What Makes Music Great?

At a panel discussion between the women who curated NPR’s Turning the Tables: The 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women, the question of what makes music great lingered in the room. Lists like these dominate our conversations about “the best” music, yet never claim to be comprehensive nor can be comprehensive. And they cannot be. The question was posed early on in the conversation, and stuck with me even as I ducked out of the auditorium. There has always been music that has particularly struck me, usually because the sound arises some sort of emotional connection, or the lyrics might relate to my emotions and memories.

The beauty of music is its ability to arise emotion in us, and that capability spans both instrumental music and music with lyrics. Music containing lyrics often makes a more obvious statement, can act as a vehicle for social change and empowerment, and often impacts our culture because of what the lyrics are saying. Instrumental music has often come under fire for its obtuse nature, but it too has made a deep impact on our culture. It would be impossible to argue that Haydn’s symphonies did not pave new ways for western art music. But the meaning may be more personal: a sound hits us all in different ways, arises different feelings within each of us because there is no verbal interpretation. It really is just a feeling.

It is clear then, that both of these broad genres can impact our musical culture. And maybe we could, or should, measure greatness based on how conscious, how boundary pushing and inspiring a work is. But it is practically impossible to separate the music from the artist, and that goes for classical music as well (for example, many people despised Beethoven’s late string quartets, but were afraid to speak out because of his fame until after his death). On the other hand, distaste for an artist may lead to distaste for her music, even if that music may actually be “great.” Not that it will ever be unilaterally possible to define what “great” means. Personal taste will also cloud these decisions, as many lists claim to be all-encompassing of every musical genre. Musical taste may lead you to prefer a pop artist to an experimental one, but that does not change the value in either artist’s work.

It seems as if every conversation pertaining to music lingers over the question of what makes a piece great, or is that piece good “enough” to be considered great. There is no doubt that music can be great, but there is incredible uncertainty as to what constitutes great music. No two lists curated by experts even agree. As with all art, music is subjective and we all come into our understanding with preconceived tastes. Personal taste will always affect the reaction toward a piece of music, but can we separate our own notions of what sounds good and seek to understand outside of what we are partial to?

The albums on a list are usually all worth listening to. We’ll never agree on an order, but maybe we can strive to agree on the impact an artist made on our culture. In the end, those are the discussions that history remembers.


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