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Is some music better than other music?, A vexed question.
wakibaki
post Mar 29 2012, 23:32
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The question is exactly as posed in the thread title. Is some music better than other music?

For myself, I have long been convinced that some music is indeed better than other music. That all music can be ranked on a scale of 'goodness', given that no piece is necessarily of consistent quality from end-to-end.

For example, I might sing a song. I might sing it slightly out of tune in a particular passage. I might sing it again, without singing out of tune.

All other things being equal, I would rate the second rendition better than the first.

I think this applies across the board, that there is an intrinsic quality in music (or: are qualities) which make(s) it possible to say that one piece is better than another.

I know that not everybody agrees with this, some holding that there is no intrinsic quality in either piece, and that the differences are all to do with my perceptions, but I don't feel that this is adequate to explain the cultivation of musical expression and appreciation. I only got the perceptions by comparing good with worse.

Once, in the course of trying to teach a particularly obtuse guitar student, I was confronted with a somewhat existential position. 'You make a sound, I make a sound', I paraphrase his contribution, 'They're both sounds, there's nothing to make the sound you make any more valid than the sound I make.' He never did turn out much of a guitarist, but then maybe if I had been a better teacher I would have had a better answer than to burn him with a cigarette.

Despite that, I understand how some might find it offensive to be told that the music they like is intrinsically inferior to some other music. It could be seen as preferable to put it all down to personal preferences rather than risk confrontation.

I don't see anybody here backing away from a confrontation though. So, is some music better than other music?


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fuflo
post Mar 29 2012, 23:57
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well, i think to answer this question we would need a definition of 'music' from you. some people wouldn't call certain genres 'music'. like some so called old farts listening to new genres and calling them noise.

ambient would be in the same space. It's lack of defined rhythms make it just sounds. but i appreciate those sounds.

To me music is a collection of sounds which resonate to my mood or.. i'm not even sure. it just makes me think or feel a certain way.

So, if each human's definition of music is "it makes me feel [this way]", then there cannot be any wrong music, i don't think..

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Canar
post Mar 30 2012, 00:37
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Is some music better than other music? The answer is "yes". I can clearly ABX different works against each other, and one of them is almost always inferior in quality.


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kornchild2002
post Mar 30 2012, 01:21
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Is this asking about the actual quality of the reproduced audio or just an opinion of what one likes? Opinion based questions never have a definite "yes" or "no" answer simply because it all comes down to opinion. One person might hate a song, band, artist, or album while another person absolutely loves it. The quality of music is in the ear of the beholder and it is impossible to come up with a "yes" or "no" answer across the board. Some music might be better to you than others but that doesn't necessarily make it better as a whole, it just means that you like it in your own little world. Outside opinions on your musical tastes will definitely disagree with you. For example, one of my favorite bands is Korn. I know a bunch of people on here would call them tired hacks who haven't put out anything good since 1996. Does that mean their music is bad and worse than Dream Theater, Nevermore, or any other "underground" big metal band that fans often cling to and name drop (both are good bands too)? No. It just means that my opinion differs from others.

Either way, when it comes to opinions, you can never apply anything "across the board." Another example; one of my friends thinks that Katy Perry is a good singer in the studio or live. Live performances of hers makes me cringe as she cannot sing in tune. Her producers often rely on vocal tricks (layering, tuning, etc.) in the studio but it is difficult to pull that off live so her voice is completely different. I can listen to a live version of one of her songs where she sings it out of tune and listen to the studio version. I won't like either one. My friend can't hear a difference and doesn't really care so she likes the live out of tune versions of her songs just as much as the studio manipulated releases.
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Ron Jones
post Mar 30 2012, 01:30
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QUOTE (wakibaki @ Mar 29 2012, 15:32) *
For example, I might sing a song. I might sing it slightly out of tune in a particular passage. I might sing it again, without singing out of tune. All other things being equal, I would rate the second rendition better than the first.

