William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

What Makes Music Bad? A New Scale: Part I, the Definition

It might have been coming out of the air space between her ear buds and flesh, or it might have been seeping through the holes in the woman’s head. Either way, that endless, non-varying thump-thump-thump was making me nuts.

This experience is similar that one endures when listening to a well known song by a bubblegum band named after an ubiquitous insect. The one in which the lyric, “I want to hold your hand” is repeated over and over and over and over and…

The “Boss”, Bruce—Bruce!—Springsteen uses this technique as a bludgeon: “Born in the USA!…I was…[wait for it]…Born in USA!” Repetitiveness is such an integral part of this man’s music that you have the idea he is ad-libbing most of his songs, though drawing on a shallow fund of imagination.

And then there is the sheer, gut-wrenching awfulness of most modern children’s music, which includes music supposedly sung for the benefit of children. “Banana Phone” and “We are the World” come to mind. Not only are the lyrics of these songs simpleminded, but their melodies are brief, trivial; a handful of phrases recapitulated dozens of times in one sitting. Thinking children idiots is a recent phenomenon, incidentally.

Need I repeat what makes music awful? Repetitiveness! Overt, unnecessary simplicity. Purposeful limitation.

Think of a “melody” consisting of just one tone, whichever tone you like, and held for as long as possible. This, we shall not quibble, is music. But it is bad music; it meets our tests of repetitiveness, simplicity, and limitation easily.

Now think of a harmony consisting of a regular, unvarying thumping, again replayed ad nauseum. This, too, meets our tests. It is also, we say in a spirit of generosity, music. But only in the sense that the Museum of Modern Art is a museum which displays, well, art.

Finally, take a lyric, any string of words will do, say less than length ten, and then sing them over and over and…you get the idea. Once more, music; but rotten.

Our measure is three-dimensional, consisting of the components melody, harmony, and lyric. Some music lacks one or two of these elements; none lacks all three. Jokes in which a “composer” sits unmoving at a piano in front of a credulous audience who hear nothing but their neighbors farting are not music. If “everything” is music, nothing is. In any case, a piece which is lacking one or two of the elements, our measure is also silent.

Musical Badness (MB) quantified is this: the proportion of the time a length of music is devoted to repetitiveness.

MB is thus a number between 0 and 1. Consider our three examples: the endless tone has a melodic MB of precisely 1 because the repetition is exact however long the “piece” lasts; the harmonic MB is also 1 and for the same reason; as is the lyric MB, obviously.

A score of 0, it must be emphasized, does not indicate goodness: our score says nothing directly about excellence. For example, a chaotic series of “bleeps” and “bloops” supposedly emanating from a computer, such as were often heard in 1950s science fiction movies, would score very low on the melodic MB, but in no sense would this music be good. Neither would singing the dictionary make for a sublime lyric.

There is subjectivity in MB which arises from deciding which parts of a piece one cuts for tests of repetitiveness. Oftentimes, lyrics fall into natural clumps: nearly any pop song is distinguishable as pop for this very reason. Hip Hop (Rap) is instantly identifiable for its use of the same four or five (perhaps it is only three) harmonies.

Natural divisions are found in melodies, too, but the test here is less reliable. Take, for example, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata (no. 8 )1 in C Minor, adagio cantabile: the same, it must be admitted, very simple melody occurs throughout, but it would take a strong man to call it bad.

The MB scale can fail here if it does not take into account the evolving voice of the melody; repeated, yes, but with different accents; similar to a poetry reading by a native English speaker followed by a Frenchman approximating that language.

Think, therefore, of MB (in each dimension) as a probability of badness: high scores only say that a piece is probably bad, not that it certainly is. A sunny day may follow a forecast of ninety-percent chance of rain. The measure, once more, is not symmetric: low scores are indicative only of the lack of repetition, which itself may or may not be good.

No perfect method exists, or can exist, to quantify beauty or ugliness. In fact, even though I am a statistician, I caution against undue reliance on quantification. The Benthamization (if I may) of music is to be resisted. But here I think we can have a little fun.

Next time: examples.

—————————-

1 The extra space after the “8″ but before the “)” is intentional; if missing, an insipid smiley face with glasses appears.

