In an age where programs for composing music at home, internet streaming services and portable listening devices have brought music to more people than ever before, the age-old debate over the aesthetics of music has continued to rage – and neither side is willing to concede defeat just yet. Was Kant right to suggest that beauty is both universal and objective, or does the worth of art lie in the eye of the beholder after all? Here, Dorico explores some of the ways people have attempted to objectively assess the quality and worth of music, and ask whether a clear distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music can ever legitimately be drawn.

‘It’s just noise!’ – Can Music Sound Bad?

Some would argue that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music very much exist, and that the most obvious metric by which to determine between them is the aesthetic quality of the music itself.

For the composer Mickie Willis there are a number of clear criteria for the overall quality of a piece of music – from the technical proficiency with which the piece is executed to the integration of different elements (rhythm, harmony, melody etc.) into a cohesive whole.

None of these are unreasonable metrics with which to judge the quality of music, but all of them are open to a level of subjectivity. Willis’ suggestions of ‘a satisfying formal organisation’ and a feeling of ‘musicality’, for example, are largely open to interpretation by the individual listener – after all, one person’s racket is another’s rhythm. Undoubtedly, there are certain criteria that achieve a level of shared consensus, but even these change over time and across cultures. Sometimes music will even be retroactively praised for daring to challenge the very idea of what constitutes ‘good’ music.

Among the most famous examples of this is Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Now considered an unquestionable masterpiece and a cornerstone of the western musical canon, at its premiere in 1913 Stravinsky’s avant-garde approach caused outrage and unrest bordering on the riotous among the audience – a ‘sheer cacophony’, according to no less a source than Puccini. Over a hundred years later, the consensus couldn’t be more different.

Of course, The Rite of Spring still won’t be to every listener’s taste – but few would argue with its acceptance as an important and worthwhile piece of work enjoyed by many. Music may be deemed to be ‘bad’ by the standards it is judged against, but with these standards so imprecise and subject to change themselves, the question of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music is far from definitive.

‘Warning: Explicit Content’ – Can Music be Bad for Society?

The other notable criterion people have come up with to try and categorise music as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ relates to its perceived social worth – it ability to turn us, both as a society and as individuals, into better or worse people.

Fears over the social impact of music have been around almost as long as music itself, whether it’s Plato’s insistence that music’s powerful emotional affect demanded regulation by the state, to latter day debates over explicit content in pop music.

One of the most notable moral objections to music from the twentieth century was the deep suspicion and hostility that greeted the arrival of jazz. The frenetic, syncopated rhythms would surely lead to ‘crime, delinquency and uncontrolled behaviour’ according to one critic, while the theorist Theodor Adorno saw in it a dangerous tendency towards fascism. Few of these invectives had much of a lasting effect, however – jazz went on to be one of the defining musical styles of the century, while accusation of barbarity and fascism sound rather silly to modern ears. It would appear that the moral worth of music is as open to interpretation and adaptation with the times as judgements of its aesthetic worth.

As technology has made our entire experience of music more diverse, its subjectivity has only become more apparent. This subjectivity has, in turn, made music more democratic, and that can surely only be for the best. Music notation software, home recording technology and other such tools have opened up music production to more people than ever, while home stereos, the internet and portable listening devices have allowed almost anyone to experience it. The consequence of all this is the freedom to enjoy the music we like, and avoid the music we don’t. Opinion has become more fragmented and diffuse than ever before, which can only mean we’re further from an objective definition of ‘good’ and ‘’bad’ music than ever.

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