You're establishing a reference (in tune) and evaluating the quality of the two renditions based upon how closely each matches that reference. The in-tune version more closely approximates the reference, but is still not necessarily better than the out-of-tune version, just more like the reference. Not everyone would agree that the second rendition is better.
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RobWansbeck
post Mar 30 2012, 01:42
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Better for what?

You could argue that the best music is that which sells the most; if the majority of listeners in a blind test prefer track x then track x is the best music. I doubt if track x would be my personal choice but the alternative is to claim that the general public are incapable of appreciating 'better quality' music.

Is music that has more technical interest or requires experience to understand better than music which is very popular?

You mention singing slightly out of tune. Does singing perfectly in tune improve a song or does it reduce emotion. Remember that since the introduction of the equal tempered scale all 'perfectly in tune' music is actually slightly out of tune.

In my opinion some music demands high quality production, e.g. orchestral, whereas I feel that other forms lose their edge when over-polished.
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andrew_berge
post Mar 30 2012, 02:17
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I'm just pretty much thinking out loud in this post:

Maybe there is no good or bad music in the sense you're talking about.
Maybe there's just people who like music more than others.

Someone who isn't much into music will enjoy what plays on the radio, it's a good background noise to whatever they're doing and usually simple enough that you can still catch the melody in a noisy environment.
Put this person in a quiet room with a live recording where, as mentioned, not everything is mastered and tuned to perfection, and odds are they won't like it. But a person who really likes music will be able to hear through these imperfections and truly enjoy the recording. (Check out Arcade Fire's early live stuff. Horrible singing)

Of course personal preference comes into play. If hip hop/rap/country/etc is something that you are simply not compatible with, it doesn't matter how "good" it is, you still won't enjoy it. I suspect that someone who likes music more will be more open to genres he/she's not used to.

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Nessuno
post Mar 30 2012, 07:46
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QUOTE (Canar @ Mar 30 2012, 01:37) *
Is some music better than other music? The answer is "yes".


Nope: the answer is MU! laugh.gif


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dhromed
post Mar 30 2012, 08:56
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QUOTE (Canar @ Mar 30 2012, 00:37) *
Is some music better than other music? The answer is "yes". I can clearly ABX different works against each other, and one of them is almost always inferior in quality.


Well, I attempted to ABX two Nickelback songs once, but p went to 0.5 pretty much instantly. emot-haw.gif

OP:
You can't produce such a metric until you differentiate between properties that can be "correct", and properties that are subjective. And you can't do that. You can't make that distinction. There are 40 different ways a drum might sound, 40 ways a rythm might be played and another 40 ways in which it is incorporated into the final studio mix. None is better than any other, but I prefer some above others.

At the same time, it's pretty clear when someone is an inexperienced player and makes a lot of mistakes. So how do we judge "mistakes", even if the player has produced a new song? The only way to know something is a mistake is when we think we have an idea of the intent, and feel the artist has failed to produce.

In other words, by listening to a song — or experiencing any work, really — we automatically create a reference point out of previous experiences and a dash of thin air. I believe the more experience one has listening to music, and the wider one's repertoire, the better one can gauge the original intent.

There are times where one can't be sure the artists has messed up, or whether they intended to do it that way. Even a melody out of tune is not incorrect by any absolute standard: the artist may very well have done it on purpose in order to illustrate disarray and evoke feelings of discomfort. That is not wrong, but you're free to dislike it.

Hell, if you come back to it a year later, you may even enjoy it and start to love it. This basically describes the start of my relationship with Autechre, whose first track I heard was 777 — not quite the most accessible thing. wink.gif
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smok3
post Mar 30 2012, 09:02
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QUOTE
alternative is to claim that the general public are incapable of appreciating 'better quality' music


"The term elitism, or the title elitist, are sometimes used by people who are (or claim to be) not a member of an elite organization."

p.s. And yeah, I do appreciate AC/DC and i'am not afraid to confess that.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o018byLnMFM

This post has been edited by smok3: Mar 30 2012, 09:06


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knutinh
post Mar 30 2012, 10:54
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Although I have my own preferences, I dont think there is (or ever will be) a reliable method to rate one piece of music vs another in the subjective terms of "quality".