49 Comments

  1. I say this about American culture – not just the music.

    I had a typical 50′s childhood – complete with Border Collie named Shep and horse under the apple tree outside my bedroom window.

    Other than that – it was surreal. People kept giving Elizabeth Taylor jobs in movies – and then gave her awards!

    Other films cast old men trying to seduce a pre pubescent [and highly overrated] Audrey Hepburn.

    My friends thought Elvis Presley was talented.

    Hollywood polluted my world with 3 hanky holocaust film until I wished they’d gotten em all.

    And nobody else noticed that Jackie Kennedy was always imitating Marylin Monroe’s breathless syntax….. for reasons nobody ever discovered.

  2. Counterexamples:
    Philip Glass, Steve Reich

  3. Speaking of repetition:

    Handel’s Messiah. (*Hallelujah!*)
    One Note Samba
    Blue Rondo a la Turk
    Row , Row, Row Your Boat
    anything with Da Capo al coda in it

    The heart of music is anticipation. Hard to achieve that without repetition.

  4. RE: Need I repeat what makes music awful? Repetitiveness! Overt, unnecessary simplicity. Purposeful limitation.

    COMMENT: and if it didn’t repeat it probably wouldn’t be considered music, would it?

    Different strokes for different folks — most people like some form, or forms, of music and most of what constitutes music isn’t sophisticated. That’s why its relaxing in its way.

    Of course, there’s hard rock (and even “harder” rock) with its guitar riffs played at near warp speeds — most people find that horrid, worse than white noise, and utterly incomprehensible. Very often, its also very sophisticated in its way. I bet you don’t like that either.

    As Dale Carnegie observed, “any fool can complain and criticize, and most fools do.” Which makes me wonder why so grumpy & critical of late? You’re so much more capable than that.

  5. Hey, DAV, you gotta be kidding!

    It’s downright sacreligious in my book to accuse “One Note Samba” of being repetious. That fantastic song has a lot more notes than just one!

    And even though it does stay on one note for the first eight bars, there’s an extremely sophisticated chord progression happening just beneath the surface.

    Then what about the bridge? Wow!

    Last but not least, I gotta pay tribute to the lucious bossa rhythm, accompanied by typically gorgeous Portuguese lyrics.

    (To my ears, if truth be known, any combination of bossa rhythm with Portuguese lyrics is heaven on earth!)

  6. And who can ever forget the classic John Cage “4’33″ consisting of many varied and intricate patterns of rests uninterrupted by a single tone from the musical scale. (One of its iTunes customer reviews: “It’s great that iTunes is offering free John Cage, but they should have really offered the remastered version. The difference is plain to hear!”). Perhaps the fart sentence refer to this?

  7. Jim Brown, perhaps I really had the computer programs OneNote and Samba in mind.

    Oh, I almost forgot about Monk’s Epistrophe. The name warns the potential listner :-)

  8. Ken, Prof. Briggs had a Ted Nugent piece as a lead-in to one of his lectures (Stranglehold, IIRC). Maybe he was attempting to ward off discerning listeners.

  9. “Va tacito e nacosto”, Julius Caesar, Handel.

    Funny, Briggs, we were listening to this, once, then again and again, and marveling at how much Handel could do with so little – by repeating a good thing.

    But he did start with a good thing.

  10. Swade016 (Wade Michaels)

    27 May 2010 at 9:09 am

    I feel sorry for you Matt. It appears you’ve lost the ability to be entertained by music. It sounds as though your only pleasure comes from the study of music, not the music itself. Sometimes beauty derives form order, such as the golden ratio, fractals, etc… But other times it comes from simplicity and repetitiveness (squaring the circle, Hilbert’s hotel, etc…).

    That being said, had Dante been alive today, his 10th circle of hell would’ve consisted of people been being forced to listen to a compilation of Everlast’s “And then you really might no what it’s like” and Little Big Town’s “Take me down”. (I don’t know the exact song names, but those are the lines sung at least 50 times each per song.)

