What Is Good Music?


Eman Laerton and I have spent so much time talking about Bad Music, that we get this question all the time.

This morning, I received a firm request to answer it.

First, I’ll give an Abstract philosophical answer, in two parts:

1.) Good Music combines as many Musical Elements as possible and uses them in a creative way. The Elements of music are generally accepted to be things like Melody, Harmony, Rhythm, Tempo, Dynamics, Pitch, Duration, Texture, Form, and Timbre. Music Appreciation 101. I believe that if you throw a bucket of ice water in the face of each of those at tell them to get to work, you have a chance at making Good Music.
2.) Good Music conveys a story or meaning beyond those mere Elements.

I’ve found that’s a pretty Objective way to measure it. You can argue with that all you want, but I don’t think these tools were invented to be abandoned.

Oh, you want a Subjective answer? OK.

Here’s something more Concrete, based on those Abstractions. This is my personal list of favorite rock / pop albums (in no order other than the first entry being where it belongs)…

1.) Steve Vai – Passion & Warfare
2.) System of a Down – Mezmerize / Hypnotize
3.) They Might Be Giants – Flood
4.) Victims Family – White Bread Blues
5.) Mr. Bungle – Disco Volante
6.) Kevin Gilbert – The Shaming of the True
7.) Ani DiFranco – Little Plastic Castles
8.) Devin Townsend – Infinity
9.) Ween – Pure Guava
10.) Nomeansno – Why Do They Call Me Mr. Happy?

Each of those albums has a “thing” to them that connects the pieces together. I’ve listened to each of them on repeat, feeling as if I’m pulled into a unique creative universe. They have strong character, and don’t sound to me like a bunch of songs were stuck together. They have variety and duality in their Elements. Fast-slow, loud-soft, funny-serious, long-short, big-small, complex-simple. A good album intimidates me and teases me, and I hear new things each time I listen. I get the feeling that there is always more going on that I don’t hear — maybe I’m seeing just a snapshot, or there are deep roots growing below the surface, or the album is talking about me behind my back somewhere. Who knows? It’s Seduction.

There are other candidates that could go on this list, but according to the rules, I could only pick ten that meant the most to me. You might notice that only one of those albums was released in the past 15 years. That’s because music doesn’t mean as much to me as it did when I was in my teens and twenties.

I don’t go out looking for good music anymore. For the past year, I haven’t listened to much of anything other than screenwriting podcasts… and the occasional Classical KUSC. (So please, no more technical-death-fantasy-epic-metal videos.)

When we discover music, we form a relationship with it based on Context — where we are at the time, what we’ve heard previously, what we’re ready to hear. Some music serves a temporary purpose for us, comes and goes. Some music sticks around and deserves contemplation, and it can seem to grow along with us.

As you’re developing as a musician, it’s easy to get caught up in taking things apart and focusing on only the Elements. I’ve been guilty of that, and much of the music I’ve listened to (and thought I really loved) turned out to be just an Exercise. So don’t ever forget what the personal meaning is for you.

This is my public blog. You can also Join My Cult!

10 thoughts on “What Is Good Music?

  1. Thank you Carl. More on the list would have been perfectly acceptable. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what ‘good music’ is, and to then find good music, and seeing that you also seem to think a lot about ‘quality’, I was very curious what you would recommend for good music.

    That’s interesting that you don’t seek out good music anymore. Not sure why, but it is.

  2. I had thought you made a post, possibly a couple years ago now, about all the stuff you didn’t like about Disco Volante. Maybe it’s a love/hate thing?.. I myself haven’t been looking much for good music anymore…unlike 7-10 years ago when i would buy a few new cd’s every week. I am waiting for the next Secret Chiefs 3 album Book of Souls, though.

  3. Once I’d heard Infinity by Devin, most other music became so flat and dull. And Disco Volante sent me on a trip the first time I heard it. Great list Carl, I’ll check out the stuff I don’t know on Spotify now…!

  4. John: no Zappa, unfortunately. I’d list his autobiography if this was about books. Marty: I think I probably did criticize Disco Volante. It’s still a strong album and it meant a lot to me at the time it was released. It was my introduction to 20th Century Classical. Capt. Silverpants: check out Minutemen’s “Double Nickels On The Dime” if you haven’t already. That’s another good album with a lot of personality.

  5. I would have to put Frank Zappa’s One Size Fits All on my list. Although I haven’t heard all of his albums by any stretch, this one is SO DAMN GOOD. My spine shudders “Read ’em and weee-ee-e-heeep!”

    Yeah I remember in ‘An Open Letter To Estradsphere’ you called Disco Volante Mr. Bungle’s worst album- which I would agree with. It loses it’s flow a little bit. It’s still amazing though. It keeps a bit of its tenacity better than the other two because I less often feel the complusion to put it on so it is fresher each time.

    Props to Mezmerize/Hypnotize. So THAT’S what it sounds like when the Gods of Mount Olympus harmonise.

    I haven’t heard all of these albums! Amazing! I can’t wait!

  6. I believe Carl’s list rings true in regards to good music. Totally awesome music! Obviously there is much more, especially for each individual human. “Good music” has it’s purpose and that is to entertain someone, somehow in any way possible. You may hate it, but there is something about even the most dumbed down piece of shit music that has made it what is (I shan’t give names), but generally it’s a feeling. Even complex exercise music. Folks like to reject anything that isn’t their “thing”. They also may not know where the artist came from, how they came about, the personal issues and circumstances that made them do their thing, their level of mature taste… Music is not about any one artist. It is an all encompassing entity that does exactly one thing-to bring someone into a moment that exists right now, if they are paying attention to it. If not, cool, it’s ambience. But that’s not what we’re talking about. One moment, you hear some bullshit radio crap and 10 years later, somehow it just makes sense and it rings true for you because you can’t take the hype in the moment. I am like that. You might be instantly engulfed by psychotic instrumental jazz metL fusion rock core, but you might not like it later in life, like a tattoo or something because yes, it was extreme, and it was IN THAT MOMENT! And fuck, they do it so good! Fuck!

    So really, stop fucking caring so much and like something for what it is, in the moment whether it’s you or not.

Leave a Reply