One might use other characteristics such as "number of downloads on iTunes", or "percentage of approving music professors".

-k
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Porcus
post Mar 30 2012, 11:09
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Suppose for the sake of the argument that there is an ordering, and we are told that a > b if signal a is 'better than' b. A more neutral term would be 'preferred to'.

If so: what does it then really measure? What are these preferences? What is the inferred function of music, and maybe even: what is the inferred purpose of music?

Radio channels which target a general public, play music -- that is cheaper minutes than making a programme. If they are just another commercial agent selling commercial breaks, what is then the purpose of the music? And what is 'better'? Probably something that does not make anyone actively reach for the button, right?


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simonh
post Mar 30 2012, 13:15
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It's an interesting question. One approach could be to do what IMDB do with films. If 20,000 people have voted on a film and the average turns out to be 5/10, I usually agree. Rent, don't buy. I won't bother watching anything voted as less than 5/10. The wisdom of the crowd must count more than one individuals judgement. Have a look at the IMDB Top 250. There is not a *bad* film in there. It might not include your favourite film but all will be "good" films.

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nu774
post Mar 30 2012, 13:24
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QUOTE (wakibaki @ Mar 30 2012, 07:32) *
For example, I might sing a song. I might sing it slightly out of tune in a particular passage. I might sing it again, without singing out of tune.

All other things being equal, I would rate the second rendition better than the first.

So maybe you don't like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, or Astrud Gilberto ?
I will rate the out of tune / off key version higher if it express yourself better by the offkeyness, or if it just sounds attractive.
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dhromed
post Mar 30 2012, 13:24
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QUOTE (Porcus @ Mar 30 2012, 11:09) *
what is the inferred purpose of music?


To produce a positive emotional response?

And not even that.

Someone might listen to shitty music on purpose to put them in just the right bad mood for some task.

And at that point you have an argument that pulls itself up by its bootstraps.

Nonetheless, all music has a certain degree of regularity and consistency, and if that is broken too many times, then you can identify the inexperienced and thus worse musician with great certainty.

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dhromed
post Mar 30 2012, 13:34
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QUOTE (simonh @ Mar 30 2012, 13:15) *
Have a look at the IMDB Top 250. There is not a *bad* film in there. It might not include your favourite film but all will be "good" films.


I happen to think that Rocky and Star Trek (2009) are quite bad in most ways that matter to me. I turned off Rocky half way, and Star Trek left me empty inside and with a craving for things with more substance, like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

But since those are the only ones out of 250, I suppose I can actually support your point.
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wakibaki
post Mar 30 2012, 23:21
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QUOTE (Canar @ Mar 30 2012, 00:37) *
Is some music better than other music? The answer is "yes". I can clearly ABX different works against each other, and one of them is almost always inferior in quality.


OK, well I'm not sure how you ABX different works against on another, but I like the definite expression 'one of them is almost always inferior in quality'. This certainly chimes with the way I feel.

When recording artists are working in the studio, they make this kind of judgement all the time. They (may) record a piece many times and discard all but one 'take'. They may even patch a section from one take into an other. They obviously don't pick the one that is 'worst', they pick the one that is 'best', and my guess is that if their judgement were presented to a panel of external judges (maybe even the whole world, for the sake of argument), their (the recording artists) judgement would be in accord with that of the wider panel.

Further than that, I don't see this as an issue of taste, because it think that the judgement is invariant with time, at least future time. I don't think that a future population would be moved to overturn the judgement. Thinking about the even tempered scale, it replaced the ill-tempered scale because it is 'better', and there is no general inclination to abandon it and turn back the clock.