    Oh, and Cole Porter sucks. [/antagonistic rant]

  11. Briggs

    27 May 2010 at 9:52 am

    Wade,

    Now I wonder where you formed the idea that I could not appreciate the beauty in music. I included, I thought—I double checked, I did—an example of Beethoven’s that I said was good but that received a high melodic MB. Certainly that second movement is beautiful in ways beyond my ability to describe.

    Did we all see that the MB was best viewed as a probabilistic measure? A song can receive an MB of, say, 0.5 (in all three dimensions), which roughly says it has a fifty-percent chance of being bad. It does not say it certainly is.

    DAV,

    Exactly! (On the Uncle Ted piece and Cage). Bad music has its purposes.

    Ken,

    Perhaps my definition is flawed. Have you a rival?

  12. DAV said:

    “I almost forgot about Monk’s Epistrophe”

    Very easy to do. In fact, if I had my way, I’d REQUIRE that it be forgotten.

    (If we had an infinite number of monks and sat them down in front of an infinite number of keyboards, how long would it take them to produce Epistrophe? We can’t say. No sane person could tell the difference.)

  13. How about Ravel’s Bolero

    American men love it, since it makes them think about a young Bo Derrick

  14. I don’t really know enough about music to comment on the actual topic of the piece, nevertheless, I do have a general comment.

    To quote Briggs:
    “Thinking children idiots is a recent phenomenon, incidentally.”

    Doesn’t that have something to do with the current liberal political views?

    Where would all the idiot adults that they imagine populate their constituencies come from without idiot children?

  15. You know what’s the worse in art?

    When some scientific dude thinks he can suss it out with equations

    (facepalm!)

  16. Jim Brown, I believe the answer is 1 Monk on 1 keyboard in less than 1 lifetime. Proximity to a coal train may be required. Felonious!

  17. There was a popular pianist (George Winston?) awhile back who would play the same notes over and over again. Adults (this was the 80s) at the time loved it. One teacher compared him to Beethoven, specifically the 9th Symphony. Yes you can still hear the fundamental melody of the 9th all the way through, but at the same time it evolves. Mr. Winstons music made me ill (ok annoyed), while I found the 9th soothing. It is especially soothing to sing along badly….

  18. Kudos, Matt, for tackling a controversial subject. I generally tend to differentiate between vocal and instrumental music, and agree more and more vocal numbers, or songs, these days seem to be “B-A-D to the bone”! [Oops] Mainly because of laziness and lack of application of talent, in my view.

    A great many song composers over the years started off with a basic “truth” or premise, which frequently was called the “chorus”. Around the premise was constructed a narrative, or verse. And so the format became narrative; premise; further narrative; premise; counter-narrative; premise; triumphant narrative; premise; and finally premise supremo.

    This process worked too well. It was too logical and structured for some youthful artists to embrace, so a fewf decades ago to mimic the on-coming generation’s love affair with on-the-spot fulfillment song-writers cut to the chase and wrote – or recorded – premise; premise; premise; premise; premise; premise; premise finale; premise supremo, or thereabouts. The next generation of artists – seeking to put their own mark on the evolution of music “improved” the format to motto; motto; motto; motto; motto; motto; motto; motto completo, ad infinitum.

    The next step towards instant gratification was word; word; word; word; word; word; word; word; word; word; word; word; word; word; [insert as many here as you wish] word. word fini. Next will come – maybe it’s already here – note; note; note; note; note; note; note; note; note; note; note; note; note; note; note; note; note; note; note; note; note; note; note; note; note; note; counter-note; note finale; note completo.

    On the instrumental side of music, in addition to the titles already mentioned above, I give you Kenny G’s startling mastery of the art of simultaneously breathing while blowing, leading to his trademark opening number wherein he holds and plays one note for eight to ten minutes while walking through the audience shaking hands with fans, supporters and fellow musicians. Is that part really “music”, or is it simply showmanship?  I’m not too sure.

  19. Perhaps we can solve this empirically. We just need a supply of savage breasts, hard rocks, and knotted oaks. I will keep a sharp eye out for savage breasts. :-)

    William Congreve
    The mourning bride, 1697

    Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
    To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
    I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d,
    And, as with living Souls, have been inform’d,
    By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.
    What then am I? Am I more senseless grown
    Than Trees, or Flint? O force of constant Woe!
    ‘Tis not in Harmony to calm my Griefs.
    Anselmo sleeps, and is at Peace; last Night
    The silent Tomb receiv’d the good Old King;
    He and his Sorrows now are safely lodg’d
    Within its cold, but hospitable Bosom.
    Why am not I at Peace?

