Table of Contents
- Aspects of a Song
- Our Reaction
- Music for Different Settings
Several years ago, I was a very picky individual with respect to various things, especially morality (a subject I will also include in this article). I could, to coin a phrase, find something wrong with a birthday party. It was then that I began examining music seriously, considering how I could synthesize the moral aspects of various pieces. Around that same time, I also began a philosophical quest that had me question the very essence of music itself, resulting in questions I still am unable to answer but occasionally ponder with great intensity.
School did have an influence on my taste in music, and while I did form my own tastes, I became better able to identify why other people enjoyed the music that they did, and I could, if I so chose, appreciate such music for the same reasons. However, wisdom being my guide, I generally opt for things that bring me more peace of mind or excite my emotions in ways that are not destructive to that mental state.
The question is, how I decide what is the best thing to listen to? To that end, I present a brief analysis here.
First, I will begin by examining the aspects of song in general. Much of this will be spoken of from the perspective of psychology, but I will touch on the effects of sound and sound effects (such as reverberation) on the mind.
Aspects of a Song
All songs break down into the same types of pieces. There are two categories of pieces, and one category (the sound) is examined as a sub category of the other.
For a song to be considered “good” with respect to morality, ethics, health, and society, etcetera, there are three components that must all be “good”:
The latter two are on equal ground, and the first fluctuates with how well it is propagated along with the song, taking into consideration its presentation to the audience as well as how it permeates through the song (usually in the lyrics).
When I speak of “purpose”, I refer to the reason why the song has been written, why it was produced, or why it has been sung.
More specifically, “purpose” refers to the cultural aspect associated with the song, particularly its origins. Because of fluctuations in the culture and the sometimes unknown intent of the author, it is logical to presume that this element in itself hardly plays a role in how “good” a song is. This is very true, but since culture does play an important role in the nature of the purpose, it would appear this is merely another case of “meat sacrificed to idols” – if it causes your friend or brother to stumble, don’t do it. However, I would argue there is more to this.
Consider the associations of certain music with the Christmas season. Undoubtedly, you’ve heard Christmas music at some point in your life. When you hear that music again, do you not think of Christmas?
Hence, culturally (even if without our own little world), there is some conscious or subconscious connection with the original intent of the music. This is an important point because it means that when we listen to those songs, our subconsciousness draws to mind those ideas that are associated with it. If those things are good, then the music is good to listen to. If those things are bad, then why are you listening to the music?
Consider, for example, a piano mix with lyrics about romance. Assuming the lyrics and sound were good, this song would be good on its own. However, suppose the purpose was celebrating incest or was emphasizing the sarcasm in mourning the burial of an enemy? Would then the song not conjure up those hideous ideas? Hence, it would be the purpose in this case that would make the song, as a whole, bad, even though its other components might be acceptable.
In many cases, song lyrics are nothing but nonsense. If the lyrics are too moshed, it’s easier to tell if the song is good by listening to the sound. And maybe that will give you some hint as to what the lyrics are. For songs in which the lyrics can be distinguished, it is usually easy to tell if the lyrics are singing about something good. There are some cases where this is not true – certain songs played backwards may contain nasty lyrics, and some songs contain innuendos and hidden ideas conveyed best if you already know the context about which they speak.
The sound itself is very tricky when determining if it is “good”, since at this point, we come into conflict with people’s personal tastes. I will go further into detail how that works in the next section. At this point, we are particularly interested in what makes it “good”. But first, I must clarify the definitions:
When I refer to “good”, I refer to “good” morally, ethically, mentally, for your health, etcetera.
Rather than use “good” in the traditional sense of “good music”, I use the words “awesome” or “interesting” or more descriptive words that indicate the relative subjectivity of the perspective with respect to the music in question.
Concerning sounds, a sound is “good” if it retains peace of mind. By this, I am not referring to quiet, gentle, or calm music. For instance, the symphonies of John Williams are not necessarily quiet, but like the symphonies of Beethoven, they still retain a peace of mind.
And what do I mean by “peace of mind”? Here, it become difficult to explain, since peace of mind is something we discover and understand by experience rather than quantify with other words. There is no suitable measuring rod other than experience alone. Hence, to speak to you about it, I speak of it in two ways: science and aura.
