The Prog Life - December 15, 2002: No Such Thing As Bad Music
by Clayton Walnum

I closed my last column with the bold statement, "There's no such thing as bad music." I told you then that I'd explain what I meant by that, but the truth is that the statement in question was the stupidest thing I ever said. And, as one reader pointed out in a terse email laden with language I hesitate to reproduce here, I should have my ears removed by the most painful process imaginable just for typing such ridiculous drivel. In fact...

Uh, hold on a sec ... um ... you know, I just realized that the stupidest thing I ever said was "I can throw it in time. The fuse isn't that short." Whew! Off the hook with that music thing!

So back to the subject at hand, which is (drum roll please)?

There's no such thing as bad music.

Let's first define "music," shall we?

CLAY'S FIRST ATTEMPT AT AN EXTRAORDINARILY PRECISE MINIMUM DEFINITION OF THE WORD "MUSIC": Music is a bunch of notes thrown together over some sort of rhythm.

As you can see, I'm very good with highly technical definitions. Still, there's a bit more we could say about the term "music." For example, usually some sort of harmony insists on being involved, such as a series of chords being played under the bunch-of-notes we call a melody. And this is not to mention all the different instruments you can play, the use of vocals in place of instruments, and the cool sounds that come out of your mouth when you drop a guitar on your foot.

But what we're looking for is an absolute final, most basic definition of music that applies to every kind of music. To get something into its most basic state means to remove all the extra clutter, right? So, what can you take away from music and still have music? This -- just like Anna Nicole Smith's taste in men -- is a subject of much debate. Take the musical style called rap as an example. Rap pretty much takes melody right out of the equation. Is rap music? I think that most people would agree that it is -- even though they may hate to admit it.

So, if we're going to admit that rap is indeed music (and we are because I say so, dammit), we're going to have to throw out the "bunch of notes" part of my highly technical and astute definition of the term music. We're also going to have to throw out the idea of harmony, because in its basic form, rap is little more than spoken-voice poetry accompanied by a strong rhythm. By removing the idea of melody and harmony, we end up with a revised definition of music:

CLAY'S SECOND ATTEMPT AT AN EXTRAORDINARILY PRECISE MINIMUM DEFINITION OF THE WORD "MUSIC": Music is bunch of sounds thrown together over some sort of rhythm.

To arrive at this definition required that I analyze each and every word of the original definition with great care. It also required that I ponder the meaning of the universe, read a dictionary from cover to cover looking for cool words, have lunch, and then reread the dictionary in case I missed some cool words. Finally, after much debate (I've got to do something about those voices in my head), I took the first definition and changed the word "notes" to "sounds." Check the two definitions closely, and you'll see that that's exactly what I did. However, I refuse to take a lie detector test on the dictionary stuff ... even though it's true ... really.

In the case of rap, the "bunch of sounds thrown together over some sort of rhythm" is the voice that speaks (sings?) the lyrics. You could, of course, replace the voice with another instrument and still be true to this second definition. Said instrument has only to make sound, which is the one thing I firmly believe that all instruments have in common. Show me a musical instrument that makes no sound, and I'll show you an inventor with the IQ of summer squash.

Suppose the instrument with which we replace the voice is a drum. Now we have one rhythm on top of another. This amazing turnaround leaves us with nothing but rhythm. I don't know about you, but I'm getting a little scared. Why? Because our definition is now looking really weird:


Ouch! That definition sucks raw eggs through a straw. Obviously, there's something wrong here. The problem is the word rhythm. It doesn't belong there either. Huh?!

"Explain yourself!" you cry.

"I will! I will!" I respond.

Suppose that the rhythms in a musical piece are more random than rhythmic. Take King Crimson's noisy improvisations as an example. (The album THRaKaTTaK comes to mind.) Or go to the other extreme, and consider very basic ambient music consisting of long droning chords with a few sound effects thrown in to keep things interesting. Neither of these types of music has a definable rhythm, at least not one that you can count out in any time signature ever used on this planet. This means that some music has no rhythm, and that means that rhythm cannot be a part of our definition. So here -- forthwith and with much ado -- is a new definition:


Now I've really gone off the deep end. I've removed so many attributes of music from the definition that I've come full circle. Instead of stripping music down to its absolute minimum, suddenly music is everything, or at least everything audable ... er, audibul ... I mean, awdabul ... um, that you can hear with your ears. (Not to be confused with things you hear with your hair?) Obviously, not all sound is music. Just run your fingernails down a blackboard to test that statement. [Please don't. - ed.] Next time you step on a cat's tail, you'll also hear what I mean. (And please, please don't start stomping on cats' tails just to prove to your buddies that not all sounds are musical. If you do, you'll very likely discover the unmusical sound of someone's fist reorganizing the layout of your teeth.)

