Good music or polished turd? Definitive guidelines for composing music

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What makes good music good?

Today I read an article by Mickie Willis from the “Unconservatory”


Mickie talks about a book by John Winsor called “Breaking the Sound Barrier” in which he suggests that there are some universal guidelines that we can use to tell if a piece of music is good or bad.

You’ve probably heard the term “You can polish a turd as much as you like but at the end of the day it will still just be a polished turd”.

I’m sure your music isn’t in this category, but just to be sure that when you’re composing music, it turns out great, you may want to read this.
Composing Music with Meaning - Turd Polisher

The idea is that there are some things in life that are universally considered either good or bad, such as smells, (no-one I know likes the smell of ammonia or poo,) appearances such as prettiness or handsomeness,) and sounds (babies crying or perhaps even a large room full of babies crying.) If this is the case then it follows that music could also be considered universally good or bad … broadly speaking.

These are the guidelines John Winsor puts forward in “Breaking the Sound Barrier”

1 – Is the piece technically well executed? Regardless of the style, the performance – whether improvised, derived from notation, or electroacoustically produced – should be free of extraneous notes, sounds, effects, nuances of any kind that do not contribute to communication of the musical ideas.

2 – Does it exploit a variety of elements of music, i.e. rhythm, harmony, melody, texture/timbre? Although a quality piece of music need not have all elements equally represented (in fact, many if not most fine works do not), a piece that relies solely on any one element is likely to be less than fulfilling.

3 – Is the chief attraction not the music but the words? If the answer is yes, then the piece probably should be considered more as a theater piece or as poetry, than music. For music is the most abstract of arts, and although the marriage of text and music can be transcendent, the best does not need verbal associations to enhance it.

4 – Are the elements of the work highly integrated so that each supports the other’s function? Melody, for example, cannot exist without at least some degree of rhythm; rhythm, however, can exist without melody, as can harmony without either rhythm or melody. But it seems that most truly satisfying music exploits the elements in ways that cause the product of them to be greater that the sum of the elements, disparately.

5 – Does the piece appeal on a variety of levels – intellectual, emotional, spiritual? A piece can be strong enough in any one of these areas to justify being called good, but the best music somehow seems to appeal on many levels.

6 – Is there a feeling of “musicality” about it? That is, does the piece invoke a desire for body movement that corresponds to the gestures in sound? Musicality is distinctly human and inexorably connected to physical movement in ways that are imbedded in our psyches from the first expressive sounds uttered by our ancient ancestors to experiences as recent as our last rehearsal.

7 – Is there satisfying formal organization to the way the gestures are presented and developed? Since music occurs over time and for practical reasons, if for no other, music has to have a beginning and end, it seems to be our nature to expect some kind of sequence and development of the ideas that we find satisfying as anticipation and memory blend to create a mental image of form.

8 – Is there a good balance between familiarity and variety, appropriate for the length of the piece? Clearly, very extended pieces will need to introduce more variety than very short ones; likewise the task of maintaining coherence within greater diversity is more difficult and expected in longer pieces.

9 – After having been listened to many times, does the piece still have appeal, appeal that is based on some new revelations rather than solely on comfortable familiarity? Complexity in and of itself is not especially valuable, but exceptional music seems to have many facets, and holds up well and continues to interest even after many listenings.

10 – Do you feel positively stimulated, better, richer, fuller, or improved in some way for having heard the piece? This may seem a lot to expect, but truly great pieces (which, or course most music, even very fine music, will not be) often have a beneficial effect on careful listeners. Like the nutrition axiom “we are what we eat,” (which, although obviously not literal, makes the point that our physical health is affected by our diet) in the arts we are what we consume, and what we habitually listen to affects our spirits. The best music makes us better by stimulating our minds and touching our hearts, and helps us feel better about ourselves and the world.

Of course, Winsor doesn’t presume that this list is comprehensive. There are just too many variables and levels of subjectivity in music.
You might agree, you might not.

It doesn’t really matter,


I challenge you to have another look over the list while listening to your latest playlist.