From the scientific perspective, a song can be damaging to the body, especially the brain, in a multitude of ways. I’d rather a scientist in audio speak to you about this more, but at the very least, the simpleton can understand that loud noises, a large bass, and a high pitch sounds are damaging to the body (from personal experience, I can testify that bass can affect your heartbeat) inasmuch as they may be enjoyable.
Music sets up an aura. An aura is like an atmosphere but generally pertains more to a certain psychological feel than of any physical surroundings. When you listen to certain sounds in music, particularly low tones and slow, downward scales, there tends to be a feeling of gloom or (at the very least) tension associated with them. These sounds we call “dark”. That’s something that human experience testifies to, even if it does not acknowledge there is something innately wrong with it. When you listen to upward scales, bright sounds, and melodies that first progress upward (before any downward progression), then the music tends to be happier.
The biggest key is really this: What is the music returning to? By “returning”, I mean what sounds it tries to resume. What chord progressions are recurring? If the song isn’t doing anything, it’s probably jazz. Even jazz can be classified as good or bad, depending on the arrangement of notes and how much the artist tries to play with the melody. If there is too much play, it becomes meaningless chaos.
As examples, you’ll find the following songs are very definitive with respect to “dark”, “sad”, “mellow”, etc. Even if they mix those attributes, the attributes are still very clear. Pay careful attention to notice what they return to:
And for grins, happy Jazz:
Before I continue, I need to re-emphasize the psychological effects on the mind and clarify what that means with respect to “good” and “bad”. After all, I can’t just establish my own standard and expect people to follow it. The difficulty with this, however, is that much of it cannot be explained except with experience, perhaps because we lack the appropriate terminology, but perhaps more so because I’m not familiar with the terminology that already exists.
When I say “bad”, I refer to what is, in general, beneficial to the person listening. Wild, chaotic music can create disturbances in the mind that enhance depression. The depression itself can be created from listening to sad music. It is my suspicion this can actually result in faster aging, or more precisely, more wear on the body. While the effects of one song might be small, they can be subliminal and might encourage thoughts of darkness and depression. A scientist and a monk might be able to tell you more about this than I can, but I figured I’d try.
When you watch a film, what kinds of music are in it? What kinds of music enhance certain settings? When you are depressed and lonely, what kind of music comes to mind? I’ve often heard comments from my friends that they have had certain soundtracks playing in their heads during an emotional occasion. For instance, epic music might follow a celebration.
Then there are sound effects. Sound effects, themselves do not make a song “good” or “bad” in any respect, except volume, since loud volume can be bad for your eardrums, etc. However, what sound effects can do is diminish or emphasize the overall sound. A phaser, interestingly enough, can do both, depending on how it’s used. Reverb can also do both, but more often than not, it serves as an emphasis. This is primarily done through the unification of the entirety of the sound of the song, which therefore helps it establish the overall aura. The sound effect of distortion, however, goes only one way: emphasis. While I’m not sure why it emphasizes the way that it does, I think it’s because it forms of melancholy mixture of tone and white noise that can’t be ignored. Distortion itself isn’t “bad”, however, it can be used to draw constant attention to the song, and this can be a bad thing if the rest of the song is bad.
Again, the aspects of a song are the topic, but in this case, we examine more of our response to them.
In varying degrees, people accept or just something on the basis of its purpose. More often than not, people don’t care. What plays the biggest influence is the subculture that generates around the music itself. This usually has something to do with the original intention of the song, but not always.
When people listen to music associated with something their friends think is abominable, the excuse is the very reason they listen: they like it. The purpose itself has been disregarded, even if it still exists in the mind of an individual.
In order to diminish the influence of the ideas associated with the song – the true cause of it being “bad” (since the actual origin itself is irrelevant) – one must assign to the music new associations. This is a tricky and very difficult task, like associating the swastika with anything but the Nazi army. Part of the difficulty is in the mental pathway that has been formed in your mind – as you form mental pathways that help you remember the language you speak – and part of the difficulty is that culture is so adamantly against you. It can be done, however, and this is usually easiest when you hear the music first and learn what it is associated with it later on. By the time you learn the true origins or purpose of the music, you already have it fixed within the context you first heard it, and the original purpose merely becomes a secondary association.
