What is quality music?

April 7, 2015

While driving through Arkansas recently, I pondered the question, What is quality music?

As it happens, the song that spurred my thinking was “Carl Poppa,” The Walking Dead spoof from Bad Lip Reading featuring Carl GrimesCarl Poppa - Bad Lip Reading - Walking Dead spoof — a tune I’ve heard repeatedly of late, thanks to its popularity with the kids. The song is rapped and the format is mostly where the lines fall, “La Jiggy Jar Jar Doo, Dur Dur Dur Dee Dur”. Most of the quality is in the catchiness of the lyrical content. While inventive and edgy, the song, for me, lacks basic musical qualities. I suppose “Carl Poppa” is rather limited in its redeeming qualities from my perspective of what music is.

I judged this song in part against what I’ve come to call the three T’s of music that are referenced throughout the forums at Banjo Hangout: taste, tone, and timing. While these qualities are related to acoustic music at the Banjo Hangout, they could also apply as standards for music in general. Do the three T’s guarantee quality music? Of course not. But, without them, music – for me, at least – seems to fall short.

Making music is not a recipe experience. Music can have all the ingredients and still fall short. What’s missing? The answer is often elusive and ultimately subjective.

In the late sixties, there was some discussion in music circles about who was better — Judy Collins or Joni Mitchell, two vocal icons of the era playing both on the rock and folk venues. Joni Mitchell wrote a song called “Both Sides Now” which was recorded by Judy Collins in 1967 with much success. (In fact, it launched her career.) Joni Mitchell recorded the same song in 1969.

While some felt that while Judy Collins had the purer voice, Joni Mitchell had an edginess and uniqueness that was often found preferable. I heard and participated in that discussion many times; and I fell into the Judy Collins Bob Dylan 1970camp. In that same era we had Bob Dylan, and there was (and still is) discussion aplenty with regard to his unique voice. Some found his singing “similar to a dog caught on barbed wire,” while others found his singing an expression of his individuality. Personally, I liked it.

Then there’s the quality of genius. Some musicians that seem to be able to do things that I can only dream of doing; I am often amazed at their virtuosity. Yet, even music genius is not always a ticket to quality. I find that I can hear incredibly talented artists performing incredibly difficult music and not find the music satisfying, even though I am amazed with the level the necessary talent. In the bluegrass field there are some instrumentalist that can pack an amazing number of notes into a passage. But is the result really the best music?

Bob Dylan 1970When asked about a current crop of talented instrumentalists of an era, Bill Monroe was said to have replied something akin to “When you write a letter to someone, you want each word to mean something.” In the same vein, I have always preferred the singing style and guitar approach of B. B. King to the rocket-like approach of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Again, much has to do with taste, not talent.

All this being said, the conclusion that I reached even with myself is that the answer is not only subjective in general, but even seems to change personally depending on mood, circumstances, and a variety of other factors. A high-powered bluegrass tune that I enjoyed during the day might be a rude awakening in the morning or before bed. What I have found in writing this post is that almost any generalization about music that has come to mind seems to generate an opposite argument that is just as compelling. I guess that is why my iPod has over 300 CDs of almost every genre and style. My advice is to listen to it all you can, enjoy what you can, and try to figure out why you enjoy it.

Resources: What is quality music?

cover of Wildflower album - Judy Collins

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