Is 'good' music objective or subjective?

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [BG]' started by Brelic, Jul 18, 2014.

  1. Brelic


    Jun 26, 2011
    East Coast, Canada
    I was out with some friends the other night, and we stumbled upon a very interesting discussion. I won’t rehash our entire debate right now because I’d rather hear what some of you think on this topic.

    Basically, one friend was arguing – quite vehemently – that ‘good’ music is objective. There is good music and there is bad music, and they are – or should be – universal. In other words, Nickelback is ‘bad’ music regardless of whether or not someone likes it, or whether or not they are popular. If you like Nickelback, you like ‘bad’ music. End of discussion. It’s pretty darn convenient that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music lines up perfectly with what he likes and doesn’t like, isn’t it? Almost like he just made up the categories himself…

    Which led me to defend my position that ‘good’ music is entirely subjective. Of course, because it was specifically focused on Nickelback as the example, I told him we had to pull back for a second… and examine what we mean by ‘good.’ I asked him for an example – he said Foo Fighters. I asked how they were any different than Nickelback. He did NOT like that! But in the entire history of music, Nickelback and Foo Fighters occupy the same extremely narrow space of music we call modern hard rock.

    The entire discussion felt very derivative after a while, and he never let up for a second that there is some sort of objective ‘good’ for music. In other words, for something to be objectively ‘good’ would mean that in any time, place, and with any peoples, it would be judged as ‘good.’ That there’s some sort of universal category of good music.

    It’s an age old philosophical debate – some have argued that there are natural, universal laws governing us (Locke, Hobbes, Hegel), and others have argued that there is no transcendent ground of knowledge or morality (Nietzsche).

    What say you? Is there such a thing as objectively ‘good’ music that is based on something other than personal preferences? Is ‘good’ even the right word? Or is ‘good’ music a subjective experience, infused with the zeitgeist, personal preferences, mood, situation, environment?

    Can a stronger case be made for the objectivity of 'good' music?
    johnpbass likes this.
  2. cnltb


    May 28, 2005
    Is 'good' music objective or subjective?
    Depends on the criteria you decide to measure it by.
    Last edited: Sep 1, 2014
    SirMjac28 and Bob_Ross like this.
  3. gully_jones

    gully_jones Stone cold groovy man Supporting Member

    Aug 26, 2012
    I would say "good musicianship" is objective and that "good music" is subjective. There are plenty of very talented musicians who are very good at their craft who I cannot listen to and some very marginal musicians who I can.
  4. PlunkRock


    May 2, 2013
    I'm with OP, nothing is inherently good or bad, therefore using either term is subjective.
    pglaser01 likes this.
  5. yeah but that's like, your opinion man.
  6. el murdoque

    el murdoque

    Mar 10, 2013
    well, the problem is not the answer to that question. The problem is defining the term 'good'.

    If you look up the word good in the cambridge online dictionary,
    you get the following results:

    1. very satisfactory , enjoyable , pleasant , or interesting
    So if you go with that definition, the answer is no - good music is purely subjective.

    2. healthy or well
    no help here as that definition does not really apply to music.

    3. High Quality
    there you have it - the cambridge dictionaries' third result will back your friend.
    Quality is something that can be measured in absolute terms and therefore objective.

    The list goes on and the answers vary with the different approaches on defining the term 'good'.
    Lee Moses likes this.
  7. Flad


    Apr 18, 2014
    Music is an "art" and all art is subjective. There is much truth in the old saying "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder", the saying doesn't lose anything if you change it to "Beauty is in the EAR of the listener"!
  8. fhm555

    fhm555 So FOS my eyes are brown Supporting Member

    Feb 16, 2011
    So does that mean if you like good music you can't like the other kind?
    spanndrew likes this.
  9. johnpbass


    Feb 18, 2008
    Glen Mills, PA
    Agree that "good musicianship" is objective. I do think that you can argue either side on the music itself. As "art" the music itself is subjective. However, if you look at things in the song such as the complexity of the arrangement, harmony, etc., those are more objective looks at the song.