When a person enjoys a song, it is interesting to note that they may begin to sing the lyrics – whether they understand them or not – even if such lyrics are not “good” or pleasant in the least sense.
Notably, some people change the lyrics to songs. This can be both beneficial and detrimental, although the latter is only a consequence of confusion. For instance, consider a person who has assigned personal lyrics to a song that is widely known to contain bad ones. Then, if they tell their friends they like that song, they need to mention that they have changed the lyrics, or it will result in skewed views of the listener and may result in some people trying out the song, much to their detriment.
People like songs because of the music, the sound, the pleasure in their mind. They don’t necessarily care as much about lyrics, so there is often the excuse of listening to the music for that reason while trying to ignore the bad lyrics. That seems to be fine if you don’t understand the lyrics to begin with, but if you do, they might be a detriment to you.
Taste in music is something that adapts over time as one listens to various things. Eventually, a person will likely find music that they have an affinity towards. My hypothesis on this is that people are listening for specific sounds in music. Something in those songs stimulates their brain in certain ways, perhaps also conjuring up ideas, perhaps even fixing (or shaking) their heartbeat. As a consequence, they enjoy the sensation.
It may sound like I’m singing to the choir, pun intended, but I’d like to draw particular emphasis on the components of the song. People these days take songs as a whole – either they like it or they don’t – which is why song artists are afraid to try anything new. The fact is, they aren’t seeing the songs as being made of components. I, for one (don’t worry, I’m not alone), note that there are specific components in songs that draw people to listening. A really obvious one is beat. Teenagers and young people enjoy beat. An unquantifiable number of middle-aged people enjoy it as well. Something about it stimulates their mind and body. Analogously, this component-to-stimulation relationship permeates throughout the composition of the piece, in some ways more than others. I would venture to say that every component, including lyrics, plays a similar role. Another example might be that a song’s chords bring up sentimental and nostalgic ideas.
All that just to get to the key question (wow, I finally got here!):
What should you listen to? It depends on the setting, but in general, preferably music that makes you happy. After all, if this whole life you’re going around trying to make yourself happy, why seek to acquire a taste in something that only leaves you depressed or gloomy? By the word “happy”, I don’t necessarily mean “chipper”, but I don’t mean the pleasure that is associated with being cocky, sassy, or “cool”, though it can be mixed it. I’m talking about just happy in general, more like “joy”. Embrace that music that gives you peace of mind, uplifts your spirit, and helps you see the pleasantness of life.
Music for Different Settings
If you’ve ever organized a major event, you may be well acquainted with your family’s, friends’, or business’ customary routines for picking music. Everyone has a different taste, but at the same time, we also have to consider what music might be appropriate or “polite”. Dinner parties, for example, are expected to have soft, non-intrusive music so that people can talk while still enjoying a pleasant atmosphere. The music for birthday parties is usually the choice of the birthday boy or girl, but even then, that selection is customarily limited by the public face of the individual in question. I don’t know anyone who would willingly reveal their best kept secrets in musical taste to their friends on their birthday – another time would be appropriate so as not to experience embarrassment.
Music for lobbies is usually more polite, refined, relaxing. While it may be acceptable for talking purposes, I notice that, as a kid, it drove me nuts sitting in such “silence”. That’s not to say anything was wrong with the music in general, but that it’s boring nature perhaps gave me a more complete appreciation for the elevator music that I acquired in malls – the elevator music at least has some swing to it.
In small businesses, especially restaurants, it is common to hear pop culture music. More precisely – whatever is on the radio, because that’s what’s cheap. The volume needs to be at an appropriate level – generally low, since people talk and make funny noises when they eat. Adding to that noise can give customers a serious headache.
More importantly (to me), I wish to discuss music in religious and honorary settings, but for that I devote a new section.
