What makes “good” music? Another criterion for judging.

In a continuation of a previous post, I figured I’d introduce another criterion that helps to define if music is “good” or “bad”: focus.  Good music has at least some semblance of focus.

Many times there is a temptation on the composer’s or commissioner’s part to include everything under the sun into a piece.  This is not optimal, even for pieces of large scale and scope.  The best music has a sense of centrality; a focus, core, key tenet(s), etc.  Lesser quality music may lack a central idea and be scatterbrained.

Why is having a focus so important?

  • The audience has something onto which to hold–they aren’t completely disoriented if there is a unifying principle.
  • Music is nuanced and detail oriented.  With such a specific art, even the smallest amounts of material can yield satisfaction, and pieces with too much material are often undeveloped and unsatisfying art.
  • Human nature is accustomed to discerning patterns, and patterns are based on central core components that remain consistent across multiple entities.  Patterns are inherently focused and directed.  So, having focus fits in with the innate workings of our minds.

What are some ways a musician can achieve focus?

  • Reusing material: harmonic, melodic, structural, textural, instrumental, theatrically/presentationally, etc.
  • Building a framework for a piece that guides the smaller parts of it
  • Working from a simple detail to construct a larger scale piece
  • Writing for a story, concept, or something pre-existing in life
  • Basing a piece on a single compositional technique

While it may seem counterintuitive to be focused while one is being creative, I believe that focus informs, guides, and perfects creativity.  For example, it is often more productive to limit one’s creative arsenal when composing (eg. tying oneself to a concept, pitch material, rhythmic material, instrumentation, etc.) than to allow anything to happen–and thus lack discretion as to what will shape the piece, what its essence will contain, and what decisions are key to its existence.

A focus seems like a simple idea, but it can be hard to keep focus when writing.  This concept of focus can apply to performing musicians, actors, writers, businesspeople–all disciplines can learn from being focused.   Without focus, there is nothing sensible, coherent, or worthwhile perceiving in the arts, sciences, and life in general.

What do you think?  Is this criterion an acceptable addition to how to judge music?

Happy composing,


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