This is all very well where we are considering multiple performances of the same piece, but it becomes very much more difficult when you want to put up, e.g a piece of classical against a piece of country music. There are complications arising from the quality of lyrics too. Nevertheless, I am inclined to extend the principle to all music, even if I wouldn't relish the task of ranking Bob Dylan's 'Idiot Wind' against Astrud Gilberto's 'Girl from Ipanema' (Antônio Carlos Jobim) although I think both would outrank Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day'.

w


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RobWansbeck
post Mar 31 2012, 02:41
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The equal-tempered scale didn't replace the natural scale because it was intrinsically better but because it allowed unlimited key changes; it was a compromise between melody and harmony. Prior to the adoption of the equal-tempered scale there were a multitude of well-tempered scales where individual composers would push notes as far out of tune as they thought they could get away with to allow limited key changes. A feature of this system was that each key had an individual 'colour' due to its intervals being different to other keys.

The natural scale has not gone away. It is still used in vocal music and the blues guitarist will instinctively bend a minor third to produce a note neither minor nor major.

The difficulty in tuning a piano or organ to a non-standard scale had made it practically impossible to experiment with well-tempered scales and experience these 'colours' but electronic instruments make it easy. Set a synth to a natural scale and play a few C chords then go back to equal tempered, the discord should be obvious.

Far from being forgotten there is a renewed interest in these older scales. That the equal-tempered scale is 'better' is a matter of taste or convenience, think of all the non-western music using different scales.
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wakibaki
post Apr 1 2012, 00:00
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QUOTE (RobWansbeck @ Mar 31 2012, 02:41) *
it allowed unlimited key changes

==better.


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hellokeith
post Apr 1 2012, 01:13
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Waki,

The answer is decidedly yes.

Have you ever heard for the first time a brand new song on standard FM (or cringe AM) radio? You may like the song, but you intrinsically feel there is a better version available, even without knowing what that better version exactly sounds like.

My uncle once asked me where I got so-and-so artist's CD. I told him it's not a CD, it's HD radio. He intrisically knew it sounded too good to be standard FM radio, without needing any kind of comparison.
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dhromed
post Apr 13 2012, 10:14
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QUOTE (wakibaki @ Mar 30 2012, 23:21) *
OK, well I'm not sure how you ABX different works against on another, but I like the definite expression 'one of them is almost always inferior in quality'. This certainly chimes with the way I feel.


Pick two random songs. Can you ABX them? Of course you can. Will one be better? Well, they're different, so the answer is Yes.

QUOTE (wakibaki @ Mar 30 2012, 23:21) *
if their judgement were presented to a panel of external judges (maybe even the whole world, for the sake of argument), their (the recording artists) judgement would be in accord with that of the wider panel.


There is no basis for this feeling other than your preconception that such a thing might be. The panel might easily favour another take, or vote to scrap all takes and tell the artist to start over. Or burn his instruments and start a promising career flipping burgers.

QUOTE (wakibaki @ Mar 30 2012, 23:21) *
Further than that, I don't see this as an issue of taste, because it think that the judgement is invariant with time, at least future time. I don't think that a future population would be moved to overturn the judgement.


It seems to me you're not actually looking for answers or analysis here; just confirmation of your opinions.

That said, I sympathise with you trying to teach a student who was unwilling to learn. An instrument has specific possbilities and is constructed according to certain rules and requires certain techniques to be played successfully. That must be learned and understood without balderdash like "music is subjective, dude". Musical freedom is not carte blanche to ignore the history of an instrument or music in general.

QUOTE (wakibaki @ Mar 30 2012, 23:21) *
I wouldn't relish the task of ranking Bob Dylan's 'Idiot Wind' against Astrud Gilberto's 'Girl from Ipanema' (Antônio Carlos Jobim) although I think both would outrank Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day'.


I disagree. I think most of Bob Dylan's work is junk and I really like Perfect Day. I don't think I've heard 'Girl from Ipanema' so I can't say much about that.

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bug80
post Apr 13 2012, 13:02
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QUOTE (hellokeith @ Apr 1 2012, 01:13) *
Waki,

The answer is decidedly yes.

Have you ever heard for the first time a brand new song on standard FM (or cringe AM) radio? You may like the song, but you intrinsically feel there is a better version available, even without knowing what that better version exactly sounds like.

My uncle once asked me where I got so-and-so artist's CD. I told him it's not a CD, it's HD radio. He intrisically knew it sounded too good to be standard FM radio, without needing any kind of comparison.