One thing is missing from my definition, one thing that's been missing in every version of the definition, including the first. That missing thing is a large bag of gummy worms. Well, that's what's missing from my desk drawer. In the case of the minimum definition of music, what's missing is art. That is, music is art, not just a bunch of noise. So, finally we arrive at a minimum definition of music that fits perfectly with every type of music ever written, recorded, imagined, or performed on the Ed Sullivan Show:


Hey, guys and gals, I really like this one. Funny how one little word -- "artful" in this case -- metamorphoses an amazingly bad definition into a really good one. The truth is that (and I know some of you may argue with this, but too bad) you need only two things to have music:

1. Sound
2. Artistic intent

Those of you who want to argue with my definition are probably confusing personal taste with a fair definition of music. For example, lovers of Stravinsky and Beethoven -- and sometimes even lovers of Josie and the *****cats -- when confronted by the works of one Eminem exclaim "That's not music!" But what they really mean is "That's not music I like!" If they're really drunk, they may also exclaim things like, "I think I'm going to puke in your lap!" or "My dog has a penis!" but to associate these remarks with music would be an affront to god, John Petrucci be Thy name.

Now that we've stripped music down to its basics, we can see that its possible forms are nearly infinite. Take an artist and get him to bang on something, or to pluck on something else, or to squeeze air past a whistling booger, and, as long as said artist attempts to create something artful, he's making music.

Of all these nearly infinite forms of music, how many are good? Well, that brings us around to the definition of art, and if you can get everyone to agree on that one, you're a big step ahead of the rest of the planet. About the best you can do is something along the lines of "creative aesthetic work," which means that if someone created it with artistic intent, as well as with the intent to please someone (including his or her self), it's art. Is it good art? It is if you like it -- which brings us to the following:

CLAY'S FIRST LAW OF MUSIC: Music is like religion. Everyone has got their own idea of what it should be, and everyone else is wrong.

Using religion as a stand-in for music points out the fallacy inherent in the idea of good or bad music. Every religious person KNOWS that his beliefs are the truth, are the absolute secret to life, the universe, and everything. (Apologies to Douglas Adams.) I don't use the word KNOWS lightly here. From the viewpoint of the person in question, "knows" is the proper term. From the viewpoint of every person involved with other religions, "thinks" is the proper term. Let me explain.

A Christian knows that his is the one true religion, whereas a Buddhist would say that the Christian thinks he possesses the truth, but it's the Buddhist who knows that the Christian is wrong and that Buddha is right. So who's really right?

We are now confronted with one of the strangest entities in the known cosmos. No, I'm not talking about that guy across the street who mows his lawn wearing a teddy and pink boots. The entity I'm talking about is ... and I want you to help me out here by imagining the following words being spoken in a deep, powerful voice with a kind of echo-ey cave thing going on:

A Question With No Answer.

The truth is that music only becomes "good" or "bad" when we start to apply preconceived and prejudicial rules to the art form. A lover of pop music will say that a great beat and an infectious chorus are what makes for good music. A lover of jazz will say it's a virtuoso instrumental solo that does it for him. Similarly, a Gentle Giant lover will say that it's intense complexity that makes music good. Who's right? Again, no answer. No good music or bad music. Only music we like or music we don't like.

All this may seem obvious, but there's an important lesson here for progressive music fans. As lovers of progressive music, we have to be careful how we apply the rules by which we judge music. We even have to be ready to accept new rules or to completely redefine what we think of as good. If we fail to do this, we're liable to label as "bad" forms of music that, with a little effort at understanding, we may learn to enjoy. Before you can be a well-rounded progressive music lover, then, you must be musically open-minded. Being open-minded means accepting new musical ideas, as well as respecting what other people enjoy about music (yes, even Britney and Christina fans). Being open-minded also means approaching new artists and musical experiences -- new and old -- with the knowledge that there's no such thing as bad music.

More about this in the next column.

King Crimson
Gentle Giant

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Published on: 2002-12-15 (4175 reads)

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