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Warm_Decade

What Makes A Work "good"?

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Hello,

 

I'm a beginning music composition student at Washington State University, and there's a question that has been increasingly interesting me:

 

What defines a "good" piece?

 

I've been fascinated with theory, partly because I'm interested in trying to determine this answer, but so far it has generally eluded me. Why, for example, are Bartok's string quartets valued over Schubert's? Or why is Rite of Spring preferred over Firebird?

 

I'm currently trying to write a piece for clarinet, but I'm kind of stuck because I can't decide when something I write is "good" or not. Sometimes there are notions that some pieces narrowly miss greatness because they don't develop their ideas enough, but what determines if an idea has been adequately developed? What are the correct ways to "develop" an idea? When are you developing an idea, and when are you actually introducing a new idea? I feel like these are some basic elements of composition theory, but I don't have a very firm grasp of them. I'd love to hear any of your thoughts on the matter.

 

Thanks!

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Hello,

 

I'm a beginning music composition student at Washington State University, and there's a question that has been increasingly interesting me:

 

What defines a "good" piece?

 

I've been fascinated with theory, partly because I'm interested in trying to determine this answer, but so far it has generally eluded me. Why, for example, are Bartok's string quartets valued over Schubert's? Or why is Rite of Spring preferred over Firebird?

 

I'm currently trying to write a piece for clarinet, but I'm kind of stuck because I can't decide when something I write is "good" or not. Sometimes there are notions that some pieces narrowly miss greatness because they don't develop their ideas enough, but what determines if an idea has been adequately developed? What are the correct ways to "develop" an idea? When are you developing an idea, and when are you actually introducing a new idea? I feel like these are some basic elements of composition theory, but I don't have a very firm grasp of them. I'd love to hear any of your thoughts on the matter.

 

Thanks!

 

There is nothing absolute to infer that Schubert's string quartets are worse or less interesting than Bartók's, or that one and another is more valued than this one and that. It should be pointed out, to begin with, that the two composers compose very differently, in such distant and foreign styles that it's rather impertinent and pointless to ask the question at all - as one were to ask whether one color is better than another, or whether baroque paintings are better than impressionist paintings, or whether this dog is better than this dinosaur - as, for their differences, one composer might have an audience who'll never come round to meeting the audience of the other, and those audiences might as well be filled with composers and performers. And where they do meet, there's nothing to say that, in convergence, both composers won't be admired on some equal ground. The same could be said about picking specific pieces of a single composer: for Beethoven, the question for one fan might be between the Third and Sixth symphonies, ignoring the infamous Ninth which so many other fans will say is the essential work for comparison, and they might compare it to Missa Solemnis; or for Stravinski, if not The Rite and The Firebird, Petrushka could very well be the piece a fan feels is worth comparison, even though another fan would fundamentally disagree.

 

Beside the issue of subejctivity. - To say definitively that one composer is better than another, especially between the two you've mentioned, is to ignore the development of taste. One generation will say that Brahms and Verdi are the most important, most useful and influential for such and such reasons; then the next will say Bartók and Prokofiev; the next, or even the same one, will say Schoenberg and Stravinski; the next, Reich and Goreski; and so on forever, in as many arrangements, from as many places, as you can imagine. And there's nothing to say that, once Schoenberg is understood, that then Schubert won't be a primary focus for advancement, for whatever reasons. To say one composer is necessarily better than another is silly musical partisanship, which is ultimately unproductive and, from some standpoint, a bit sinister. 

 

The issue, then, is people: the development of what people find enjoyable and interesting and useful. When you compose, to my mind, what should interest you is less what theoretically makes a piece good - that is, what has historically made a piece good - than what you personally find makes a piece good, what makes a piece complete, and ultimately interests you and makes you love what you've done. 'An idea has been adequately developed', I think, once you're fully satisfied that it has been. For that to mean anything, though, you'll have to equip yourself with any technical device that'll let you compose what you want to hear; and you'll probably compose and recompose many times over until your ears sit comfortably; and you'll probably have to listen to many other composers' works and take breaks from your own music until you can compose yourself what you're comfortable with. - However you do it, though, the question of this thread can't really be answered by anyone but the individual composer.

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Hello,

 

I'm a beginning music composition student at Washington State University, and there's a question that has been increasingly interesting me:

 

What defines a "good" piece?

 

I've been fascinated with theory, partly because I'm interested in trying to determine this answer, but so far it has generally eluded me. Why, for example, are Bartok's string quartets valued over Schubert's? Or why is Rite of Spring preferred over Firebird?

 

I'm currently trying to write a piece for clarinet, but I'm kind of stuck because I can't decide when something I write is "good" or not. Sometimes there are notions that some pieces narrowly miss greatness because they don't develop their ideas enough, but what determines if an idea has been adequately developed? What are the correct ways to "develop" an idea? When are you developing an idea, and when are you actually introducing a new idea? I feel like these are some basic elements of composition theory, but I don't have a very firm grasp of them. I'd love to hear any of your thoughts on the matter.

 

Thanks!

You have certainly proposed one of the most fundamental questions of music since ever.
I have similar thoughts and questionings too, but also from a two and a half years course on Musicology I took, I can tell a few words of advice on your questions, or so I suppose.
 
First things first: you know "common sense"? Well, yeah, it goes a bit like that... Or maybe more than just a bit. You cannot simply teach someone how to have and think alike common sense, but you notice when someone has it and uses it in discourse, dialogue, examples, etc, as in you cannot, also, teach someone how to point out a good composition, it's more about years of experience and "awareness" than just a simple, schematic, almost algorhithmic theory put to practice.
 
