What makes “good” music? Here’s another thought.

In my continuing quest to define what “good” music is, here is another thought: good music is radical, at least in some small way.

Good music doesn’t simply rehash old music, old ideas, old tropes.  Good music does not toe the party line.  Good music is not content with the status quo; it is revolutionary in at least some details.  It redefines what we think and how we operate.

Why do I believe this to be true?  I base this argument in part in the fact that every artist longs to bring something new into the world.  If the music is not new, there is no point in giving birth to it (even with old music, new critical editions can shift our mindset on a standard piece in the repertoire).  The point of music is the unexpected, the new, the unique, the singular.  (On a side note, that is one reason why live music is so vital to music’s continuation and progression.)

Furthermore, isn’t this newness and difference how how life operates?  No one of us is identical to the other.  Even identical twins grow disparate with their life experiences.  No two galaxies, planets, people, nor cells are identical.  The purpose of music is to continue this cycle of life and advance it by being new, different, challenging, and changing.  Good music is a force that actively pushes us down this path towards newness.  Good music capitalizes on its ability to further progress, and ushers in a fresh rebuke to our preconceived notions and assumed assurances.

And not just that music makes change happen–music makes radical change happen.  From opening up new ways of thinking, to uniting movements, to challenging institutional control, every note of music can be revolutionary if used properly.  We as musicians and composers have to dare to say, “why not?” and to laugh in the face of the resistance to change.  We can instigate the progress our world needs, and whether we change a few notes or the setting of our entire libretto, our music has to reject sameness at some level in order to be good.

As John Cage said, “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”


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