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I've long assumed that there is no such thing as, objectively, "how good a piece of music is". I think this is a common view about music and art in general. after all, people got this joke.

Nevertheless, it seems from this question on another site that it's not a universal view; that some people think that you really can point objectively to 'good' and 'bad' music (though at the time of writing, that question doesn't explain how that's done).

Which got me to wondering: have there ever been noteworthy attempts to create a method of objectively evaluating how good a piece of music is? (I would consider that to qualify, the method would have to be widely, if not generally, applicable; that is to say it couldn't be something that can only be applied to a narrow genre of music).

EDIT : As per MatthewRead's comment below, there may be a language issue here in that you may think that 'good' is, by definition, something that refers to a subjective judgement. If so, for 'good', read "having aesthetic value", "being of artistic merit", or any other phrase that you could imagine might refer to an objective version of 'good'.

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    There have certainly been attempts in "narrow" genres. For example the "tablatur" or "law-book" of each en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meistersinger guild, lampooned in Wagner's eponymous opera. In an academic context, there was Cherubini's 19th-century textbook on how to write fugues - though most of J S Bach's feeble efforts would have failed a university-level music examination, if marked against Cherubini's criteria! – user19146 Dec 26 '16 at 20:48
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    @ToddWilcox I was assuming that such a basis for evaluation would relate to music theory, and hence that this would be a question for here. If the assumption is wrong, perhaps it isn't! – topo morto Dec 26 '16 at 23:42
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    Good is a subjective term. It doesn't make any sense to ask if something can be objectively good. – Matthew Read Dec 27 '16 at 15:55
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    @MatthewRead well, as per my opening paragraph, I'd agree with that.... but are there, perhaps, some people that wouldn't? That's the question! An analogy would be 'good' and 'evil' - I'd see the definition of those words as subjective, but many would disagree. So as one might ask on another site what absolute systems of morality exist in the world, I'm asking what (if any) general systems of musical excellence people have devised. If alephzero's comment above is correct, it seems that people have come up with what they've regarded as rules for musical excellence in specific situations. – topo morto Dec 27 '16 at 16:06
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    I think music is objective. There is good and bad music. There is music that is interesting and that is not. There is music that is heavenly and that that is evil. But among heavenly music there is bad and good and among evil music there is bad and good. I find art to be equally objective to life situations and life itself. Fir instance 'peeing from a roof of a building' is very bad even if no one is below, yet domeonemight like it and do it and have fans. Still that isn't a subjective case. It should not be. People shouldn't do it because it's bad. The same goes with music. – SovereignSun Dec 29 '16 at 7:41
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I think that you'll find that certain analytical theories, useful in their own right, were used (sometimes by their creators) as criteria for the worth of a work. Schenker and Hindemith both spring to mind.

Schenker's theories on Ursatz work quite well for music in a range from, say, Haydn to Brahms, which, coincidentally, was the range that Schenker considered to be the epitome of the art (he was something of a reactionary). Not surprisingly, he used his theories as a stick to beat on modern music.

Hindemith expounds his theories of harmony and counterpoint in Unterweisung im Tonsatz, which gives an interesting insight into how Hindemith saw his own music as working. However, in the appendices of Book 1, Hindemith uses his theory to analyse and judge a number of works from Gregorian chant to the music of his day: most are found wanting, and his analysis of Schoenberg's Op. 33a is in particular a travesty.

There are undoubtedly more theories than these that are used as criteria of worth, but these suffice to establish a pattern: people who use theories to establish the value of a piece of music almost always have a vested interest in the theories. That's to say that these "universal" theories agree with their authors' criteria, and may even (probably even) reflect those criteria in their formation, or, in other words, the authors' biases normally lead to the creation of the theory, which is then referenced as authoritative when evaluating musical works, a form of circular reasoning.

