Good Music Can Be Measured

Music: it’s an art. It’s an emotion. Close your eyes, drift away on a fluffy little cloud and just feel the music. Music can’t be quantified, it can’t be measured. Music isn’t mathematics. Music can’t be judged – that would destroy it. But let’s be honest. If you’ve paid someone to build a shed in your back garden and they present you with a wonky shambles and stand there with a grimace on their face as they cry out: “How dare you judge my work!” – you would laugh in their face. Or just cry. Like any act of creation, music more-than qualifies for some ruthless judgement. So roll up your sleeves and let’s pull it down off its pedestal. Trust me, by the end of it all, you’ll be a fully qualified music critic.

The Music Graph

Good Music Can Be Measured
An example of a randomly completed Music Graph

Here, I present the debut of my multidimensional Music Graph: the only real music measuring system that you can use to definitively determine the quality of your favourite music yourself, without the distraction and hindrance of other people’s opinions. It doesn’t matter what the genre is, just as long as it originates here, from our own planet Earth.

Want to pinpoint the specific differences between your favourite musicians, songs and albums? Simply use the seven criteria listed above plus the ‘Mystery’ criterion to get your answer. My personal prediction? All of the bars of your desert island discs will immediately rise to a score of 6 or more, while the songs you ‘also like a lot’ will probably dip to around the 2-point mark in some areas. Feel free to prove me wrong! What? You have your own ideas on music criticism? Great, we’ll have a chat about that later.

Pen at the Ready? Here We Go!

Take my hand, look both ways and try not to ask too many questions while we ruthlessly judge all of your best-loved and most cherished music. For the sake of convenience, I’ve included a blank and untouched Music Graph for you below. Simply read the instructions that are about to follow for each of the seven carefully selected criteria – each drawn from my own personal brand of music theory – and dive in. Careful now: this process is not for the faint of heart, so prepare yourself to start dissecting every last one of your sacred sonic cows.

Good Music Can Be Measured

♯1. Musical Skill

‘Yes!’: that’s the definitive answer to all of the following questions. Musical skill. Is it what happens when a pianist attempts the Finger Breaker by Jelly Roll Morton? Is it Jeff Beck’s inimitable guitar tone while he tickles the strings like he’s kneading a lump of clay? Or is it the 106 time signature shifts in Dream Theatre’s Dance of Eternity; Pavarotti going an octave and a half above the middle C; the enormous range of Freddie Mercury, who seemed to be able to cover every colour of the rainbow; or maybe a drum ‘n bass producer who works tirelessly on the kick sound for a whole week just so they can see the crowd go nuts on Friday night? Like I said, the answer to every last one of these questions is ‘Yes!’

Specialists & Generalists

“A high F? Is that a mistake?” George says nothing. Just smiles, nudges a slider and hits a red button. “You think she needs you…” sounds nasal through the shell-like headphones that hug Alan’s head. Alan brings the mouthpiece to his lips and lets light, round brass notes dance around the empty room. Fifteen seconds later, George’s grin has doubled in width. He knew it: Alan is the best and, before the producer can say anything, the voice of Paul McCartney comes over a speaker: “Ok. Now, I think we can do better than that. Right, Alan?” It makes sense that the Beatle is sitting behind the glass, separating two extremes; two entirely different musicians. During this infamous spat, specialist Alan Civil recorded the French horn solo on For No One, which was penned by one of the most famous jack-of-all-trades of all time – Paul McCartney: the generalist.

The Skill Meter

Take two guys: Paul and Alan, and give them both a bucket filled with 10,000 hours of practice and study time. With focussed intensity, Alan promptly takes the bucket and dumps every last drop into his French horn. Meanwhile, Paul throws a few handfuls over a bass guitar, pours a bit more over a couple of guitars, adds a pinch or six to a drum kit and knocks back a couple of litres before dipping his songwriting pen in what remains. Basically, skill can rest on a musician being really good at one thing or pretty good at a lot of things.

Fill in ♯1 of your Music Graph. Just take a shot. As you listen to your favourite music, you’ll hear a shopping list of skills going on. How long would it take a conservatory trained musician to master all of the skills you’re hearing? 1 = not too long. 10 = multiple lifetimes. Don’t brood over it. Get brave and get stuck in.

