There is really no easy way to pinpoint exactly what makes a good piece of music good, so I think that the best way to go about this is to start small and end big.
First we need to explain why certain sounds sound better than others. There are a few elements that play into this, the most prominent being timbre (pronounced tam-ber). Timbre, not Timber, the sweet Ke$ha song, explains the physical makeup of a sound wave through means of identifying the pure tones within a single complex tone. In layman’s terms, timbre tells us what is happening within a sound and why it sounds the way it does.
In the picture to the left, we see that this specific tone is made up of 3 different sound waves. These sound waves represent the fundamental tone (usually what you hear right off the bat) and the overtones (You might be able to hear them if you listen closely). Without boring you to death and going into massive detail about what is happening here, I’ll leave you with this; the pure tone sound wave’s all mesh into one single wave and the result is the overall complex tone.
Now that you understand the specific waves of a sound, we can look at what makes a certain sound “good” or “bad”. This is explained mainly through overtones and how present they are in the sound. For instance, when Morgan Freeman talks there is an emphasis on the lower sounding tones, giving him the voice of an old man angel. However, when you hear Justin Bieber sing for some reason, there is emphasis on higher overtones. Our ears tend to enjoy tones that are lower simply because they are easier to process, which is why I’d much rather listen to Morgan Freeman.
The next element on our list is explaining pieces of music through some basic music theory. In western music there are two types of scales, the major and the minor. The best way to explain the difference between them is simply, major scales sound happy and minor scales sound sad. Each are made up of 7 different notes. For the most part, popular music is made up of chords, and a chord is made up of three notes within a given scale, and similarly, major chords kinda sound happy and minor chords kinda sound sad. If someone were to write a song using notes that were not a part of any given scale, it would sound bad. (This excludes jazz, because jazz does what it wants and doesn’t answer to anyone). However, if you listen to a song that stays within a single scale, it would sound boring or bland. Think “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. While “Mary Had a Little Lamb” doesn’t particularly sound bad, it’s not something I like to work out or study to, frankly it’s just not that interesting. So what makes a song interesting?
To simply put it, change. We don’t expect change; we expect the same tune over and over again, so when something does change it grabs our attention. There’s no easy way to explain this change because there are so many ways to do it, but go listen to the first 2 minutes of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” (link to moonlight sonata) and you’ll understand what I mean. It’s constantly changing and fresh. It never recycles itself, and that’s what makes it so interesting. In popular music, the most common form of change is in song form and energy. In Miley Cyrus’ song wrecking ball, we see a clear distinction between the verse “We clawed, we chained our hearts in vain…”, the bridge “don’t you ever say I just walked away…”, and the chorus “I CAME IN LIKE A WRECKING BALL…”. Each are made up of chords from the same scale, but are played differently than the other sections of that song. They change, and that’s interesting to us. Lastly, another form of change that we see in popular music is the key change. The song that immediately comes to mind is Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”. You know that part at the end where she’s just doing her thing and you’re trying to sing along, then all of a sudden she starts singing higher and you try to keep up but your voice cracks in front of the entire cafeteria so then you eat lunch in the wood shop for the rest of the year because people keep calling you “puberty kid”? Well that’s a key change. At the end of the song, when she sings the same line only higher, all of the instruments move up as well. It’s the same song, same sound, same words, but the music, including her voice, changes to a higher key.
Now that I’ve briefly explained what makes songs sound good, I can explain what makes good music good. There are two types of people in this world: People who cry, and liars. We all feel emotion and good or bad, we enjoy feeling said emotion. A lot of times we tend to fuel whatever emotion we are feeling through whatever means we have; the most versatile being good music. When my girlfriend broke up with me in high school I went and listened to “Arms of a Woman” by Amos Lee, and wallowed around my room like a drunken two toed sloth. I experienced some real emotion and truly tried to make that experience richer. We’ve created a culture through means of technology and disconnection from others and ourselves that leaves us feeling nothing for most of the day. So, when the opportunity presents itself, we try to push that nothing to become something. This “push” is often found in good music. Good music is a vessel. It provides us with an escape from reality, or a plunge into its depths. Good music is sociable. It connects us to others and allows us to share common emotions. Good music is addicting. One hit and you’re stuck; left with an insatiable hunger to hear more. Good music is enriching. It makes us think. It makes us strive for more. Good music builds us up so we can tear down one of our generation’s greatest obstacles, apathy. I keep using the term “good music” purposefully. In order for a piece of music to be considered truly good by the general population it has to make them feel some emotion, inspire them, provoke some thought, create some human connection, etc… I am guilty of being a music snob. I think John Mayer’s music is great, but dog on Justin Bieber. I think James Vincent McMorrow is awesome, but hate on Kanye West. But the question is not who is good and who isn’t, it’s what makes the music we consider to be good, actually good. In short, good music is just good.
I hate reading blog posts that interest me, but don’t leave me with anything. So here are a few links that you can follow if you care to know more.
Music theory — I pretty much just reiterated lesson one of music theory 101. This site here is pretty good about explaining things a little bit further. Although, I warn you, don’t expect to fully understand music theory in a day, it’s no small task.
I linked to the Encyclopedia Britannica in the first few paragraphs on the topics of timbre and overtones, so go check those out.