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Obviously sometimes a piece of music is so discordant that people cringe when they hear it, but what I don't understand is what makes people prefer one tune over another when both are free from obvious defects. For example:

  1. What makes "Amar pelos dois" (the song that won Eurovision 2017) better than "Beautiful Mess" (the song that placed second)? Does it sound better? They certainly didn't sound very different to me, and I wouldn't have been able to say conclusively that one song is better than the other. I also happen to not like either song in particular, which is baffling since they're good enough to win a prestigious tournament.

  2. What makes Mozart a great composer? Why is he a better composer than you or me? Can we objectively say Mozart is better than Bach, or vice versa (or Taylor Swift for that matter)?

My best guess is that "if people like your music, you're a great composer", but that's argumentum ad populum which in argumentation theory, is fallacious. My next best guess is that judging whether a piece of music is great involves some artistry that only musicians understand, and my question is what is that artistry? Further: if it's possible to tell upon finishing a song that it's not great, why can't the composer improve the song until it is great?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Todd Wilcox, Dom Dec 20 '17 at 14:45

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • Will Taylor Swift's music be able to interest generations of critics and musicologists? Also note that craft is explicable, but art is inexplicable. Music contains both aspects, but attempts to describe the nature of art or the experience of art always seem to come up short. – David Bowling Dec 20 '17 at 1:52
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    Two things should be clear to anyone: 1) Taylor Swift is the best and her work will live for centuries. 2) This question is too opinion based. Regarding argumentum ad populum, John Mayer once (very wisely, IMHO) said, "Your audience is much smarter than you are." I think he meant collectively. You can make something that is super "intelligent" in its craft, but if no one likes it, then it still sucks. I guess the converse doesn't always hold, though. – Todd Wilcox Dec 20 '17 at 3:45
  • This question has so much wrong with it. "Obviously [...] sometimes a piece of music is so discordant that people cringe" Subjective. You'll find that there is no music that nobody likes, like there also is no music that everybody likes. "free from obvious defects" What defects would make a piece of music bad? I would want to know. "I wouldn't have been able to say conclusively that one song is better than the other" Because that comparison is impossible. "What makes Mozart a great composer?" Subjective. Textbook example of an unanswerable question objectively. – Ye Dawg Dec 20 '17 at 5:23
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    @ToddWilcox Taylor Swift is the best and her work will live for centuries very true - since today we measure centuries in terms of weeks. – Stinkfoot Dec 20 '17 at 8:05
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    @ToddWilcox -- i'm not sure that the audience is a smart as you or i think it is. The audience likes what it's accustomed to hearing. Not to say that the audience is wrong, nor to say that the influencing of the audience through reinforcing via repetition is necessarily bad, just that the opinion of the audience, which is mostly non-expert, is vexed. – Dean Ransevycz Jun 15 '18 at 10:21
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(Note: Some may think this question is opinion-based and should be closed, but I don't think you're asking for our opinions, but rather the facts of what music history has thought. I think it's an important and valid question!)

When it comes to art of all types (visual, musical, etc.), I think there are two big aspects that go into evaluating it:

1. Innovation

What's new about the piece? Does it build on the work of prior artists (composers, painters, writers, etc.), does it completely tread new ground, or is it a mixture of the two?

Something to consider is that something can be too innovative too quickly. When dubstep was introduced at the turn of the century, it was innovative. Had it been introduced in the 17th century, it wouldn't have been 300 years before its time, it would have been considered a garbled mess.

And, somewhat related to the question of innovation, we also have

2. Influence

How does an artist's work influence his or her contemporaries and successors? This is where it can be really difficult to judge an artist's worth during their lifetime. There's a reason why countless artists were famous during their life and have now been long forgotten in the history books: as we look back and see how little their careers influenced the course of history, we decide to turn our focus elsewhere. Similarly, countless composers were considered only mediocre in their time, but as their influence on successive generations became more apparent, they were elevated to a higher status.


Ultimately, art is subjective; it's up to you to decide what you like best. Because of that, the nature of competition when it comes to art is pretty silly; one judging panel may give the Eurovision contest to one song, where changing just one judge could result in another winner.

But in terms of understanding the historical trajectory of a discipline, in my experience it's innovation and influence that determine an artist's placement in the history of their field.

  • Regarding these two points and Taylor Swift: Using "I Knew You Were Trouble", the innovation of combining pop-country and dubstep seems obvious in retrospect, but it was totally daring and startling when the song was released. And it goes without saying that Swift's music is highly influential. – Todd Wilcox Dec 20 '17 at 3:47
  • A bit surprised the question is marked as opinion-based, since you answered what I was asking without invoking opinion. Thanks! – Allure Dec 21 '17 at 19:41

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