Identifying "Great" Music

"Good" music is music that you enjoy, music that for a brief moment takes you away from your problems and makes you glad to be alive. It doesn't matter whether you are listening to Johannes Brahms, Chuck Berry, or Beyoncé — if the music makes you smile, tap your foot, dance, shed a tear, or reflect on the human condition, you are obligated to say nothing more than you enjoyed it.

The question is: when does music become more than something you simply enjoy? When does it become “great”?

Music, like all art, is a product of the world in which it is created, the creation of a person living at a certain time and place in history. I doubt that Johann Sebastian Bach composed music thinking about a world that would not exist until decades and centuries after he died, a world that he could not imagine. He was composing for the audiences — mostly church goers — of his time.

The fact that Bach's music still speaks to us almost three centuries after it was composed is what makes his music “great.”

Quite simply, great music is any music that has stood the test of time, any music that is still worth listening to long after the era of its creation has come to an end.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, for example, is not performed in concert halls today because it is a fascinating artifact from long ago; it survives because it is an entertaining and inspiring piece of music that works for modern audiences. Even though the Ninth Symphony was composed almost two centuries ago, it remains a timeless piece of music with a message that reaches far beyond the world in which it was created.

According to Mark Evan Bonds in
Music as Thought, European composers wrote 16,558 symphonies in the late-eighteenth century. Only a handful of those symphonies — mostly those composed by Haydn and Mozart — have stood the test of time and are able to strike home with modern audiences. Looking at this information we should ask ourselves an obvious question: why have so many of the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart survived while others have been forgotten? Why do some works endure while others are ignored?

In my opinion, a piece of music will survive for at least one of the following reasons:

1. It is the work of a highly skilled artist.
Modern audiences remain awestruck by Johann Sebastian Bach's musical genius. The complexity of the themes and harmonic progressions that he developed within well-defined musical forms and contrapuntal technique are still used to teach theory and performance to music majors. Bach may have died in 1750, but his music is immortal due to his extraordinary expertise as a composer.

2. It elevates the human spirit.
Listening to the organ with all stops pulled out at the conclusion of Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony or the brassy “Paradise” theme at the end of Mahler’s First Symphon
y can make audiences glad to be alive. Saint-Saëns and Mahler wanted audiences to feel an emotional rush when their symphonies were first performed in the nineteenth century, and audiences are still experiencing that rush in the twenty-first century.

3. It identifies an eternal truth about being human.
Although the song “Der Erlkönig” by Franz Schubert is almost two hundred years old, it remains a frightening experience for modern audiences, giving voice to the universal childhood fear of evil creatures lurking in the dark. Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony is one of the saddest pieces of music ever composed because it draws from the deep despair that is too often a part of the human experience. Timeless music taps into something timeless about being human.
In the spirit of keeping great music alive, I invite you to listen to a piece of music today that was composed over 200 years ago, something by Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven, for example. I hope you will enjoy what you hear.

(This blog was composed under the influence of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, a truly great piece of music.)

Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra