easy. I think they produced great tunes that are well-performed but, like the Eagles (which was our other example of disagreement) it reflected quality and tight professionalism mostly produced in the studio. I really like the ‘clean’ Californian sound and smoothness of the Eagles and appreciate the musicianship. Now I also appreciate a little more wildness and rawness to some of my music, and one might say ELO and the Eagles are overproduced, but I very much appreciate a smooth, melodic tone, just as I enjoy a smooth palleted wine as well as a whisky with a kick. I remember when “You spin me right round baby right round” was No.1 in the UK charts but the band (Dead or Alive?) could not play live on Top of the Pops because their music was too dependent on a studio-based production. That in my view is a problem. At least musicians in the Eagles really knew how to play their instruments live. So, I still want to know why smooth melodies and songs created by technically excellent musicians is to be frowned upon.
    Thursday, 19 April 2012 at 12:49
    Josiah Harris-Adam ?”Once, the Andalusian ‘Flamenco singer’ Pastora Pavon, La Niña de Los Peines… [as above]
    Thursday, 19 April 2012 at 13:22
    Rich King Nice quote Si. I agree that technical musicianship is not enough, (occasionally it is not even necessary) and expressiveness (however we understand that) is key, but musical taste, appreciation and enjoyment is quite varied, as it should be, and different genres, styles and traditions of music will move and affect people in different ways.

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