If I were inclined to do this, I would undoubtedly put a high premium on craftsmanship - people who know my music know that I am contrapuntal to the eye teeth, and that even works that I write for a soloist with accompaniment tend to imply duets, trios and other ensembles. So then, what happens when I apply my criteria to Punk? I admittedly don't like Punk, but its aesthetic and political purposes led to a quite sincere repudiation of my criteria, and it fulfilled those purposes well. We would be at theoretical loggerheads, no? We could argue about the aesthetic foundations of our respective musical criteria, but this would certainly emphasise that our "objective" criteria aren't (and Punk started from a foundation of subjectivity anyway).

So, to bring this back to the question:

  • I know of at least a few noteworthy attempts to establish "objective" criteria (see above), and there are undoubtedly others that I don't know.
  • There is a strong element of teleology in these theories, which tend to assume a movement toward "perfection", and, although purporting to be universal, tend also to exclude large swaths of music as diverging from this perfection.
  • The use of these theories as criteria involves large doses of circular reasoning, as the biases of the authors are reflected in the formulation of the theories, but the theories are then applied as objectively authoritative.
  • The theories can nevertheless be useful (as is the case for both Schenker and Hindemith). There are sometimes insights that can be adapted to understand music outside the theories' purview.
  • The motivation of these theories is quite simple: people prefer to believe that they are right in what they are doing or believing, even in the face of evidence that they might not be quite that right.
  • +1: I have (G__ help me) a BFA and so I am no stranger to this discussion nor to frameworks and even randomized rule-based art making, so I think you have a pretty good overview here. I also appreciate your reference to Punk basically proving the rule. I was listening to "Psychocandy" (not punk) this morning in the car and was wondering how such a screeching wail of white noise, power tools and reverb could seem so uplifting at that moment. A reviewer once said of it "a great citadel of beauty whose wall of noise, once scaled, offers access to endless vistas of melody and emotion". – Yorik Dec 29 '16 at 17:08
  • @Yorick, I went through BFA courses as well, gave it up because the essential instruction (life drawing, etc.) was being slighted - I tended abstract, but I figured that, much like learning counterpoint, the academic training would develop my skills to where I could do anything I wanted. I read the Graham articles in interstar's answer, but I think he puts too much faith in universality of reactions: we might all react to faces (although there are some disabilities that do prevent that), but we don't all react the same way. I have yet to run across a universally admired work. (more) – user16935 Dec 29 '16 at 17:28
  • I think that, if there is any way of more or less objectively defining value, it is within a niche: two works within a given style or period or genre, which share similar aesthetics, might not be (probably will not be) similarly effective. That becomes an apples to apples comparison. – user16935 Dec 29 '16 at 17:31
  • I was mainly self-taught until college, but I had several really great, super analytical drawing teachers who were also into abstraction. They focused on life-drawing fundamentals but managed to avoid political/philosophical/cultural aspects of realism. Which is to say: supportive. Judging by your profile, I suspect you went through this a couple decades before me, when there was more of a ground war about these aspects: in the 80s fine art swung so intellectual that the technical seemed vestigial, so we could be into realism without a revolutionary overlay. I call this "freedom" – Yorik Dec 29 '16 at 17:59
  • @Yorick, dunno. I suspect that the intellectual had already won. I probably should have gone to the Musée des beaux-arts: Concordia had already been conquered by colour field painters. They did not have the same background in technique as the older (abstract expressionist) Automatistes. – user16935 Dec 29 '16 at 18:12
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I am not sure the word "objective" applies to music. Music is subjective to the listener or player. I am a piano player and early greats like Bach and Mozart do not really(on the original scores) actually give notations on how to play the piece. And in fact, some of these pieces can be played in many different ways which is up to the individual musician interpretation. If music wasn't subjective, they wouldn't be such variety in music genres. A lot of musicians take a theme from earlier times and put their interpretations, therefore creating a "new" piece. Music, like poetry is a language of the soul. Souls are individuals.

  • It's unfortunate that so many people now rely on computer playback of their scores, and therefore overload them with markings that tell the computer what to do and forget that a human performer has a mind of his/her own! – user19146 Dec 26 '16 at 21:56
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    Though I agree with everything you said, I'm not sure this is really an answer to this question; all it's saying is that you feel the same way i do. – topo morto Dec 27 '16 at 16:09

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