As I continue to try to pin down what makes music good or bad, I’m proposing another criterion to help judging: being enigmatic. I have concluded that good music is at least partially enigmatic.
Good music always has mystery in its fabric. If a piece is too direct, or if we understand the piece completely, it loses its appeal because we have climbed that mountain of knowing it already. In other words, humans like to know the nature of things, but once we know the true and complete nature of something our interest in it wanes. If there is a musicological, formal, harmonic, textural, motivic, or other component of a piece (including how these elements are combined, how the performance was rehearsed or played, the biography of the composer, the listening experience, etc.) that we are unclear in defining, or that we don’t know in its entirety (or at all), then we are inevitably drawn to the music. Humans are curious, and wanting to find out more about a piece, or knowing that there is more to it than one is currently aware, is a huge draw to the music.
Now, what if the music is easily understandable, but the circumstances around it are mysterious–is that then good music? I don’t think so, because our study is of the music itself. However, to return to previously listed facets of music, if the performance is theatrically mysterious, if the composer includes hidden autobiographical homages, or if the piece is designed to be a complete listening experience that is slightly ambiguous, these relatively non-musical aspects of our sonic craft may help to strengthen the music’s value.
Lastly, it may seem that I’m confusing “appeal” with “value”, i.e. humans being drawn to mysteries in music (they are appealing) versus mysterious/enigmatic music being good in and of itself. I think I should touch on this: good music is meant to resonate within us. It isn’t completely high fructose corn syrup, appealing just to our animal senses, and it isn’t completely stoic, solely being removed and abstract from ourselves. So, when I say that music that has mystery is good, I mean that it appeals to our human desire to know more. It thus balances the appeals of all our senses, animal and intellectual, and creates value in that manner.
What do you think? Does good music inherently have a sense of mystery to it?
Thanks for reading,