Good Music Can Be Measured

♯2. Effectiveness: The Feeling is the Goal

We’re in Jeans To Go. The salesperson, Marie watches as a bearded, forty-ish year old man shuffles in, hunched over in a checked shirt, a trendy pair of jeans and a pair of old trainers. “Another tough case,” she thinks. Watching on, she flicks through the enormous catalogue of clothing in her head and, in three steps, she’s standing next to him. “Hi. Yeah, I’m looking for some jeans.” Smiling, she leads him to a specific rack. Fifteen minutes later, the bearded man leaves the shop standing a little taller, with a bag in hand, packed with two new pairs of jeans. The cut is loose, because that’s how he likes them, and they’re not too trendy, since Marie knows that Will needs to make the right impression at work. Experience + consideration: Marie is an effective salesperson. Why am I telling you this? Because every musician is trying to convey a feeling to their imaginary listener – like Will. But did they succeed?

Fill in ♯2 of your Music Graph. Listen to your chosen music. Question A: What’s the musician trying to make you feel? Euphoria, deep sadness, a light melancholy?  I assume that your extra-sensory perception is on point here. Question B: Did the music make you feel it? Give your ‘feels’ a rating. I know. Feelings can be tough, tell me about it – but no whining, please.

Good Music Can Be Measured

♯3. Inspiration Level: When You Can’t See the Artist

‘Skill, observe, try,’ the words are already starting to get annoying. Have you ever seen a hypnotist at work? You might be fooled into thinking that all those untrained volunteers are seasoned comedians, but all the hypnotist has done is lock up their inner-critic for a bit: “We’re not listening to you any more!” A musician seized by inspiration is also freed from their inner-saboteur. Any limitations fall away and the music seems to simply drop from the heavens. Imagine, for a moment, an eight-armed drummer, dripping with sweat and playing with every fibre of her being while staring blankly into the guts of the universe. She blinks every now and then while her mouth hangs open – zombified. The music is the boss and you’re under its trance-like spell.

Fill in ♯3 of your Music Graph. The question is: how much conscious thought can you still observe in the musician? Give it a percentage. If the percentage is low, then the music scores higher on the Inspiration scale. For example, 10% scores a 9. Practise your trance-recognition daily and you’ll be able to pick out a zombified musician with your eyes closed. You’ll have noticed that we’re in pretty vague territory right now, but that was nothing. Buckle up!

Good Music Can Be Measured

♯4. Originality: Help! There’s a Musk in My Music

Poof! As if by magic, Elon Musk presents the Tesla and, before you know it, half of your mates are driving electric cars. Being Elon Musk evidently takes some guts. The guy is an undeniable if not controversial living legend. The man behind SpaceX infamously added ‘X’ (formerly known as Twitter) to his portfolio, causing some of your electric car driving mates some consternation: is he nothing more than a megalomaniacal weirdo? If nothing else, Musk is original; an undisputable innovator. When super-innovative music manages to catch us and make us go ‘Wow!’, we immediately perceive the artist as brilliant, and what follows is a virus of imitations, popping up all over the world, like a sort of mutation. When the music doesn’t manage to evoke that ‘wow effect’, but instead evokes a ‘what on earth is this nonsense?’-effect, we think we’re dealing with a freak; a weirdo – someone who clearly has no idea how to make music in the first place.

Fill in ♯4 of your Music Graph. This part is scored depending on how surprised or shocked you are after the first listening session. Give a score between 1 and 10 and prepare yourself for a fresh low-point of vagueness as we continue our musical journey.

Good Music Can Be Measured

♯5. Depth: Yummy

My mum is crazy enough to smother a piece of salmon in a special sauce that she’s been busy perfecting for the last fifty years before leaving it to rest for a good 24 hours. “Marinade that mutha!” she cries. Then, there’s a whole ritual where the salmon spends an entire evening sitting in the smoke over a wood fire. At the end of it all, it’s more spices and smoke than salmon but boy, three days after shovelling it down, you can still taste it. That shit is deep. It’s no secret that music made by anyone with a rich emotional life automatically adds all that flavour to their work. This way, us humble listeners get to enjoy music with some real emotional depth to it, and the same goes for listeners who are partial to the intellectual or even the spiritual.

Fill in ♯5 of your Music Graph. The recipe: listen to the whole track, then starting from the final note, use a stopwatch to time how long it takes before the ‘flavour’ fades and you want to listen to something else. Music with the longest time on the clock gets a top Depth score of 10. That’s it. It’s just a question of filling in your graph. Had enough already? Shame, because the next bit is about to get really demanding.