In the ancient church, the only songs being sung were those in which everyone sang in unison, and there were no instruments. This was because, in the minds of the ancients, this would be the way singing was done in heaven. (I think Fr. Rocky mentioned that on Relevant Radio. Stop being lazy and do your own historical search if you’re really interested.) After some time, people realized harmony was beautiful as were instruments, and those were added. Eventually, orchestrations were written for God’s glory during the period of the masters, Beethoven, Mozart, and other white-wigged young men.
Skipping the history lesson…
Religious music, or more specifically music for church (since I don’t care about the alleged tastes of other gods and monks), is meant to establish its own specific aura. This aura, of course, is not necessarily an emotional one – it could be happy or sad, both or neither. The point is, religious music must establish an aura.
The primary aspect of the aura is that it is reverent. When you enter a church and, eventually, sing songs to God, you ought to be in a state of reverence. Reverence can also be accompanied by awe, and often encourages that frame of mind. Reverence is a type of respect as one would have for a great authority. This is NOT the same kind of respect as one might have for a friend or coworker. It’s hard to say it is the same as for a “king” since the very few people who read this may not be able to grasp that idea in its full measure.
With respect to the music, reverence contains the important aspect of being taste-neutral. It is meant to be considered valuable (or, one might say, “classical”) to everyone in society, even if not everyone likes it. This is not meant to refer to monetary value or to the value given in personal taste, but refers to the psychological value. Everyone (or at least everyone I know) will say Beethoven’s music is classical and peaceful – “good”, as I so termed it above – though many people today find it boring. Nevertheless, some symphonies (I can’t say all because I haven’t heard them all) have the potential to put you in a frame of mind of respect.
The music is meant to convey honor. In a sense, it is also meant to convey celebration. Perhaps celebration for the works/deeds of the king, perhaps his mighty victories, etcetera.
One of the main points is simply this: the song isn’t for you. That tends to fly in the face of music in Protestant circles these days because people keep bringing in music that suits their tastes. They tend to forget that religious music, while they can still enjoy it, is not meant to be for them. It is meant for a higher authority.
Why? To answer this, we return to the idea of culture and what is conjured up in the mind. The associations people make with certain music can determine what they use that music for as well as what they ought to use that music for in order to preserve both the integrity of the music and the ceremonies and procedures for which they use it. Here, I wish to remind you of the psychological effects on the mind, as opposed to any cultural influence (which is subject to change). But for that, you need to refresh your own memory on past experiences.
As an aside, note that I did not specifically say “praise” and “worship”. While I have specific definitions on what those words mean, I’m afraid too many people are as opinionated as I am and would be unwilling to see my point of view. Hence, rather than arguing over definitions, I appeal instead to ideas you should already be acquainted with.
What is primarily unfortunate in this article (here I go again starting off on a bad note… *sigh*) is that it is very brief, and I didn’t cover everything as thoroughly as I would have liked. However, to cover things more thoroughly would most likely require a personal dialogue during which I could learn about your experiences and then use that to formulate some method by which I could convey to you my own experiences and ideas. Even then, somehow I doubt I’d be able to convey my ideas, which are already vague as it is. Thus, I encourage you to analyze music on your own, and maybe then will you be able to decipher the garble I’m outputting.
In conclusion to the matter, music is an issue of black, white, and gray after all. While there is a great degree of personal preference involved, and while music in general is meaningless noise without the personal interpretation of people, I find that because we are human, we share common ground with respect to our physical capacities. In other words, somethings, especially certain music, might become detrimental to any us if we take in too much of it.
Before you comment, please note, I refrained from commenting on certain genres of music. While the issue itself may be black, white, and gray, there is a TON of gray and most genres are too big and too unspecific to make sweeping generalizations about whether or not the music they contain is “good” or “bad”. The only exceptions I can see to this rule of thumb would be death metal and hard core rock, but even there, some artist might surprise me. I doubt it very much, but I’ll still leave open that possibility.
Also note, I refrained from speaking about religious or spiritual consequences of music. That in itself could be the subject of another blog post, seeing as I’ve already written a great deal here.
Finally, I leave you with the parting thought:
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.” – Philippians 4:8
And this is the key to answering whether a song is good music: Does it allow us to think about such things?