  20. I like Banana Phone.

  21. Briggs

    27 May 2010 at 1:25 pm

    All,

    Sampling, everybody. Sampling!

    If you feel piqued about this new measure, then chances are you immediately thought of it with respect to a favorite. You computed that your darling worked out to an MB of (near enough) (0.6, 0.6, 0.6) and then thought, “That damn Briggs said my beloved song sucks!”

    He may do, but he has not. Your sample of one was insufficient. Do not only think of songs you like or admire, think of those that rankle or induce nausea, which are far more numerous.

  22. Briggs,

    RE: Ken, Perhaps my definition is flawed. Have you a rival?

    HOW about record sales, times played on the radio, duration on a top-something list, duration as a popular favorite over generations, etc. Those link goodness to popularity and profits–capitalism at its finest. Such a measure also removes the potential for some intellectual elitist of telling people that they need to listen to something else, etc. (i.e. a good measure ought not lend itself to being used as a lever of control over others). That’s the sort of approach associated with contriving the analysis to arrive at a preset answer.

    While “No perfect method exists, or can exist, to quantify beauty or ugliness” a reasonable method ought to at least convey some relative ranking of one reference point against another. Such a measure therefore must link the things being evaluated with the subjectivity of the people doing the evaluating. Record sales or requests for radio play do that.

  23. Briggs

    27 May 2010 at 2:46 pm

    Ken,

    No, sir. Records sales will not do. We cannot decide by vote what is good and best. That is the strict libertarian, or pragmatic, view, it is true; and, if that is so, it only proves the limitations of those philosophies.

    To move to a non-musical example, consider wrestling. It has been on TV since TV started—it is very popular—but by what measure would you say it was good, that it was beautiful, that it represented the best our culture has to offer? Merely its popularity? It’s ticket sales? Surely not capitalism at its finest.

    I’ve learned that there are two areas in which it is forbidden to offer judgment: music and dress. You’re not wearing jeans by any chance? (I’m teasing.)

    But let’s see where we exactly disagree and by how much. Surely you rate some pieces of music as better than others? I’ll assume you answer yes. It’s then natural to ask: Why? I do not think you choose your favorites as favorites just because these songs are the most popular (thinking about the infinite regress that this invokes shows why pragmatism fails).

    I’ll assume that you use criteria other than popularity to select your favorites. Well, what are these criteria? I have suggested repetitiveness as a, admittedly crude, measure. When I asked if you had a rival, I was asking this: what are the criteria you use when judging a piece of music bad?

    This I cannot answer for you, so I’ll have to wait.

    I’ll also offer a portion of a piece by Bach, as one which scores low (but not 0) on the MB. It is also one I enjoy, even love.

  24. Luis,
    Scientists are people too! The best sometimes forget.
    Beethoven’s fifth is another obvious example of use of repetition but it has depth and width. ‘Born in the USA sung like you’ve just run up a hill is not exciting or interesting or even sexy.
    This is, but you need big speakers! Really big! How’s this for instant gratification.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJeXQniTKto

    Briggers doesn’t play fair with the Beatles examples. Blackbird singing at the dead of night was a beautiful tune and the lyrics are suitable.

    A real blackbird’s song is more beautiful than most human sounds. It speaks to the spirit. I’m not even sure it’s a tune. I love anticipating the next chorus.
    All’s well that ends well. That’s what I make of his tune. It’s a most sympathetic sound. Time is beauty’s sieve and the blackbird’s song must be one of the oldest.

    Are we not told that samples cannot be too small and that statistical significance is misleading or that there’s no such thing?

  25. Briggs

    27 May 2010 at 3:43 pm

    Joy,

    There is such a thing as “statistical significance”, but there also exists smallpox. Both should be avoided.