Why is Rite of Spring valued over Firebird, you say? Well, I prefer Firebird over Rite of Spring, but I cannot lie that Rite of Spring has way more emotion flowing out of it, creative rhythms (specially for when it was composed) and has a lot more colour to it. It certainly suits a very modern ballet. For good, or bad, I stick to Firebird.
My ears tell me to stick to Firebird, my feelings to do (my brain, I could have said). It's about personal appeal, in this case, but with some "common sense" you'll notice that I admit Rite of Spring to be more original, innovative, creative and simply "better" than Firebird, despite my preference. 
 
What determines if an idea has been adequately, properly developed? Well, to be sincere: the critics and the facts that they, one way or another, voice an opinion that lots and lots of people agree with. That is what really happens.
Maybe it's about exposition to critics's ideas? I tend to fight them off with my personal opinion, but not always, just mixing and filtering, always with some gold old common sense.
You can, obviously, listen to the masters of the past (for instance the ones mentioned for developing their ideas just fine) and search for what their developments have in common, how they worked them out and everything, I'm sure it won't be a hard task for you.
 
If you are stuck on deciding if something you write is good or bad, put to question two or three things: is your objective with that part of the composition being more or less clearly achieved? And: do my ears+brain comprehend what they are hearing? Is it making sense, being clear at what it states?
 
As pointed, there is something to do with achieving the proposed objectives: is a study hard to play and does it develop, through it's hardships, some sort of technique, more or less? Is it purely technical, or does it sound musical? Do the ideas tie together very well, or loosely?
After atonal music these questions have fallen a lot in meaning and power, but they are still valid, most atonal composers still develop ideas, tie pieces together via some devices and so on.
 
About the limits and horizons of what is a development and what is a new idea, I can only say that I struggle with that. It's like when listening to a contrapuntal composition, I see the commentators pointing out for the voices entering in succession with new instances of the first melody, but to me these are new melodies, for they use different tones, pitches, notes, instead of the original succession that opened the piece.
On a sidenote, people have praised Liszt for his mastery in development, while I, for instance, think he "over-develops" some of his compositions, making them boring and tiring to the ear, when they could have been summarized and made considerably less longer, more interesting, encompassing a good enough timespan of interest on the listener, once again that's just me.
 
Five books on theories of criticism and arts criticism it's proven to me that it is more about common sense than it seems...

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To be succinct, deciding if a piece is "good" or not is VERY subjective. In other words, it's all about personal taste. However, playing the game of "which composer/piece is better" is utterly ridiculous, and a waste of time and productivity. As to why Rite of Spring is preferred over the other Stravinsky ballets, I believe its the hyped-up legend surrounding the premiere of the piece that makes it more alluring to musicians and the general public (though I think Petrushka is a FAR more superior ballet....but I still love my Rite!). 

 

I think you are falling into the "trap" of trying to compose a piece around what you think others (your peers, teachers, other composers, etc.) would deem "good", instead of you writing something that YOU want to write. Since you're a beginner, I think with time and the knowledge you'll gain, you'll eventually develop your own unique style. I think Stirling puts it really well, so heed his advice!

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Arnold Schöenberg said that music should be true. I definately think there is something to this.
Concerning differences in taste, i think one aspect of it is differences in how people appreciate
different emotions/moods - a difference in personality, or a difference in experiences. Some 

people may be drawn to sorrowful moods, while others may have difficulties relating to sorrowful

moods because it reminds them of f.ex. loosing a family member. Furthermore, some emotions are 
considered more noble than others - compassion is nobler than jealousy. So i would say that the
music that resonates the strongest emotionally is music that expresses emotionally what is truly humane.

People write music inspired by litterature and art, therefore there is something to music that isn't solely

determined by music theory. For instance the climax around 5 minutes into the 3rd movement of Debussy's
string quartet reminds me of Victor Hugo's les miserables, which to me is very noble. 

Another thing is what Morton Feldman called "organic continuity", a natural flow of the elements
contained in the music. (Good music would be organically flowing) 

Also, i think of the "rhetoric" of musical phrases. Bad music contains a shallow kind of obvious tonal motion,
variation/imitation.

Don't know if i managed to communicate my perceptions well, but hopefully it could stimulate some thought.

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Good is a spectrum, good is relative, and good is a long-term goal we have. If you're concerned about other people considering your music to be "good", then you can't be concerned with what you write before you write it. There is a limited amount of "good" music, and you can write virtually any amount of "bad" music. The distinction will come from you and others determining whether you wrote is one or the other. If you make good music on the first try, great for you! If you don't then you'll want to revise it, and eventually what you write will be considered "good".

 

As for the Rite/Firebird:

Firebird was perhaps the second large work in Stravinsky's career, maybe even his first. Rite was his third ballet. It took him some time to write a ballet that was great, even considering the praise he got for Firebird. Even further, Stravinsky continued to practice, writing a bunch more ballets later. Not all were "good", he didn't have a magic formula, but he tried things until they worked, and then tried more things until those worked.

 

In your music, it is a nice connection to see it as an evolutionary process. Come up with several options, then choose the best option. Repeat. Eventually, your work will be as "good" as it can possibly be, although this may be beyond any of our lifetimes. So, good is a spectrum, good is relative, and good is a long-term goal we have. Until then, we work towards it. Gradus ad Parnassum.

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