Good Music Can Be Measured

♯6. Listening: Do You Have the Skills?

It’s 1996, it’s summer, I’m sixteen years old and have just successfully side-stepped the Wannabe phenomenon brought forth by the Spice Girls to find a crate of second-hand records going for £2.50 each in my local indie music shop. Inside, I find a Yes album that was first released in 1972. I know Yes. They had that catchy hit in the eighties: Owner Of A Lonely Heart. Back at home, I pull the alien black disc from the near-uniformly green sleeve marked Close to the Edge, place it on Mum’s old turntable and carefully lower the needle with my little finger. I’m immediately exposed to a drummer who sounds like he’s trapped a stray cat in the pan cupboard, a bassist that must be testing out a Harley on a treadmill, and a guitarist that’s playing around with a door hanging on a set of hinges that are in severe need of a bit of WD40. Eighteen minutes later and… kchhh, the needle returns to its original position and the first song is over. It was like someone had just spoken to me in an entirely different language. A few days later, I have another listen, just to be sure. Then I listen again, and again, and again until this album becomes the best thing I’ve ever heard and might ever hear.

Fill in ♯6 of your Music Graph. Repeat, repeat, repeat: that’s how you learn to listen. Whether you like it or not, your listening ‘skill level’ also has an influence on your opinion. Imagine you’re 15 and someone plays you some classical music for the first time. You would immediately think ‘this sucks!’ and give it a low score, right? If you’ve been listening to this kind of stuff for as long as you can remember and no further learning is needed, then it gets a high score.

Good Music Can Be Measured

♯7. Nostalgia: Back to the Teenage Years?

Did you notice we’re judging you now? And it’s about to get even tougher. You might have thought that you’d just learn a new language later, but you don’t, and music is much the same. If I’d have picked up my copy of Close to the Edge ten years later, after the first listen, it would have gone straight back in the sleeve and left on a shelf to gather dust for all eternity. A study conducted by the New York Times found that the kind of music you listened to in your teenage years – especially around the age of 14 – will be the music that you listen to later in life. Your twenties, for example, have two times less influence on your later music taste than your teenage years. Which might explain why I think “This actually isn’t all that bad,” when ‘Oh baby baby’ comes blaring over my car speakers.

Fill in ♯7 of your Music Graph. Britney Spears just made it into my teen years, so the nostalgia-meter in me gives it a solid 7. It’s concrete and it’s confronting. Get your graph filled in and, if you still have some fight left in you, let’s move onto the final stage: the Mystery Criterion.

Good Music Can Be Measured

The Mystery Criterion

I tug the velvet curtain away to reveal two simple yet potentially devastating words: SHELF LIFE. In other words, will this music pass the arduous test of time? Does everyone like it? I can see you giving me that look. A big, wet tear rolling down your cheek, “But you said I could do this on my own!” If I could, I’d reach through your screen, give you an affectionate pat on the head and say, “Look. You, me, everyone – we all unconsciously fill in our own Music Graphs to the point where, veeerrrry slowly, we figure out the music we all love – the music that becomes a floor filler or a national anthem or a wedding-dance go-to.”

“And then?” you ask, wiping your nose with the back of your hand.

“Well, most of the music of yesteryear has already been forgotten. But apparently we think belting out Hey Jude on a Saturday night is still well worth the beer. But in a thousand years… we might have forgotten the words to that as well.

I’ve shocked you, I know. Here, check out this newspaper archive. Type in the name of your artist of choice and see how many hits they get. That’ll give you a really good idea of their shelf-life.”

Ahhh, I look up and you’ve left the room; the torn up pieces of your Music Graph scattered across the floor. A bit arrogant, but fair enough.

Dare to put together your own bespoke Music Graph*? Share your criteria and your comments below.

*Pie charts are also welcome (a big What-is-this-Music-Worth Cake).

See also…

» Learning to Play an Instrument: Self-Teaching vs Real Teachers
» The Electric Guitar: History, Sound and Playing Techniques
» Auto-Tune, Melodyne… Is Using Pitch-Correction Cheating?
» 5 Legendary Drum Parts
» What Does a Producer Do?

No responses

No comments yet...

Leave a Reply