I think I’ve finally realized that I have a favorite kind of music, though unfortunately it doesn’t have a genre name, and it cuts across many major musical traditions — Western classical, jazz, rock, electronica, and possibly others. 1
I tend to love music that: 2
- Is primarily tonal but uses dissonance for effective contrast. (The Beatles are too tonal; Arnold Schoenberg and Cecil Taylor are too atonal; Igor Stravinsky and Charles Mingus are just right.)
- Obsessively composed, though potentially with substantial improvisation within the obsessively composed structure. (Coleman’s Free Jazz is too free. Amogh Symphony’s Vectorscan is innovative and complex but doesn’t sound like they tried very hard to get the compositional details right. The Rite of Spring and Chiastic Slide and even Karma are great.)
- Tries to be as emotionally affecting as possible, though this may include passages of contrastingly less-emotional music. (Anthony Braxton and Brian Ferneyhough are too cold and anti-emotional. Rich Woodson shifts around too quickly to ever build up much emotional “momentum.” Master of Puppets and Escalator Over the Hill and Tabula Rasa are great.)
- Is boredom-resistant by being fairly complex or by being long and subtly-evolving enough that I don’t get bored of it quickly. (The Beatles are too short and simple — yes, including their later work. The Soft Machine is satisfyingly complex and varied. The minimalists and Godspeed! You Black Emperor are often simple and repetitive, but their pieces are long enough and subtly-evolving enough that I don’t get bored of them.)
Property #2, I should mention, is pretty similar to Holden Karnofsky’s notion of “awe-inspiring” music. Via email, he explained:
One of the emotions I would like to experience is awe … A piece of music might be great because the artists got lucky and captured a moment, or because it’s just so insane that I can’t find anything else like it, or because I have an understanding that it was the first thing ever to do X, or because it just has that one weird sound that is so cool, but none of those make me go “Wow, this artist is awesome. I am in awe of them. I feel like the best parts of this are things they did on purpose, by thinking of them, by a combination of intelligence and sweat that makes me want to give them a high five. I really respect them for their achievement. I feel like if I had done this I would feel true pride that I had used the full extent of my abilities to do something that really required them.”
It’s no accident that most of the things that do this for me are “epic” in some way and usually took at least a solid year of someone’s life, if not 20 years, to create.
To illustrate further what I mean by each property, here’s how I would rate several musical works on each property:
|Tonal w/ dissonance?||Obsessively composed?||Highly emotional?||Boredom-resistant?|
|Mingus, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes, complex|
|Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes, complex|
|The Soft Machine, Third||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes, complex|
|Schulze, Irrlicht||Yes||I think so?||Yes||Yes, slowly-evolving|
|Adams, Harmonielehre||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes, complex|
|The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper||Not enough dissonance||Yes||Yes||No|
|Coleman, Free Jazz||Yes||Not really||Sometimes||Yes, complex|
|Amogh Symphony, Vectorscan||Yes||Not really||Yes||Yes, complex|
|Stockhausen, Licht cycle||Too dissonant||Yes||Not often||Yes, complex|
|Autechre, Chiastic Slide||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes, complex|
|Anthony Braxton, For Four Orchestras||Too dissonant||Yes||No||Yes, complex|
- I haven’t listened to enough non-Western classical or folk musics to know whether this theory of my favorite kind of music holds up across those styles.
- Note that I like and sometimes love lots of music that doesn’t fit one or more of these criteria (including e.g. Sgt. Pepper), but I think my absolute favorite pieces of music tend to have all these properties.