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Is it possible to say categorically that some music is Good and other music is Bad?

Or should we way "I like it" or "I don't like it" and leave it at that?

closed as primarily opinion-based by David Bowling, Tetsujin, Todd Wilcox, ggcg, user45266 Sep 6 at 17:20

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.

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    This is way too broad in my opinion, since we really have to first come to some notion of what the ill-defined terms good and bad mean. As a general rule of thumb is seems better to ask if a piece of music is successful; i.e., does it accomplish what it sets out to accomplish, and does it do that well? – David Bowling Sep 6 at 12:14
  • I go on the "25 year rule". If someone's been famous for 25 years, they can't be bad, I can only not like them ;) – Tetsujin Sep 6 at 12:25
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    Of course it's possible, it's just a fuzzy judgement the way most judgements are. There is endless room for discussion of the merits of many, many works, but it's almost entirely impossible to argue that Beethoven's ninth symphony isn't better music than some grade-school kid's untalented fiddling. Given a big enough distance, fuzzy judgements become as nearly categorical as makes no difference. – Kilian Foth Sep 6 at 14:56
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    @topomorto -- "I don't really see why this question itself is particularly opinion based": the close reason isn't about whether questions are opinion-based, but whether answers to those questions will tend to be primarily opinion-based. It doesn't say it in the "put on hold" box, but I voted to close as "too broad" as I indicated in my earlier comment (not as opinion-based, although that reason seems fine, too); I think that any meaningful answer to this question needs a book-length (or possibly bookshelf-length) answer, not the short form answers that we can provide here. – David Bowling Sep 6 at 20:42
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Is it possible to say categorically that some music is Good and other music is Bad?

No. 'good' and 'bad' in the context of talking about the value of artworks are subjective judgements, so any such statement can't be categorical unless you include information about who is making that judgement.

"My daughter thinks Ligeti's Glissandi is good" is a reasonable statement.

"Ligeti's Glissandi is good" is a meaningless statement, unless the context in which it's made makes it clear whose opinion that is. If I say "Ligeti's Glissandi is good", most people will understand that to mean "I like Ligeti's Glissandi".

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There are (at least) three ways to measure "good" or "bad" with respect to music. There is some overlap.

First: construction. Pieces can be well-constructed or poorly constructed with respect to the composers intentions.

Second: what one likes. People have different tastes. Some people like country, some jazz, some classica, etc.

Third: success. Some music earns lots of money, some doesn't. This part depends a lot on luck as well as other criteria.

  • That 3rd criterion is open to all sorts! Earning lots of money: Mozart didn't do too well with 'good' (or even 'great') music. Some pop music has made lots of money - but many people (particularly real musicians!) would say it's 'bad'... – Tim Sep 6 at 16:21
  • Mozart actually made lots of money. He spent lavishly. Of course, just before he died, he didn't have a lot of money but he had some commissions and the prospect of earning more. – ttw Sep 6 at 16:38
  • @Tim, based on what criterion? What "real" musicians judge pop as bad? And more importantly WHY? What about it is bad? It seems that sometimes artists disparage success based on the belief or feeling that what is popular cannot have artistic value. If so, that's subjective. – ggcg Sep 6 at 16:54
  • @ggcg - my comment is somewhat tongue in cheek, for which I somewhat apologise. – Tim Sep 6 at 17:12
  • @Tim I somewhat see your point – ggcg Sep 6 at 17:19
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This question is bound to provoke differences in opinion. But that's just an opinion. The terms good and bad are often considered subjective and you can't really rank subjective statements. For example the statement "The grass is green" can be judged as true of false but "This grass is beautiful" or "Green is the prettiest color" cannot be judged by the same criterion.

Since music is an art form one can consider all of it to be subjective and not possible to rank in an absolute sense. On the other hand the technical aspects of a composition can be judged to "follow" or "not follow" what are considered the rules of music in theory. The real question is whether or not following these rules makes for "good" music. Since the rules are cultural and based on opinion in the first place to say that music which follows the rules of western music theory is "good" would be kind of racist.

Ultimately there needs to be a criterion for separating music in to classes called good and bad, and a definition of good and bad. If the definition if "I do/don't like it" then you can absolutely separate music into these categories. The problem is that each person will have a different definition and hence there is no chance of agreeing objectively on the separation (if that's your goal). Then good/bad are really properties of you and not the music.

As there are academics who base their career on passing judgement on art, and people follow their opinion, it seems reasonable to try and come up with a definition that will be universal. As art is concerned with provoking thought in the observer, possible new and unfamiliar thought, one can judge music as good if it succeeded in being provocative. By this criterion Cage's 4:33 is one of the best pieces every written. If you try to make a criterion that segregates music based on how closely it conforms to classical harmony and orchestration standards then you get what you get, namely that Mozart et al are "good" and the rest are meh at best.

Tastes change, even within a culture. So it stands to reason that the criterion for accepting music (or other art) as good or bad will also change. It seems to me that this is evidence of the impact of current social, political, and other community trends on art in general. So perhaps it is fair to judge music as good or bad but the criterion will change in time. You could base it on majority rule (if more than 70% to people polled like it then it's good).

The rules of western music where once explained by physics (or at least an attempt was made at this) by Herman Helmholtz in the late 1800's. It would seem that if physics explains what is "good" and "bad" that this is now objective and not subjective. This is a bit of a stretch. One of the things Helmholtz was interested in was an explanation of consonance and dissonance. He succeeded in my opinion be appealing to interference patterns within the harmonic structure. However, he started with the commonly accepted western opinion that consonance is pleasing or beautiful and dissonance is unpleasant or ugly. So, even though he can explain what causes the classification of intervals by how dissonant they are he did not explain why the western ear seems to prefer consonance. Some cultures may favor dissonance! And what is considered dissonant varies with frequency, and within a cultural group, current era. Again, our collective tastes change.

One can argue whether or not Metal is a good form of music at all. But if you are a Metal fan then within that genre you can argue whether Iron Maiden is a "good" example of Metal as compared to say Mega Death or some other band. For this to make sense there must be a template for Metal that is being used. Tempo, riffs, guitar solo style, vocal style. If you can objectively define these qualities then you may be able to develop some objective criterion for your judgement, even one that is universally accepted among Metal heads!

I think that for your question to be fair you need to put a bit of thoughts into these points. In general, yes one can define good and bad music in general or within a genre or as an art form but that distinction is not absolute across time and culture. So dwelling on it is not worth the effort. The flip side is that it is possible for a band to "follow the template" and produce a song that no one likes! For example, AI generated music (good or bad). That would anger me so I'd have to say it's a successful art form! That was my response to 4:33. At first "really, what a bunch of shit, I can't believe he got away with this!". But 10 years later I'm still talking about it so clearly he "shocked me" and that is "good" art.

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