  26. Actually if you want a really interesting example of minimalism with the amounts of notes in a tract, you should check the Joker’s theme in “The Dark Knight.” (On the soundtrack I think it’s entitled “Why So Serious?”) Hans Zimmer set himself a challenge to represent the character with an entire song that consists only of a single note. By perverting and deforming that one note in various ways he achieves a certain complexity. Link.

  27. Bruno Heinz Jaja – Punkt Kontrapunkt.

  28. Or spell, evidently.
    I’ll go get some coffee now.

  29. Briggs

    27 May 2010 at 3:55 pm

    PJ,

    Spelling or linking skills do not count on this blog.

  30. I think the proposed model needs to be validated! If we input a large sample, would it follow the probability proposed?

    I believe if you took the total number of songs ever written, regardless of where they fall on the MB scale, the chances of them being bad is extremely high (perhaps >99%) – even at 0. It is easy to write bad music- most of which, fortunately, we never hear.

    There are many cultural aspects that makes a song popular, even when it really stinks. I’ll say the truest measure of a song’s quality is when all of the other popular songs of its time are long forgotten, but it remains.

    I personally have a wide and varied taste, from Bach and Copland; to Reinhart, Brubeck and Corea; to Yes and Rush. But on occasion, its still fun to whoop it up with my kids to “Who let the Dogs Out.” You just can’t do that with Beethoven.

  31. Briggs, OK — now I have to ask: what exactly is wrong with smallpox? Just kidding. Just kidding.

  32. “Briggers doesn’t play fair with the Beatles examples.” What was interesting about the Beatles was that after successful rubbish such as “I wanna hold your hand”, they went on to write so much decent stuff. Not Cole Porter, it’s true, but not Elvis bloody Presley either.

  33. Who are you? Who, who, who, who?
    Who are you? Who, who, who, who?
    Who are you? Who, who, who, who?
    Who are you? Who, who, who, who?
    .
    .
    .

    I love this song! ^_^

  34. I’ll just add to some of the previous comments that repetition doesn’t necessarily kill a song.

    One of my favorties is Mason Williams’ acoustical gem Classical Gas. Pretty repetitive, but I can still listen to it over and over.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSiqsCCnnHw&feature=related

    Of course, having a little buzz on helps too.

  35. Something tells me I’ve told this story here before, perhaps on an earlier music thread. It so, I apologize those who remember it.

    I sing in a barbershop quartet, and we do a lot of tunes from the swing era, as well as other songs including some gospel and pop standards, mostly predating the 50′s.

    After one concert, a man came up to us and congratulated us for not singing any 7-11 songs. Of course, we had to ask, what is a 7-11 song? He replied, “You know, all those modern songs with seven words repeated eleven times!”

    I guess we don’t score too high on the repetition scale. But those chords better lock in, and we’d better sing the lyrics as if we mean them, or we won’t be asked back!

  36. William .
    Like with any brain activity it’s really difficult to try to put it on a scale going from good to bad .
    The problem being that the brain operates at several simultaneous levels with an almost infinity of different (but similar !) patterns .
    .
    Take on one side an african tribe with just a drum . It just does boum … boum … boum .
    Repetitiveness at its finest . Pure periodicity in all coordinates .
    Yet the people begin to shake their heads , then stomp their feet , then their eyes begin to roll white and they finish with foam at their mouth .
    Their brain locked in a resonant mode with the sound stimulation and ordered production of all kinds of happy hormones and molecules .
    Is that “good” music ?
    Well judging from the fact that the people will redo it , they obviously found their sound induced brain states pleasant .
    And if that is not a definition of “good” stimulation (music) then I don’t know what is .
    I believe that most of the very periodical sound stimulations work on exactly the same mode , promoting resonant brain states .
    .
    Take on the other side a Gregorian Chant .
    Lyrics are irrelevant because you don’t understand old slavic anyway .
    There are no pesky instruments with their identical boum – boum , screech – screech , toot-toot (a trumpet sounds just like a trumpet regardless what note it emits) .
    Only voices where no 2 are identical in frequency , amplitude and modulation .
    A very complex stimulation .
    Here your brain will go in a very different mode . No simple resonance locks .
    Deeper modes will be activated .
    Some will call it meditation , some will call it enlightening .
    In any case you won’t stomp your feet and foam at the mouth .
    You most probably will rather recline in your armchair , close your eyes and let a serenity “invade” you .
    Is that “good” music ? Well again many people will find this kind of brain states pleasant even if completely different from the case above . So yes , it is .
    .
    Hence the tricky question , can these 2 cases and all cases inbetween be compared ?
    I submit that repetitiveness is irrelevant and is not correlated (even statistically) to the “goodness” of a sound stimulation .
    What is correlated is the reward that an individual recieves from a given sound induced brain state which depends on the individual .
    Some very rare , get equivalent rewards from the drum states and the gregorian states .
    The majority will get a better reward from the drum state and a minority from the gregorian state .
    I would submit that these proportions are fundamental , invariant and a property of the structure of the human brain .
    If this proposal is right , then the corollary is that the statement “This is good music ” is undecidable in Gödel sense :)

