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What makes a piece of music sound good?


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Alright, I am asking a general question here. I want to bring up this matter because I feel that my music may sound pleasing to my ears, but others may think differently. Perhaps some of us have felt the same, but I believe most composers on this forum share a primary objective: to create music that touches the hearts of our listeners.

I am not sure if this question has been asked before, but anyway: in your opinion, what makes a piece of music sound beautiful? Or, what are your philosophies when it comes to writing good music? For me, I heavily emphasize harmony in my compositions because I believe good harmony writing is imperative for the music to sound pleasant.

Since I had never brought up serious discussions on this forum before, I am sorry if this message has offended you directly or indirectly.

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2 hours ago, Carl Koh Wei Hao said:

Alright, I am asking a general question here. I want to bring up this matter because I feel that my music may sound pleasing to my ears, but others may think differently. Perhaps some of us have felt the same, but I believe most composers on this forum share a primary objective: to create music that touches the hearts of our listeners.

I am not sure if this question has been asked before, but anyway: in your opinion, what makes a piece of music sound beautiful? Or, what are your philosophies when it comes to writing good music? For me, I heavily emphasize harmony in my compositions because I believe good harmony writing is imperative for the music to sound pleasant.

Since I had never brought up serious discussions on this forum before, I am sorry if this message has offended you directly or indirectly.

 

The harmony definitely plays a role, but for me, the melody is just as important. I find Bruckner 7 first movement to be achingly beautiful because of all the solo lines and harmonic changes. The cellos especially have some beautiful melodies in that movement and the cello is my favorite string instrument. And an almost constant sea of modulations in the movement in some ways make those solos even more beautiful.

Pieces which I find to be beautiful mostly from melody include:

  • Chopin's Nocturnes
  • Grieg in general
  • Debussy's First Arabesque and Clair de Lune
  • Liszt's Liebestraum
  • Schumann's Kinderszenen
  • Quite a bit of Brahms

Then there are pieces that I find beautiful because of their harmony more so than their melody, such as:

  • A lot of Liszt pieces
  • Mozart's Fantasias
  • Chopin's E minor Prelude

And then there are pieces where melody and harmony are equal contributors to the beauty of a piece, such as:

  • A lot of Beethoven's pieces
  • A lot of Mendelssohn's pieces
  • Haydn's pieces
  • Bruckner's pieces
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16 hours ago, Carl Koh Wei Hao said:

I am not sure if this question has been asked before, but anyway: in your opinion, what makes a piece of music sound beautiful? Or, what are your philosophies when it comes to writing good music? For me, I heavily emphasize harmony in my compositions because I believe good harmony writing is imperative for the music to sound pleasant.

I think besides the duality between harmony and melody that has already been mentioned (I call it a duality because I believe the two are closely linked - one implies the other and they generally work in tandem to create a melodic/harmonic adventure), another important thing in music is the balance between variety and unity and the pacing at which new material is presented.  I recently started a giant variations project that I didn't have any hope of finishing because I tried too hard to create unity between all the thematic material without enough variety (despite it being a variations piece I felt like the variations weren't different enough from each other to create interest).  Anyways - the project went downhill when I kept trying to exhaustively work out each variation I had come up with for a bigger ensemble without really any idea of how I would fit the pieces together.  I didn't have a deadline so the piece just kept getting bigger and bigger until it became unmanageable.

All great developments strike a balance between unity and variety that creates interest.  Or in other words - a balance between novelty and conservatism.

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This is a really deep subject. The entire study of the craft of composition would have to be explained to give a truly concise answer.

The short answer I believe would be that there isn't a single aspect that makes an entire piece sound good. Rather, there are things that make each individual aspect sound good. Things that make them sound good together. Things that make them sound good as a part of a larger structure. 

Now here's my personal philosophy that comes from observation of other composers:

I believe that most anybody who is able to put their mind to it — not all are able to, and often that's why these types don't even bother trying to become composers — can become a "good" composer if they master the many aspects of the craft.

However, there is a difference between "good" and "great" and what I believe separates the two — and although I don't think I am a "great" composer I am flattered to have been told by some that I have at least a bit of this — is that you are also an aesthete. Someone who has a keen eye, ear and imagination for the beautiful and inspiring. Even if you are writing melodic death metal or horror music.

This is something that you either have or you don't.