    Great topic for discussion, btw!
    Mockyngbyrd and Brelic like this.
  10. Ralph Notoro

    Ralph Notoro Inactive

    Jul 14, 2014

    The very question is subjective. But it sounds like you friend thinks that what is good is what he likes. A lot of people think that way and it is objectively wrong.
    Brelic and Flad like this.
  11. Unprofessional


    Mar 5, 2012
    Subjective. If it makes you smile, then it's good.

    And, yes, I went through my "the only music to listen to is music that 'matters'" period.
  12. wilberthenry


    May 12, 2009
    You are correct that this is subjective. I would argue that "good musicianship" is also subjective. So many parts of musicianship (feel, groove, etc.---) are not really measurable. I have heard a ton of bassists play the bassline from Cissy Strut by The Meters (George Porter Jr. on bass). Most play the correct notes and in time, but some players seem to capture the groove/feel way better than others (try objectively measuring feel or groove). Some add fills and other flourishes that require advanced skills, but whether these factors make a player's musicianship better is entirely subjective. Personally, I think Porter's musicianship on the original can't really be topped.
    GregC and Brelic like this.
  13. Phalex

    Phalex Semper Gumby Supporting Member

    Oct 3, 2006
    G.R. MI
    If you like it it's good!

    If you don't like it, nobody really cares anyway.

    At least that's been my experience.
  14. lfmn16

    lfmn16 Supporting Member

    Sep 21, 2011
    charles town, wv
    Ask him what his objective criteria for judging is. He sounds like a judgmental asshat.

    Objective - not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.

    Doesn't sound like he even knows what objective means.
  15. dalkowski

    dalkowski Supporting Member

    May 20, 2009
    Massachusetts USofA
    We had this conversation at rehearsal Tuesday night. Subjective. Utterly subjective. It's just a way for someone to try and feel superior.

    Some music I don't care for, but far be it from me to judge whether it's good or bad. The worst is when someone says "That's not music." To someone's ears, it is.

    And besides, who cares?

    I've tried to instill this in my kids. It sucks to get cut up when you fall off your bike, but Iggy Azalea doesn't suck -- you just don't care for her music.
    eqvolvorama, sacreddog717 and Flad like this.
  16. Brelic


    Jun 26, 2011
    East Coast, Canada
    But isn't 'quality' also something that is subjective? It only becomes objective once you have defined and agreed upon the content of 'high quality' music.
    deeptubes and bswag like this.
  17. Brelic


    Jun 26, 2011
    East Coast, Canada
    Ok, so let's look at 'good musicianship'... isn't that the same subjectivity applied to playing the actual instrument?

    Does John Petrucci exhibit 'good musicianship'? I would say yes. Countless others would probably say no.

    Is John Petrucci technically competent at guitar? I think that question comes closer to being 'objective' because you can actually measure and evaluate technical competency.
    GregC and AlastairWatts like this.
  18. The best answer is both. I had a music teacher in secondary school who explained it this way. He said that with little or no musical knowledge, the listener's view point can only be subjective. Either, "I like this", or "I don't like this". Once the listener studies music, and understands how it's put together, he can evaluate it more objectively, "This is good", or "This is bad". That is, or should be, a separate judgement from like or not like. Hopefully, at some point, as a musician and listener, we synthesize the two, and appreciate the intricacies of well made music.

    That said, I like some things which are arguably not well written, well performed, good music. I also dislike some things that are the epitome of well made music.
    AlastairWatts, johnpbass and Brelic like this.
  19. Brelic


    Jun 26, 2011
    East Coast, Canada
    So it seems like most of you have the view that 'good' music is subjective.

    Let me see if I can blur the lines.

    Consider Mozart's Requiem. Do you think there is any real basis for arguing that it is a 'bad' piece of music? In other words, could we say that someone who judges that piece of music to be 'bad' to be lacking in some sort of discerning ability to even judge or understand what is good music and what is bad music?

    I.e. are there prerequisites to being able to judge music in the first place? Or is that just what most would call 'snobby'?

    EDIT: I posted just as RDUB did... seems my line blurring gets at exactly what you posted!! Haha, nice!
  20. wilberthenry


    May 12, 2009
    This debate reminds me a little of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where the guy went crazy coming up with a way to define what "quality" is.
    Robus, RDUB and Flad like this.
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