Duke Ellington is once reported to have said that there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. This is a wise observation. The fun is trying to sort them out! Musicians and composers are always doing this in their own work. Was that a good sound or not? Is that the right note/chord or not? But listeners do it too. Aesthetic judgments are notoriously subjective, but there are objective aspects as well. For example, over a long period of time, certain music gains in popularity/respect/appreciation, while other music loses. I mention J. S. Bach a lot; the reason is that his music has, over the last nearly three hundred years, proved to be perennially popular with all kinds of listeners. The New York Times music critic embarked on an exercise lately to come up with the list of the ten greatest composers. Here are the results:
Number one on the list is Bach and next is Beethoven. I might be tempted to switch them, but no doubt about their predominance. From there on there is plenty of room for argument. I would certainly have included Shostakovich, for example, probably in place of Bartok. The deeply underlying principle suggested by exercises like this is that the passage of time serves to erode away the more superficial music, leaving only the really worthwhile. Bach, at the time of his death, was, except in very select circles, a rather obscure church musician. His renown has grown without pause over the last 250 years. But during his life, he was overshadowed by more famous musicians like Telemann, Handel, Rameau, Couperin and others. They are also fine composers, but are not as substantial as Bach.
This process of elimination and discovery over time I call the time quotient. In a future post I might try to quantify it a bit. Basically, if a composer is well known now for music written ten years ago, the time quotient is pretty low. But if he is well known for music written a hundred or two hundred years ago, that would be a high time quotient. In the field of poetry, the two poems by Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are nearly three thousand years old and lasting nicely, giving them the highest time quotient ever. If you want a fun exercise, go back to the music of your early life and listen to it again. Some will wear well while others will sound very dated and even others crude. I started really listening in the 60s so here are three examples:
Wow, that's a loooonnnngg 1'52.
There's a few things going on there: a melody, background harmony and a couple of almost interesting chords.
What can I say--after less than fifty years, they stand out. No cliches, very original. Good stuff.
With all the riches of YouTube, you could perform this exercise for almost any decade in the last 200 years.