Every great composer and artist I have met and through history seem to have been aesthetes in addition to having a strong command of all aspects of the craft on a technical level. All of them. They all had a great sense of style and taste. 

I've met composers and songwriters where it just doesn't matter how old they get. They ALWAYS know what's cool. They always have these little brilliant ideas that just pile up and pile up in their work because they intuitively know this is going to be great. It's the aesthetic choices of the piece; the choices that are actually irrelevant to whether or not the line sounds good. It's choices that are purely a matter of taste that when combined with good craftsmanship, elevates the work from sounding "good" to sounding "great".

For example, a lot of people liked my "Open Road Runaways" and "The Fortress of Your Heart" tracks. In the former, the addition of the slide guitar was a purely aesthetic choice; I had nothing in mind for the slide guitar parts, nothing written, but I just thought it would be cool and so I bought a bottle slide and improvised. Toward the end of the piece, on the last quarter-note bend before the end, I thought "Man, this part would sound sick with a phaser on just this one note". Similarly, in the latter tune, all my choices for instruments were based on what I thought would sound cool together. Wouldn't a rompler playing over a galloping bass with pedal tones be a good way to start it off? That would sound cool. Then, in the break part leading up the guitar solo, what if there was a sub-bass dive and all the other elements drop out, just leaving that reverb'd rompler to play the intro, but then there's a wicked guitar whammy dive into a solo that goes up a fourth? Man, that would sound epic and really breathe new life into it, I'll bet.

None of those choices actually impact whether the individual melody, harmony, etc. sounds good. The melody would still be a good melody if it was played on a piano, classical guitar, or a windows General MIDI synth patch — but it is these choices which take the piece to the next level and let people really connect with it. It just wouldn't be the same with something different. Although the melody would still sound good on winds, strings just feel like the choice that gives it that real "soaring" feel in the chorus. It just HAS to be strings. Without that phaser being switched on JUST on that ONE bend at the end, it just wouldn't be right. I could've harmonized ALL of the piano melody in thirds, but I chose only some of them. Because those were the notes that I just thought would sound best harmonized.

Etc.

This is the aspect of music that cannot be taught and I believe it is a necessary aspect to turn "good" musical ideas into "great" ones.

Edited by AngelCityOutlaw
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It's down to perceptions.

If I wanted to write something that sounded good I'd first gauge what sounds good to that particular audience then try to emulate it: analyse its qualities and apply them. A good example is Epic film music. I'd listen to it, take a guess at the orchestration, ask people about things like reverb and production; buy a decent sample library and daw. (I hate modern corporatised film music so rarely enjoy the proud efforts of those who present it LOL). Then I'd find a way of testing the reception of what I've written. 

If I wanted my music to sound good to a "classical" or romantic audience I'd learn good CPP, practice writing coherent tunes and study the scores of the greats to learn their orchestral technique.

What sounds good to an Adele fan probably wouldn't to a Mahler fan and vice versa. 

The audience for my music is small. I'm obviously pleased when someone claims they like it but it doesn't matter if people don't. Question is, am I satisfied; is the piece as I hoped?

 

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In the old days harmony was a term employed to describe a beautiful melody... Terms have been changed...

We live in a time with huge variety so objective answers are very hard to come to. Western culture is very dynamic, grown more dynamic over the ages, and these days it came to the point we switch from one opposite to the other in a very fast pace. Yesterday this style appealed to us, tommorow its opposite.

When I think about this question in an abstract way beautiful and meaningful art is able to bring opposites together, in harmony, in good standing. The middle point between opposites is impossible to reach so we can dance around it, making the invisible unity clear. In this sense every artwork points beyond itself and can therefore the listener or viewer to come to a transcendental experience (although some works have this more than others since not every work makes this to its (main) aim). But because we can never reach this middle point perfectly since it never can be expressed through anything this leaves us with an unending series of works of art. Every artwork is limited by being an work of art! A paradox... I think a good artwork knows its limits and because it knows its limits all elements fall into a meaningful place. It's not only beautiful because it makes apparent what is beyond it is also beautiful because it is limited, in its humble existence so it can point beyond itself. Dissonance can help make things more beautiful when it is placed in the context of consonance. A good work of art isn't only pleasant but at least also a bit painful to experience because it is a testimony of life as it is. We humans have the capacity to appreciate this and find beauty in tragedy.

 

Some thoughts... A bit chaotic maybe. But you might find some things to think about.

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