You're talking about how the music is transferred or reproduced, rather than the music itself.

I think the original OP states a very tough (but fun) question.

In the studio, we often have to deal with the following situation. Say we recorded two different vocal tracks:

- One has perfect timing and pitch
- The other has sloppy timing and is sometimes slightly off-pitch, some words are unintelligible. But the singer was on fire, and as a listener you really feel the emotions

Which one is better? We almost always choose the 'sloppy' but 'soulfull' track.
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dhromed
post Apr 13 2012, 13:28
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QUOTE (bug80 @ Apr 13 2012, 13:02) *
Which one is better? We almost always choose the 'sloppy' but 'soulfull' track.


And to reinforce my point, possibly ad nauseum, I often find tighter production more pleasing than "sloppy & raw but emotional".

And sometimes I don't.
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_if
post Apr 13 2012, 13:29
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There are two levels of answer, I think. One is purely objective: is there a universal standard of what good music is? The answer is no, and therefore you cannot make an unequivocal and correct statement about the quality of any music. It's all about values, and subjective values at that. Different cultures value different kinds of sounds generally, different people within the culture have variations in preference, life experiences and other internal things can all influence musical taste. Anything that sounds like a logical and objective measure, like the equal-tempered scale allowing unlimited key changes, is really about your values. In Indian raga music, for example, they don't really value chord changes, let alone key changes. Some cultures like clean consonant harmony, some value the beating sound of two notes at close intervals. It's all socialization; if you were socialized in their culture, you'd probably like it too. Besides, the very fact that there are things with both that one can do but not the other means that neither is suited to all scenarios and so is not always better or the unchallenged best. I think it may have been on this forum I read a story about an African tribesman who was taken to see an orchestra and he was asked which part he liked best and replied, "the beginning." When told what the first piece played was he said, "No, the very beginning," meaning the orchestra tuning up!

Second then is that I think you can judge music as being better or worse within your musical culture. Not that I mean to say there are defined rules and that a composition that doesn't do such and such is bad, but I think there is some level of competency of composition within the forms that we have. To take a Roger Ebert quote about movies to express how I've felt about music and any other art for awhile, "It's not what it's about, but how it's about it." Complex is not better than simple and simple is not better than complex. I've heard what sounded to me like disastrous examples of both because of a failure to meet some needs that have been generally accepted as good. But I also think once that level of competence is reached, it's all subjective. What is the best Beatles song? I doubt there would be general consensus here or really anywhere else with a majority favoring a particular song. They pretty much all reach that level of competence and then it's just personal preference what you judge is best. Are The Beatles better than Ke$ha? I think on that we could get a majority, most likely even a quorum, and I'd say there's a reason for that.

Or at least that's how I see it until my horizons are broadened more yet and my thoughts change, as they have done many times before. I will say though that, as a musician, I experienced firsthand at about age 16 after hanging out in a music store all the time that it doesn't really even matter what you think is good. As cliché as it sounds, it's just loving music that counts, and I got along very well in discussions about music with people whose tastes had very little in common with mine, and enjoyed playing with several too. I find it interesting reading the perspective that many of you people here who are more science-minded than the average person have in approaching the question. These are not all the types of answers you'd hear talking to just anyone about the subject, that's for sure, so I think this is one of the better places for the discussion to take place.

QUOTE (dhromed)
I disagree. I think most of Bob Dylan's work is junk and I really like Perfect Day.

Boo! tongue.gif Bob is great, and I haven't heard much of Lou Reed, but I have heard a few songs I would definitely judge as really good though, "Perfect Day" being one. I listened to about half of Lulu though...

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DigitalDictator
post Apr 13 2012, 14:53
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You can certainly say there are better or worse musicians, but I don't think music could be good or bad. For example, take any original song, written by whoever. Then put any band to make a cover of that tune, and it will most likely never be regarded as "good" as the original. It doesn't matter if the original singer was out of tune the whole time, had the creepiest voice ever, or the musicians covering the song are the best in the business. It lies on a different level.
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