How do I know if it’s any good?
This question brings to mind the final stanza from Philip Larkin’s poem Days
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
Larkin is discussing a much bigger question really, essentially the meaning and purpose of existence. However, there is an aesthetic vortex of self-doubt that you can fall into as an artist when the question of quality and validation arises.
Is it good because it is popular? Is it good because it’s unpopular, but important people like it? If other people like it and I don’t, is it still good (even if I wrote it?!)…
So how about another question. How do I know if it sounds good?
If it sounds good, it IS good
I’ve often found myself saying the statement above to students who are having a moment of self-doubt about their ideas in performance. It could be a melodic idea, a voicing, a formal decision on the architecture of a piece. Whatever it is, theoretical and conceptual considerations have become so consuming that the student has forgotten about that most obvious and immediate arbiter of quality – their ears.
It’s completely understandable that we seek confirmation of quality through some external means. We are limited by our subjective world view. We can’t experience listening through someone else’s ears, and sometimes our senses can be clouded and fooled. Just as there are optical illusions, there are aural illusions where composers can fool us and undermine our expectations as a listener, often through rhythmic devices. In fact, this is actually the thrill of the hunt for many composers – to set up an expectation, what seems like an inevitable conclusion, and then to avoid the predictable entirely.
Our ears and our appreciation of what sounds good can change though depending on our mood and the context. The most obvious example of this is in recording. So often when the recording session starts, ego-driven paranoia can kick in, and in no time it’s possible for a musician to question the minutiae of their every note.
That’s not to say that a musician shouldn’t reflect on and consider their output - there is always a danger of overconfidence - but there is the potential to be paralysed by introspection and the quest for perfection.
A systematic approach
A theoretical explanation - that somehow because of a x and y this approach is correct – may seem comforting. But from experience, the essential and fundamental reaction to music is emotional. We hear something and it inspires a reaction - even if that reaction might be that what we hear is somewhat underwhelming.
Composers and Improvisers work hard to establish systems and procedures within their music. They are looking to create coherence and some sense of discernible logic. But sometimes however sophisticated the system, however solid the logic, it’s more satisfying to defy the rules – and it actually sounds better. Sometimes blindly following the system results in a less interesting creation.
When Dave Brubeck went for a lesson with Arnold Schoenberg, he was told “You must have a reason to write a note”. This didn’t sit well with Brubeck, who was happy in the justification of why he had written the notes he’d written - simply “because I like how they sound”.
I have a certain sympathy with both these approaches. You should be able to justify every note, but perhaps a valid justification can be ‘because I like how it sounds’?
Just as much as the rules shouldn’t dictate only one possible solution without any considerations of other possibilities, an aural approach shouldn’t rule out theoretical considerations and the auditioning of multiple possible solutions. Drafting and redrafting is not something to be ashamed of. In performance, this is all part of the evolution as an improviser – we are continually on a journey to the horizon, and we are continually arriving at new destinations along the way.
Rules of the game
People often talk about rules in music. Perhaps there ARE rules. In the same way that if I decide to play a board game with someone there are rules, and as long as we’re playing that game, we should follow those rules. However, we don’t HAVE to play that game – and if it were a different board game, there might be similar rules, but they’d not be the same. And indeed, if we wanted, we could change the rules, or perhaps augment them and create a new version of the game.
Or maybe it’s better to use a comparison with language. Language of course contains rules and customs. Though in time, these customs and norms start to change and to shift. What might have once been vulgar and taboo can become commonplace and acceptable.
Our sense of what is acceptable and how things sound has changed over time. An individual may still get a thrill from hearing the sound of a tritone or a sharp nine chord the first time they hear it, but the wider society doesn’t hear it in the same way as they once did. There is a shared musical memory and awareness to these sounds from popular culture that seems to make them somehow less shocking than they once were.
If sound is subjective, tastes change, and rules are there to be broken, how then can anyone grade a composition or improvisation?
There is always craft. There is always the skill and eloquence with which a piece has been realised. This is not about genre or taste, but more about the nuts and bolts. If you decide to play that game, how well are you playing it? Does the internal logic of what you’re doing follow?
If all the rules have been followed, will it sound good? Maybe if all the nuts and bolts are in the right place, it WILL just work? Not necessarily.
It is possible to have something that is technically correct, with everything in the right place, but somehow, it just doesn’t float your boat.
Conviction and honesty
The most important thing in any creative decision seems to be ‘did you mean that’? The conviction and honesty of a musician’s work will make for an appreciative audience. The audience however has to be listening, and equally honest about their own prejudices and expectations, but if a musician speaks with integrity, they will connect.
This depth of conviction and honesty is harder to find than it might seem. Surely if it’s just about being honest, and meaning what we say, we can all do that? We can, but it means confronting ourselves as artists – are we honest with ourselves? Do we really mean what we say? Sometimes in recording, some musicians are horrified with what they hear back. This would seem to be because in performance, they’re not really engaged with what they actually sound like.
And it’s not to say that the nuts and bolts need not be in the right place either. The craft and technique must be in place to allow the composer or improviser to say what they mean with conviction - even if they mean to say “I’m not playing this game anymore”.
It’s what I meant at the time
If one writes and performs with conviction, then even when our approach or tastes may change, we can look back on old works and say with pride “it’s what I meant at the time”.
Our musical identities change with time. We and the context within which we operate are forever altered.
Which reminds me of another Larkin quote from Arundel Tomb,
‘The endless altered people came’
 From ‘Days’, from the anthology ‘Whitsun Weddings’ by Philip Larkin, , Faber 1971
 Summarised from “Brubeck – A Life in Time” by Philip Clark, Hachette Books, New York, 2020
 Once known as the Diabolus in Musica – the Devil in Music.
 Sometimes referred to as ‘the Hendrix chord’.
 From ‘An Arundel Tomb’, from the anthology ‘Whitsun Weddings’ by Philip Larkin, Faber 1971
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