  37. What about Charles Murray’s method used in “Human Accomplishment”? He looked at column inches of discussion in reference works as a proxy. The results generally matched what critics would consider the greatest to be.

  38. And of course one must consider sonata form’s forced repetition of the entire first movement of a symphonic work in order to affix it firmly in the listener’s ear. This does not make symphonies bad.

  39. Briggs,

    Perhaps you should familiarize yourself with the literature before making these claims. You might find evidence to support your “definition.” Some starting points:

    Sweet Anticipation: http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=10903
    Unsupervised Statistical Learning in music: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20005297

    You should also check out the work of Daniel Berlyne.

  40. Briggs

    28 May 2010 at 2:01 pm

    btp674,

    “Claims”? What claims am I supposed to have made this time?

    I looked at those papers, the second of which is named, “Unsupervised statistical learning underpins computational, behavioural, and neural manifestations of musical expectation.” It begins by saying, “The ability to anticipate forthcoming events has clear evolutionary advantages, and predictive successes or failures often entail significant psychological and physiological consequences.”

    Say! It looks like I have a clear evolutionary advantage because I find pop music so predictable. Does that make you want to mate with me (I’m presuming—and hoping—you are a female)?

    I’m beginning to finally have respect for evolutionary psychology.

    All,

    I think we’re focusing far too much on what makes a piece of music good, or why a piece is enjoyable. Noble questions, true. But not directly relevant. We want to know makes music awful, and why hearing some of it makes us consider homicide a reasonable measure to make it stop.

  41. “Blackbird” is similar to “Dear Prudence” in that both use a droning “D” note. In fact they are easier to play on a guitar if you use drop D tuning (lower the E-string to D). Much of Celtic music uses a droning note (it’s that bagpipe thing).

    Much of Scottish traditional music also uses long-short notes (as in “Pop Goes the Weasel”). And yet droning notes and a jumpy, repetitive beat can be put together to make beautiful music.

    Scottish folk music was the root of Appalachian folk music, which became Blue Grass, which has lately merged with Jazz to make some of the best of modern music. Although it is not to everyone’s taste. Some cringe and even get homicidal at the sound of “Rocky Top” or “Turkey In The Straw”. But then, maybe they never heard Bela Fleck, or Tony Rice, or Alison Krauss.

    Taste is a funny thing. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. There is no simple mathematical formula. Taste in music is individual, and says more about the cultural/psychological roots of the listener than the quality of the music.

  42. If you want to cancel the automatically-inserted smiley-faces and the like (I’m thinking of the copyright symbol that appears when the letter “c” is enclosed in parentheses, or the superscript “th”) just backspace and retype.

    Don’t you just hate it when your computer thinks it knows better than you do?

  43. You write: ‘Our measure is three-dimensional, consisting of the components melody, harmony, and lyric.’ Yet it soon becomes clear from your exceptions (including Beethoven) that ‘MB’ is an inadequate measure as defined.

