What makes good music?

The fundamental basis of music is the line: the relative relation between sounds placed in time. The line is the reason why rhythm holds primacy over melody—without rhythm, there is only a soundscape of isolated colours and textures. Line places these colours into a context; for the painter, the context of the two-dimensional canvas; for the composer, the one dimensional timeline. This does not imply that music is less complex than vision: there is also the division of a space into many subsidiary meters through form, through registration, through phrasing and harmony.

What makes good line? Music, as in the visual arts, wields rules of composition: rules that arise as a consequence of human perception. Perception favours near-symmetry, golden ratios, self-similarity, well-defined shapes, hierarchical layers of detail, and a certain density of information: that is, some ratio between novel and familiar elements which is most pleasing. (Perhaps it is even possible to infer the complexity of an artwork, measuring the statistical distribution of information density in music by proxy of entropy or bit-rate…) Good line appeals to our perception in many of the same ways as good visual composition.

A natural starting point for understanding good line is folk music. Folk music has undergone a kind of evolutionary pressure where weak ideas die, while the strongest pass on their memetic treasure while occasionally mutating or crossbreeding with adjacent tunes. Thus, an older piece of folk music was likely perpetuated for good reason, the principal reason being a pleasing line.

Good line need not be simple, as much folk music is, yet it need not be complex. Bach’s music persists in spite of its complexity (which can be a barrier to its enjoyment) due to the quality of its lines. Organization allows complexity: the more structured and delineated a piece, the more details it can contain. Our perception of detail is limited by the capacity of our working memory. Structure allows our memory to access a subset of details at a time, and place each subset into context by reference to a greater hierarchy.

As for great music, too often artists seek it in the outward expansion of possibilities, and in doing so, hobble themselves. The sublime need not live on the leading edge; if it existed nowhere else then how could the old masters find it, and still find it through us now? At a point in a pianist’s development they are no longer praised for playing more loudly, or more quickly than ever before. The master pianist uses the same instrument; the same dynamics at their disposal, and yet distinguishes a vaster finitude of dynamics at the touch of a finger. It is this distinction that allows for even more precise formulation of affect, and it is affect whose manipulation is the domain of the sublime.

Somewhere set in the vast possibility space of sound is that which we call music, spread as thin as Cantor dust and itself sprinkled with the sparsest dust of extraordinary works. Each new composer explores this space in ever-increasing breadth and depth, and yet altogether have never exhausted more than an infinitesimal part of its smallest region. Between each recorded score there are more unrealized variations than grains of sand in the universe. Thus there must be countless masterworks hiding in plain sight, the only power keeping us from their discovery being the fine distinction needed to notice them. Such distinction comes only through deep mastery, and what hope of mastery can come to those who only walk paths untrodden?

Novelty is an illusion created by ignorance; true and profound newness is discovered in combing the interstices of what is already known. After all, Bach explored the same possibility space as did Palestrina, as did Chopin and all musicians who ever lived, as will all musicians who ever come.

2016 September 24

revised 2018 May 9