    To add to Beethoven, consider Bach, Prelude #1 from The Well Tempered Clavier, or even more so, Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor, or indeed a certain insect-like musical band towards the end of its song ‘Hey, Jude’. Repetition is the key to musical power in all three examples. In the first, it is repetition of the intervals, but starting from different points. In the second it is a consistent bass line (moved briefly into the high register for a couple of — gasp! — repeats and then back again), while above it all is variation and decoration (Stokowski called this piece ‘The most sublime piece of music ever written’). With The Beatles it is a subtlely increasing intensity during this closing passage, a hinted sharpness and anger. The examples are innumerable.

    Perhaps more dimensions would help. At least two more components are vital in defining music: dynamism and rhythm. The former is clearly minimised in pop music for practical reasons. Loud and soft do not work on car radios. The latter is clearly essential in all forms of listenable music. But adding moderate complexity can turn a song into a great song. Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’ changes time signature, and then back again, and it’s like a turbocharger has kicked in, pushing the song from very good to great. ‘The Promenade’ sections of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ (Tchaikovsky was quite wrong when he said, ‘Mussorgsky’s music I wholeheartedly send to the Devil; it is the cheapest, the vilest of parodies on music.’) drops in a bar every now and then with a different time signature to the rest, adding interest.

    But I think adding these dimensions won’t help at all. I suspect science and reason has a very long way to go indeed before being able to define such things as good and bad music.

    Incidentally, I notice that you’ve strongly argued against mere popularity as being proof of the goodness of some item or other of music. I agree, but I would suggest that this would imply that there is no ‘objective’ measure of how good music is. If the judgement of the masses cannot persuade, why should that of one statistician? Or, for that matter, of one writer on home entertainment?

  44. SteveBrooklineMA

    30 May 2010 at 9:38 am

    Those who don’t appreciate Monk might well appreciate Groiner’s variations on Monk’s themes.

  45. “I think we’re focusing far too much on what makes a piece of music good, or why a piece is enjoyable. Noble questions, true. But not directly relevant. We want to know makes music awful, and why hearing some of it makes us consider homicide a reasonable measure to make it stop.”

    It’s because it is logically equivalent .
    Bad music is just a negation of good music .
    My point was that lack of repetitiveness doesn’t correlate to pleasant brain states (e.g good music) .
    It is logically equivalent to say that repetitiveness doesn’t correlate to unpleasant brain states (e.g bad music) .
    For instance I consider jazz awful . Perhapse not the worst (that would be hard rock) but very close .
    The more or less important dose of repetitiveness doesn’t play an important role in the unpleasantness of the brain state .
    What would play a role here is the amount of metallic screeching (trumpets , saxophones & Co) that I feel as particularly unpleasant especially when accompanied by the boring , trivial sound of the counter bass .

  46. Briggs

    31 May 2010 at 5:50 am

    Tom,

    I say bad is not the negation of good, in the sense that it is easier to be bad than good. For example, if, as I say, repetitiveness is a common feature of bad music, it does not follow that repetitiveness is always bad.

    I can agree that screeching is an element often found in the bad. Further, I’ll offer up one who one must say is “the best”, Miles Davis, particularly in his “experimental” period, a time where he and his group produced music which scored near zero MBs, but is so bad that I would rather listen to the Beatles.

  47. Variation being the heart of any music, would a control charting analysis method applied to a musical score be of any use?

  48. Leo P. Indiana

    31 May 2010 at 10:45 pm

    Briggs says: All,

    I think we’re focusing far too much on what makes a piece of music good, or why a piece is enjoyable. Noble questions, true. But not directly relevant. We want to know makes music awful, and why hearing some of it makes us consider homicide a reasonable measure to make it stop.

    And:

    I’ll also offer a portion of a piece by Bach, as one which scores low (but not 0) on the MB. It is also one I enjoy, even love.

    I confess I fall asleep quickly to Bach, preferring “popular noise” but aside from the structure of the music the sensory experiences of pleasure or pain in the presentation are very difficult to ignore for most humanity, statisticians may be exempted. In my case the violinist on the end of the Bach piece would bring me pleasure playing the Barney Theme.

  49. I feel that a fourth dimension of measurement would be helpful, dynamics. Too many songs these days have had their dynamics ‘crushed’ to increase the perceived volume that they are painful to listen to in their entirety. Having passages of varied dynamics in a song can greatly enhance the emotional response.

    Google ‘loudness war’ to learn more.

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